Earlier this year, an African magazine reached out to me for some input on a forthcoming article about African creatives (writers, artists, photographers, clothing designers, poets). The editor asked me a few questions regarding what Africans should do to change the perception of Africa to outsiders and what Africans have to offer. Basically, how should Africans promote Africa as having rich cultures, and how do we as Africans show that Africa is not just a continent of poverty in order to change the perceptions of outsiders?
Mindsets like this are fairly common and I find it disappointing. I know they mean well, but this is the wrong mindset to have in my opinion. Here’s why:
1. Africans shouldn’t bother themselves with trying to change the perceptions of outsiders. It isn’t our job. Should erasing the ignorant opinions of non-Africans be an African’s burden? We’re expected to be lecturers to the world in order to be viewed decently. You’d never hear a Western creative bothering with changing the perceptions of Africans towards them. It’s not something they have to consider, yet some think it’s completely normal for Africans to be saddled with the baggage of reforming those who are ignorant towards Africa and Africans. An earnest and objective person will recognize the multifaceted nature of societies. People that refuse to recognize this about the continent of Africa and its people are not worth your time. Your time is valuable.
2. The world already knows that Africa has a lot to offer. Chinese firms aren’t all over Africa at the moment because of the weather. Why are we asking questions about what Africa has to offer in the first place? Africa has been the lifeblood of Western civilizations for centuries; from human cargo to the arts. The West has a parasitic relationship with the entire African continent. Africa is a host body and it has been feeding the parasites well for centuries. Whether it’s oil in Nigeria, uranium in Niger, gold in Ghana, copper in Zambia or diamonds in South Africa, they come from far and wide to get a piece of the action. Western museums and private collectors house the creative works and sculptures of our forebears, so apart from vast mineral wealth and natural resources, they also know we have rich cultures and they’ve known for centuries.
I’m more interested in dialogue that fosters African economic empowerment and agency. The focus should be on Africans controlling African resources and industries. A small part of me dies whenever I go to an “African function” and all the names of the management, board of directors, owners and everyone in charge are white Westerners. Clearly, these people know Africa has a lot to offer, which is why they have a vice like grip on everything from curating pilfered African artifacts in museums to anything else African that is lucrative.
3. Poverty is a reality. We don’t need to counter poverty with images of extravagance and wealth. We shouldn’t only champion things that cater to upper-class aesthetics, especially when it comes to creatives. If art is meant to be a reflection of the artist, then there should be room for the poor aesthete. They matter. We aren’t living in a music video. Life for most isn’t a party full of champagne, luxury cars, designer clothes, jewelry, and mansions. Even if it was, why is opulence for the sake of it the image many prefer? We need to exorcise that mentality from our psyches.
What we should be asking is why some of us are so ashamed of our poor brothers and sisters being seen in the first place. A lot of my fellow Nigerians say that this as an issue of balance and thus the need to show the affluent. I disagree. Just about every recent Nigerian hip-hop video, Nollywood film and Nigerian pop culture is a showcase in ostentation and living extravagantly.
The core issue is that there is shame emanating from many Africans who want to hide poor Africans from public view. They want to act like these people don’t exist, at least not to the Western world. The reality is that they exist, and there are a lot more of them than the champagne sippers and mansion dwellers.
4. How we collectively view our arts and ourselves has to change. We need to support and value all artistic endeavors, not just the “cool stuff”. A woodworker in the village is no less important than a “hip” and sartorial urban dweller. We also tend to value academic efforts, which we definitely should, but we should also value our creatives. We can’t all be doctors and lawyers.
I’m witnessing a shift in the mentality of many Africans in the diaspora, the youth especially. Years ago, going to African parties meant only listening to Western music. Today, an African party means African musicians. They want to hear Wizkid, Davido, Sarkodie, Burna Boy and other African musicians making waves. They are happy to be themselves despite pressures of Western assimilation. The unbridled pride from young Africans in the diaspora today just didn’t exist in my younger years. In my teens, young Africans in the diaspora often downplayed their African identities. They would often lie about their heritage and say that they were Jamaican or from somewhere in the Caribbean. They don’t do that anymore. African youth today are proud of who they are. They are doing the azonto on the streets and are uploading videos of it on YouTube. They are proudly wearing African prints, and mixing it with Western fashions. In my youth that would have never happened. When we weren’t ‘facing our books’, there was Western culture to emulate, and our indigenous cultures to suppress.
5. I’m just not interested in conversations that center on changing the ignorant and negative perceptions of outsiders. When you start talking about doing things to change the perception of outsiders, you’re essentially saying that their opinions hold weight. At least, more weight than yours. Why should it? Why should what they think matter so much? If an ignoramus wants to think of Africans as uncultured “African booty scratchers”, then so be it. I’ll scratch my booty to my heart’s content. We’ve got to move beyond this. People who have a default negative view of Africa and Africans should not matter to us. We need to stop trying to gain their favor or change their perceptions. Stop seeking outside validation. Value yourself.
6. Create and cultivate your art and culture for yourself. People from all walks of life who are receptive and respectful will come to appreciate it eventually. I’m old enough to know that there was a time when listening to Fela would get you laughed at in school in the US. I grew up hearing Fela, King Sunny Ade, and Ebenezer Obey, so all this was near and dear to my heart. The “cool kids” weren’t listening to Fela when I was in school. Nothing has changed about Fela’s music, but it’s now cool to dig Fela, because, eventually, those who are receptive will come. You don’t have to change who you are. Just stay the course. The message here is that you need to be true to yourself. Once you start doing things to placate the whims and opinions of outsiders, then you’ve lost yourself. If you’re a creative and you’re constantly worrying about doing things for outsiders, your art won’t be true and it will suffer. This is true for just about everything in life. Just be true to yourself. Everything else will fall in place.
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Atane Ofiaja is a Nigerian writer and photographer based in New York City. He writes about African sociopolitical issues, with an emphasis on human rights abuses, colonialism, imperialism, religion, and war. His photography is centered around live music, with a focus on African musicians and the music of the African Diaspora. Web: ataneofiaja Find him on Twitter: @atane