Can Africans have multiple subcultures? A response to “Exorcising Afropolitanism”

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dsc01181 Can Africans have multiple subcultures? A response to Exorcising AfropolitanismOn 24 June 2011, over 5,000 people showed up for an event at the V&A Museum in London titled “Friday Late: Afropolitans”. Now, packing the world famous museum is usually the function of western art and high fashion, but on this night the crowd came to listen to artists like Spoek Mathambo, taste palm wine mojitos, learn about African textiles with Emamoke Ukeleghe, view screenings of African documentaries and watch a fashion show that I put together. I’d also arranged a panel titled “What is an Afropolitan?” where we discussed such things as whether Afropolitanism is a new description of an African (it is not), a pan-African (it is not that either), elitist (depends on the Afropolitan in question), apolitical (hardly), urban (mostly) or a sub-culture or lifestyle (absolutely!).

Inspired by African and global politics, art, literature, fashion, activism, history and modernity, the term Afropolitan, which was popularised by Taiye Selasi in this article in the late noughties, has become an increasingly relevant term. It features in conferences, photo exhibitions, blogs, panels and online shops thanks to its depiction of some of the cultural sensibilities of an emerging generation. The influence of Afropolitanism can be seen in a wide range of cultural expression from D’banj’s “Oliver Twist” to ARISE Live to the launch of the Guardian Africa Network. Let’s put it this way, an Afropolitan sentience imbues many global and local African influences today. It is linked to a flourishing interest in African culture on an international scale and it has shaped public debate about African society.

Despite this (or perhaps because of it), Stephanie Bosch Santana in an article on Africa in Words reckons that the Afropolitan should be exorcised (metaphorically speaking, I hope) for what she mistakenly sees as its attempt to replace pan-Africanism. Referring to a speech given by Binyawanga Wainana at ASAUK titled,”I am a Pan-Africanist, not an Afropolitan”, she argues – in a nutshell – that Afroplitanism is shallow.

What is most bothering about the piece is not this unfair interpretation of Afropolitanism but rather its reluctance for African society to contribute to shaping modern times, which, whether we like it or not are largely influenced by digital technologies and their subsequent immediacy.

Bosch Santana writes, for instance, that Afropolitanism encourages, “pan-African literature that moves via twitter and sms rather than by printing press and shipping container”. She laments – with Wainana as her muse – to what he refers to as “digital pulp” or “texts that are product, rather than process focused”. Shops which feature “kente-accented laptop bags amongst a host of other products from African designers” are portrayed in Bosch Santana’s article as markers of the unworthy Afropolitan “ghost”.

At its core, Bosch Santana’s article seems to take issue with modern-day Africans taking steps to ensure that we, if anyone, are at the forefront of selling African cultures. In fact, reading about her dislike of Afropolitanism makes me wonder which part of the contraction African + cosmopolitan she wishes to “exorcise”.The unspoken subtext of the piece is namely – how dare Africans not simply be victims, but also shapers of globalisation and all its inherent contestations? How dare we market our cultures as well as our political transformations?

Don’t get me wrong, the delivery of Afropolitanism should certainly be up for discussion, scrutiny and critique. I’ve attempted such dialogues a few times myself. In the same way that, say, hip hop is not always politically conscious, neither is Afropolitanism. What rocks one Afropolitan’s boat, capsizes another’s. However, like every other continent, Africa is entitled to have multiple subcultural movements and we should reject all attempts to relegate African culture to a monolith. In a short period of time Afropolitanism has helped to nurture more positive views of Africa, also among Africans ourselves, with its no-nonsense obligation to correcting decades of Africa being misrepresented as a “dark, failing continent.” Does it sometimes go overboard in commodifying African culture? Possibly. Does that mean it needs exorcising? No, thank you.

Pan-Africanism symbolises an idea calling for unity in the political context of post-colonial Africa. Like Afropolitanism, it unsurprisingly has links to the African diaspora. Unsurprising, because, guess what, Africans outside of the continent are Africans too! Consequently, Afropolitanism symbolises an idea which derives from pan-Africanism, albeit with its own fresh energy. Whether it’s to do with design or thought leadership or political transformation, Afropolitanism is a complement – not a rival – to pan-Africanism. As Pulitzer Prize winning critic Holland Cotter wrote in the NY Times:

At the same time they understand, it would seem, that their choices have weight. Postcolonial African art, wherever it is produced, is all but inseparable from politics. In Africa art has always played a social role, assumed moral status, a status that even physical distance …can’t erase.

