In my last post I posed some broad questions about the nature of the debate about Africa’s apparent ‘rise’, focusing in on the Euro-American locus of much of this attention. However, there are dynamic trends within Africa, and particularly the African diaspora, which provide a corollary to some of the critical arguments I made in that previous post.
For those with an interest in African literature, film and music, recent years have provided a plethora of festivals which feature these various aspects of African and diasporic culture. Cultural festivals in Africa itself have also taken on a renewed cachet. So in the UK we have Africa Writes, Africa Utopias, and Film Africa, to name just a few high profile events. The Caine Prize for African Writing seems peppered, year after year, with novels and collections of short stories which are predicated on the identity-management of African elites seeking to feel at home both in Lagos/Maputo/Accra and New York/London/Lisbon. In Africa itself, the Lake of Stars festival, or any number of film festivals speaks of a similar dynamic: a vision of Africa as one with the world, comfortable in its own skin, appropriating the ‘best bits’ of western culture (fashion, film, cocktails, etc.) whilst penetrating the metropolitan centre in a reversal of the original colonial project. Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu coined the term ‘Afropolitan’ back in 2005 to try and encapsulate this movement and moment:
“They (read: we) are Afropolitans – the newest generation of African emigrants, coming soon or collected already at a law firm/chem lab/jazz lounge near you. You’ll know us by our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes. Some of us are ethnic mixes, e.g. Ghanaian and Canadian, Nigerian and Swiss; others merely cultural mutts: American accent, European affect, African ethos. Most of us are multilingual: in addition to English and a Romantic or two, we understand some indigenous tongue and speak a few urban vernaculars. There is at least one place on The African Continent to which we tie our sense of self: be it a nation-state (Ethiopia), a city (Ibadan), or an auntie’s kitchen. Then there’s the G8 city or two (or three) that we know like the backs of our hands, and the various institutions that know us for our famed focus. We are Afropolitans: not citizens, but Africans of the world.”
Others have deconstructed the Afropolitan moment better than I. I find the most interesting and sensitive critique to emerge from Emma Dabiri aka Diaspora Diva, but this is pretty on the money too. Fundamentally, to be an Afropolitan you have to be a member of an elite class. You have to be wealthy, wealthy enough to know “the G8 city or two (or three) that we know like the backs of our hands”. I’ve lived in London all of my life, but Mayfair and Park Lane are much more familiar to me from the Monopoly board I used to have when I was a kid than from actual lived experience of those places (not to mention most of South London, but that’s another story..!). In other words, the ‘Afropolitan’ version of Africa and Africans relates very closely to the kinds of stuff we used to hear around the turn of the millennium about the ‘global village’ we all now lived in, where camelherds in the Sahara could participate in global markets through the click of a button. Of course this was just all so much tosh for the majority of people in the majority of the world struggling to make ends meet. In an echo of the old adage ‘history is written by the victors’, in this case the present is being written by the victors. Those who celebrated the emergence of a global village were precisely those who could afford to build and participate in it. Ditto for those who now celebrate Afropolitanism. This is a vision of Africa which ignores how Africa is lived by the majority of its inhabitants, and diaspora (who don’t in general sip Mojitos in Medicine Bar in London).
So we’ve established that Afropolitanism conjures a problematic vision of African agency, reduced as it is to a highly transnationalised and necessarily elitist range of activities and proclivities. This is a vision which, in short, not only fails to include the majority of people living in Africa (included much of the growing African middle class, defined as earning between $2 and $20 a day in 2010 terms), but which also apes Western cultural individualistic norms in problematic ways. This is not to suggest that individualism is a purely Western phenomenon, nor to dictate that Africans must live according to some kind of noble-savage-communal moral code. But it is to suggest that it is possible to look at the historic communalism which still penetrates African life in some parts of the continent and its diaspora (and again, this is not to argue that Africa was ever or is uniformly communalistic) and wonder whether at a time of rising African economic, geopolitical and cultural power there might be alternative African visions of the world (and Africa) which offer more than fashion shows at the V&A.
I want to counterpose the elitism of Afropolitanism to another strand of African cultural expression which arguably provides a more textured and grounded example of what an African cosmopolitan position could be. As with Afropolitanism, Afrofuturism has gained greater visibility in recent years, although its roots reach back into the big-band swing era of African-American musicians like Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Musicians such as these begat the more psychedelic performances of Miles Davis, George Clinton and especially Sun Ra and his Arkestra. Meshing the Southern blues of his birth-state Alabama with be-bop, swing, free-jazz, ragtime, and one of the first jazz musicians to deploy electronic keyboards, Sun Ra rejected his birth name and claimed he was from an ‘Angel Race’, not of Earth, sent to preach peace and good will. Through the rejection of his birth name Ra was rejecting the attempts made by White American society to keep African Americans in a state of mental serfdom, even if formal slavery itself had been abolished. At the same time Ra was appropriating African and Egyptian mythology and melding it with the latest developments in musical interpretations and technologies which had in part been evolved, and was being listened to by White Americans. Ra deployed the old and the new, drawing on African and Egyptian mythologies to create a soundscape of the future, a future where you could “Do what you want, be what you want to be“. Combining hippy-era post-class language with such striking Afro-centric and futuristic imagery sent a clear message to his African American audiences that the future could be both strikingly different, but also strikingly African. And this was an African-ness born in the clutches of depression-era, racialized Southern poverty.
