It simply doesn't do to feed the romantic, ubuntu-loving, sitting-under-a-baobab notions my continent fellows in the diaspora sometimes to have, but it's hard not to wax poetic about Africa's ever-evolving popular culture. I'm from an Anglophone country, so I'm cut off from a lot of the Zouk and Coupe Decale stuff in Cote D'Ivoire and Senegal; I'm circa early '90s on Congolese music; and Angolan hip-hop sometimes bypasses me. Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa are within my orbit, and it's just wonderful being able to see so much of what's cool outside my little cave. Everybody watches – sometimes with equal parts admiration and derision – Nigerian movies. Nigerian singers often go to South Africa to make music videos. Stars from across Africa make songs together.
Music has become the most meritocratic thing in modern Africa. With all this cross-pollination necessary to make such a huge part of popular culture, it can be said that, in terms of popular culture, the continent is looking more and more like a country. What's cool easily becomes nationalized, then maybe regionalized, and, if the song is particularly cool, even loved across the continent, like Tu-Face's “African Queen” or Brenda Fassie's “Vulundlela” all those years ago. And there's the collaborations. Wyre (Kenya) and M.I. (Nigeria) did a song together. So did Dama Do Bling (Mozambique) and Sasha (Nigeria). And Fally Ipupa (Nigeria) and J. Martins (DRC). According to MTV Base, P-Square (Nigeria) and Tear Gas (South Africa) are planning a collaboration as well. Then Nigeria's superstar Tu-Face performs with a South African band during the 2010 MAMA awards (Yes, this list is heavy on Nigeria, but that's really is where some of the most popular artists continent-wide come from). Everyone cheers, and there really is no reason why we should not. If it's good music, you dance to it. If it's a good movie, you watch it. After all, Van Vicker is not less handsome because he's Ghanaian, nor are P-Square's abs any less defined for the fact of their Nigerianness. All are equal before the eyes of young, cable-having, cell-phone-using, internet-surfing Africans across the continent.
If preceeding times were marked with dogged territorialism, the drawing of cultural boundaries in bright-colored chalk that very often led to varying degrees of conflict, we could be so lucky as to see the signs of inching towards a new way of seeing Africa. It has been interesting to see identity with the continent become a changeable entity, a coat one can slip on when Ghana qualifies for the second round of the World Cup, or off, when one hears about something stupid someone's president did. The territorialism is still there, but more interesting is the willingness to erase the chalklines and adopt the larger, more inclusive identity of Africa. We could quibble with this and wonder if this necessarily a good thing, but I think the presence of this duality should be welcomed.
It is, of course, too early to say definitively what kind of change, if any, that the evolution of a larer African youth culture would bring, but the emergence of the culture itself speaks volumes. Even though the music is mostly derivative of hip-hop, it has ushered in one of the few things in which people look towards their own languages and environment for inspiration. The importance of this cannot be overstated in an Africa where, for the longest time, people have been looking abroad for inspiration, education, livelihood. As this popular culture evolves, it will worth noting the new ways in which the dynamic of this evolution changes, the role of major countries like Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa in this popular culture. If their pop culture influence increases, and thus the popularity and visibility of these countries, would it affect the countries at all politically? What would change? What would not? Why?
Having a window into what young people across the continent are into does a lot more good than simply exposing people to some singers or rappers they may not have heard of before. Even more than improving the quality of music produced on the continent, what has become obvious to me is that Western countries aren't the only ones that need a more complete image of Africa; Africans do as well. From my perch in Lagos, there is something about watching Channel O spotlight nightlife in Luanda, watching MTV to see a rap video from Gabon, or checking out the dresses at a red carpet event for an award show in Cape Town that normalizes people in a way that knowing about HIV rates, political upheavals or development indices cannot.