And so Afropolitanism, young and cool, comes with responsibilities.

 

 

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  • James Chikonamombe

    Sorry, I’m new to this Afropolitan genre, but I’m under the impression that Afropolitanism is the younger, female, hipper, version of Pan-Africanism. I could be way off the mark in my observation though.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi James,
      You’re not off the mark at all and most importantly, what is great, I think, about the Afropolitan sentiment is that it bears the marks of its time, fluidity. It’s not rigid and dogmatic so if your interpretation of it is that then why not. To me it’s gender neutral, it’s hip but also mature. It comes with responsibility, as Cotter said. It’s certainly interesting to see Afroplitanism in light of feminism too, and of how many criticisms of pan-Africanism are rooted in how it excluded women to its detriment…
      Thanks for stopping by to exchange thoughts.
      Minna

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks Fungai, much to chew on and I welcome your comment in light of discussion

      Upon reading your first remarks about “what comes between, after or before Afropolitanism and pan-Africanism” I could not help but think up a new term – Afroglocalism. Ha! jokes aside, I do think there is room for new terms and ideas to describe the in between, why not? Why do we need one umbrella term. We are Africans. That’s the umbrella term if any, then from there we can create new ideas, theories and words to put our finger on the pulse/s of our times.

      As for the cliquey thing as an accusation by pan-Africanism, I see that as the kettle calling the pot black.
      The important thing is for both pan-Africanism, Afropolitanism, and any other description of the zeitgeist to have its clear derivations but to also be open to all who dig it. Same with feminism, isn’t it?

      I don’t look in the mirror and think, hey you Afropolitan, but I see myself in Afropolitanism. I know Africans who may also see themselves in Afropolitanism who come from different backgrounds than mine (mixed race, grew up in Nigeria, rest in the west, etc) and that’s the power of it. But it could be called something else (salad, even :)), what is interesting to me is that it puts a name to something that is brewing, gives us something to coalesce around…

      “The Africa of jollof rice washed down with some Stoney Tangawizi, with some rumba music playing in the background. It inspires hope that the continent can stand together something I do not always feel in the material space of Africa, or at least some parts of Africa.”
      This you describe, to me, is pan-Africanism? African unity from west, to south to Afrolatin roots… It’s a tendency I see in Lagos as much as in London furthermore. Not to romanticise, there’s much left to do but it is in this way I meant Afropolitanism as a complement rather than rival to pan-Africanism

      “Of course, I am not trying to paint this debate as a dichotomy. There is a range of experiences that Afrpolitanism and pan-Africanism do not cover and address. And that is okay. And that was really my point. There are those who are not African enough in Africa and not African enough in Africa’s diaspora.”

      Sis, that’s my point too and why I needed to respond to the “exorcising” piece. There are no clear cut answers in defining our identities (and nor should there be). However, whether we choose to be described by ten terms or none, we should not be silenced by their imperfection.

  • http://www.afrikadaa.com Kem

    Really interesting.
    What is afropolitan?
    What is a Metropolitan ? We can all answer? What is african…..
    I prefer the notion of personality to identity when it comes to define african. African cultures do not know the notion of ideology in their past. They didn’t federate to conquer other. They only did it in the name of Allah , Jésus or european , ottoman and american wars. The only piece of truth i recommand is creativity, but also the readiness to leave those creations for other ones.
    This site is useful and relevant.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks Kem!

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  • Minty

    Hi, I found this article interesting, and was nodding along, so I thought I’d check out the ‘Exorcising Afropolitanism’ piece- and I was surprised to see that you’ve either misunderstood, or willfully misrepresented it, to suit the argument of your piece.

    When you suggest that Bosch Santana is against the Afropolitan embrace of ‘digital technologies’, stating that she

    “laments – with Wainana as her muse – to what he refers to as “digital pulp” ”

    You’ve disregarded the end of Santana’s piece, which really goes against the term ‘lament’. Here’s what she actually says:

    “Wainaina argues that we must do away with conventions that see pulp fiction as “trashy” or “escapist,” and focus instead on its ability to reach and excite readers on the continent. We don’t pay enough attention, Wainaina suggests, to literature that truly “transports” us.”