Ra died in 1993, and never really attained a great deal of commercial success. He almost certainly never used the word ‘Afrofuturism’, which was only popularly coined in the year of his death (although many artists, such as George Clinton and Parliament, had earlier made references to ‘Afronauts’ and ‘Motherships’). It is only more recently that a more articulated ‘Afrofuturist’ movement has emerged (although we should ask questions about who is doing the articulating here, the artists themselves, or the gaze of the liberal media – or both!), with a feature at the MoMa in New York, and artists such as Janelle Monáe and Outkast achieving widespread commercial success. And so in some senses Afrofuturism has become as much a part of elite imaginations as Afropolitanism, and yet there are some key differences which, as I say, provides a more textured form of African cosmopolitanism.
Where Afropolitanism is generated by a rootless elite, Afrofuturism is at once both generated by, and a rejection of the very particular experiences of African Americans in the US, and indeed all people of African heritage who were forcibly removed from their continent of birth through the slave trade. From Sun-Ra to Janelle Monáe, the appropriation of other-worldly and alien iconography establishes Afro-futurists as outsiders, but not as victims (Even ET, cute as it was, wasn’t a victim!). In this sense the African-ness being displayed is different, not an appropriation of Western and White culture (circa Afropolitanism), but is also of the world (and other worlds!) and the future, a new, post-oppression future.
I do want to try and avoid completely dividing Afropolitanism and Afrofuturism, and there are clearly areas of cultural and artistic cross over. Nonetheless, the central themes and motifs of each movement speak to very different articulations of what an African cosmopolitanism could look like. The cosmopolitanism of the Afropolitans coheres pretty closely to the ‘global village’, ‘we’re all the same’, rhetoric of the late 1990s and early 2000s, a moment which was full of post-Cold War, liberal humanitarian optimism but which fell apart because it failed to take account of the ways in which ‘we’ are different (have different histories of suffering, oppression, complicity, etc.). Afrofuturism on the other hand, despite its strong rooting in the slave and poverty experiences of African Americans, remains cosmopolitan precisely because of this recognition, and its rejection of the social position this history has bequeathed to African Americans in favour of a different, other-worldly (read: post-victim) future. Class, modernity and race all continue to play a central role here, even whilst other cultures, races and modernities are embraced in a cosmopolitan move. It is this simultaneous recognition/rejection which gives Afrofuturism its’ more textured and rooted or embedded cosmopolitanism. At a time when African literature, food and music is becoming increasing appropriated by metropolitan elites (both Black and White) it is important to keep a critical eye on the different cosmologies, the different politics, being brought to bear through such articulations of African-ness and Black-ness.
A Mzungu caveat: Despite an ethnicity rather more complex than first appearances might suggest, I obviously ‘pass’ as a White British male in my day-to-day and professional life. This presents certain issues when I engage in writing about the kinds things I am going to tackle on this blog in general, and this post specifically, just as it does when I stand up and deliver a lecture on African politics to a room full of African-born or heritage students. In short, what is a guy that looks like me doing talking about issues which are part of a continental and diasporic debate? What place can and should I have in these debates, if any? What legitimacy do I have to participate in conversations about Africa and Africans? Of course on one level this is just so much navel-gazing. Africans have just as much a right to intervene in conversations about European affairs as I do theirs (and of course this is a pretty poor distinction if we start talking about African and/or European diasporas; after all, even in pure legal terms, a British citizen is just as ‘European’ as anyone else, no matter where they were born). But then again there is an all too well-known colonial history (and present) to recognise as well, a power dynamic which means that I may possess the social and cultural capital which makes my voice better heard than someone who has not had the privilege of my education, and the same routes into it that I have had (and for an excellent number-by-number analysis of the barriers to progress African-born and diasporic students and scholars face in the UK see this). So yes, I can (and indeed should if I want to use my privilege constructively) participate in these kinds of conversations, but that participation needs to be predicated on an ongoing recognition of my structural privilege. I can’t back away from saying the things I want to say, but I can choose how and where I say them, and the degree to which what I say is a route to further conversation, and an amplification of voices which don’t get heard often enough, rather than just me engaging in an effort to be heard the loudest. Of course, writing all of this on a blog is not necessarily the best way to begin such conversations, but it is in any case in this spirit that I wrote the above.