    This is a celebration of so-called ‘digital pulp’, not castigation. She isn’t arguing against using technology, but rather musing on those ways in which it can and has spread to parts of the continent less served by decent internet connection. It’s pretty much the opposite of what you’ve written. I’m starting to wonder whether you took personal umbrage at the piece’s title (for obvious reasons) and then determined to attack it regardless of the content. Fair enough, disagree with Santana’s assertions that afropolitanism is ‘crude cultural commodification’ (though if D’Banj singing that he ‘likes Beyonce’ is afropolitanism, then I’m probably going to stick to pan-African Fela singing about the IMF) but opening by falsifying her essay as some sort of luddite attack on modern technology undermines everything that follows. Disappointing.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Minty,

      I appreciate your observation and I certainly did not intend to misrepresent the text, and while I may have misunderstood the specific bit about digital pulp (I just reread that chapter and I would need to hear Wainana’s speech to fully understand Bosch Santana’s argument there), the subtext of her piece, namely that Afropolitanism needs exorcising because it is a marker of “crude cultural commodification” by Africans of African culture/s and because it somehow deviates from the pan-African project is what I’m addressing here that I take issue with. Not, mind you, as discussed, because Afropolitanism should not be criticised (I think it should) but because I find that subtext alarming.

      It would be dishonest to say that D’Banj liking Beyonce (and note Omotola, Genevieve, Nadia Buhari too) is Afropolitanism or that Fela’s texts don’t contain ideas about gender that aren’t equally worthy of critical analyses. Furthermore, I see no crime in D’Banj fancying Beyonce, why not?
      My argument is that many of the cultural expressions which we over the past years have tended to see as Afropolitan are, for better or for worse, resulting in Africans shaping the platform of global culture in significant ways.
      I say for better or for worse simply because global culture everywhere is full of criticism-worthy “crude cultural commodification” but I find it tiring and problematic when it is implied that Africans simply by virtue of being African should participate in the global exchange with different, more noble criteria than those with whom we are, however reluctantly, required to exchange with.

    • http://museandwords.com NinaG

      I also think this piece misrepresents Bosch Santana’s critique of Afropolitanism. I think her commentary opens up a space for a conversation as to how class and African identities intersect. “Middle-class” Africans layering every product with ankara are not going to save the image of Africa.

      • MsAfropolitan

        Hi NinaG,
        Thanks for contributing to the discussion. Afropolitanism is not “layering every product with ankara”, it is that reduction which I find unfair. What I’d also say about the sentiment of Afropolitanism is that it is not about “saving the image of Africa” as your comment implies we should be doing, but rather about being African without detouring through whiteness. Africa does not saving. Furthermore, I thought the article disservices Achille Mbembe’s essay on Afropolitanism, again, by positing it as in contestation, rather than complementarity with pan-Africanism.
        -Minna

        • http://museandwords.com NinaG

          Her second paragraph says the term “once held promise as a new theoretical lens and important counterweight to Afro-pessimism…” Bosch Santana isn’t reducing the term, she’s commenting on it’s reduction. I don’t think we can deny her that.

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  • http://mapetiteniche.blogspot.com Lo

    In my understanding, Afropolitanism strives to embrace the modern world and be part of the collective movement whether its in technology, fashion, business etc. Where Pan-africanism is more about segregation and seeing ones self as part of a group thats is more “special” than the rest of the world….Just using the example of the African prints…I am glad to see it as a new trend in the fashion industry. In opens up doors and conversations about our african cultures and provides business opportunites for our african designers….BUT ON THE OTHER HAND, there’s a huge group of people who “RESENT” the fact that the african print has become mainstream. They are more caught up with the idea of again “segregation” whereas I feel Afropolitanism is more about being part of a collective but not losing your identity in the process

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Lo,
      Thanks for your thoughts on the matter. I also get the sense that people take issue with African prints and other cultural symbols becoming mainstream. It’s a prime example of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
      Like cosmopolitanism, Afropolitanism is indeed a great tool for being simultaneously rooted in what’s unique about Africa while also being a citizen of the world and enriching and being enriched by other cultures.

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  • https://twitter.com/NonieMG NonieMG

    I am with you in the sentiment that Afropolitanism should not be exorcised as it is an important compliment to pan-africanism as well as creating multiple and nuanced narratives of the African story that are much needed. However, I am curious about a point that you have made, that diaspora Africans and Afropolitans have have ‘acheieved’ a more positive commentary on Africa in a short time. And also that it was diaspora Africans that were key to pan-Africanism. It is okay to like/relate to problematic things but let us not brush problems under the carpet and as you mentioned we see a lot of this in the Feminist movement. We cannot ignore the fact that Afropolitans and Diaspora Africans enjoy a privilige that is not afforded to other Africans on the content. That they are the visible faces of the pan-African and Africa Rising discourse doesn’t mean that they are not participating in the same systems that still silence Africans on the continent and that still select their ‘acceptable pundits’ who then shape the history of an entire continent, while others are erased. The problem with Afropolitanism and pan-Africanism as the history books currently tell it is erasure, it is the insistence that the visible and their voices and their contribution are what is important. It is the idea that people should be grateful that the conversation on Africa has changed because ‘Afropolitan’, without examining why the African himself/herself is not allowed to or represented in matters that affect them directly. It is the idea that Africans should be grateful that the conversation has changed at all, when they have been working on themselves and launching victories for years while ignored and marginalised. But now that it has changed and the Afropolitan is ‘driving’ this they should be grateful. We must consistently re-examine why people react the way they do to certain things and definitions. And then try to amplify these concerns in order to address them.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi NonieMG,

      Thanks again for the engaging comment.I will address your points individually.

      “However, I am curious about a point that you have made, that diaspora Africans and Afropolitans have have ‘acheieved’ a more positive commentary on Africa in a short time.”

      As I don’t think of Afropolitans as diaspora Africans when I say that Afropolitanism has changed things, I’m not refering to Diaspora Africans. in fact some of the people I’ve met who defend the term rigorously are Africans who never lived outside of Africa…

      “And also that it was diaspora Africans that were key to pan-Africanism.”

      I wrote that pan-Africanism “has links to the African diaspora” not that diaspora Africans were key to it. Although that said they were key, just as key as Africans on the continent were. However, pan-Africanism like Afropolitanism cannot be ascribed either to diaspora or continent..it is transnational and global in that sense.

      “We cannot ignore the fact that Afropolitans and Diaspora Africans enjoy a privilige that is not afforded to other Africans on the content. That they are the visible faces of the pan-African and Africa Rising discourse doesn’t mean that they are not participating in the same systems that still silence Africans on the continent and that still select their ‘acceptable pundits’ who then shape the history of an entire continent, while others are erased.”

      Again, this is tricky because I don’t think Afropolitans = Diaspora Africans. But I will say that not all diaspora Africans enjoy privileges. not at all. While many of us do, I include muyself here, many on the continent also enjoy privileges. Whether gender or class or sex, privilege is not a diaspora phenomenon alone.
      This is not to say that there aren’t benefits of living in the west, there certainly are, and visibility and access is one of them. We in the diaspora, like those with privileges in the continent, have to be self aware, like everyone. We are part of oppressive systems and especially when we critique the very systems can be hypocritical. This is why afropolitanism as a philosophical tool appeals to me, it forces us to move from dishonest communication, which is a form of insecurity, which is the society we live in, to one that is aware and confident, that knows itself and always starts from there. It asks, for instance, how can consumerism be more ethical? Or even better, how can I be more ethical in my consumption?

      “It is the idea that Africans should be grateful that the conversation has changed at all, when they have been working on themselves and launching victories for years while ignored and marginalised. But now that it has changed and the Afropolitan is ‘driving’ this they should be grateful. We must consistently re-examine why people react the way they do to certain things and definitions. And then try to amplify these concerns in order to address them.”

      I completely agree while I would be careful to homogenise “Africans” or to separate “africans” and “afropolitans”. Afropolitan is not a substitute for African, at least not as I see it. If they are in fact the same, but diverse, then I would ask you should we (Africans, no matter our backgrounds) not be happy that the conversation has changed, really? That collective concerns are being addressed and getting more attention and also that culture and art are. And that Africans are able to themselves create a competitive advantage for African goods, cultures and ideas, using afropolitanism as a tool, that’s not a bad thing.
      Or?

      • https://twitter.com/NonieMG NonieMG

        Hey Minna,

        Thanks for replying, I appreciate your points and they’ve expanded my perspective on what it is you mean by Afropolitan. Have a lovely day!

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