T. Falola (Hrsg.): Africans and the Politics of Popular Culture

Africans and the Politics of Popular Culture.

Falola, Toyin; Agwuele, Augustine
Rochester Studies in African History and the Diaspora
347 S.
€ 69,76
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Nadine Sieveking, Centre for Area Studies, Universität Leipzig

This volume is part of the Rochester Studies in African History and the Diaspora series. It originated from a conference on ‘Popular Cultures in Africa’ at the University of Texas in 2007. With the collected papers, Falola and Agwuele wish to document how ‘processes of cultures in Africa’ were debated, while accounting for ‘the diverse experienced realities of people of African descent’ (p. 2) and their quest ‘for the right to express and maintain these distinctive life experiences in the face of competing and inhibitory political and socio-cultural forces’. This somewhat ambivalent intention, expressed in both the preface and introduction, indicates that the empirical scope of the book does not exclusively address cultural processes in Africa. Furthermore, it suggests that the thematic focus on the ‘politics of popular culture’ can be a way to ‘agitate against misrepresentation and misperception’ (p. 4). However, the editors’ own standpoints and methodological approaches are not clear, and it is difficult to understand in how far their critique of ‘these modernized or westernized elites’ in Africa (p. 5) could help to come to terms with misperceptions or account for the power relations that structure the ‘distinctive life experiences’ of people of African descent.

Apart from the two articles in the introductory part that address more theoretical issues, the volume contains eight chapters with empirical references to African societies and three papers on the African Diaspora in the Caribbean or in the US. It also includes an article describing the way Hollywood films produce images of Africa. This chapter does not refer in any way to the empirical realities experienced by people of African descent and its inclusion in the volume is more understandable as a contribution for the discussion on the ‘politics of culture’, the overarching theme tying together the different parts of the book. Nevertheless, the specific topics of the individual articles are very diverse and the contributions vary greatly concerning their quality of empirical foundations, clarity of descriptions, analyses and argumentations.

Whereas the two articles in Part One, with the rather misleading title ‘Politics of Culture in Habitual Customs and Practices’, deal with modes of conflict resolution based on customary law and popular cultural practices specifically in Niger and in Cameroon, the other papers concern more the processes of change and inter-generational tensions – such as in kinship practices and discourses, religious practices, as well as forms of organisation in theatrical and musical performance traditions – taking place within Yoruba societies in Nigeria or in respective migrant communities in the UK. Concerning the latter, the very rich and empirically sound articles on the expansion of a Nigerian/Yoruba Pentecostal church and the revitalisation of a specific Yoruba performance tradition highlight the interrelated dynamics of globalisation and local conditions.

Part Two, ‘Politics of Culture in Popular Representations: Films and Performances’, contains one paper on the use of popular Yoruba theatre for health awareness raising. This paper stands alone in the book with its use of a social development perspective. The other two chapters analyse artistic modes of self-representation practiced by African-Americans or Diasporic Africans in the US and the Caribbean based on the re-enactment of past experience related to the history of slavery. Whereas these contributions refer to subversive practices of discriminated minorities characterised by a high degree of self-reflexivity, the other two papers in this part deal with mass produced and mass consumed images of a stereotyped ‘Other’, as particularly portrayed in a US American soap opera broadcast in Kenya or in Hollywood films representing an imagined Africa. These analyses illustrate that moral discourses determining the norms of gender relations and sexuality are central to the strategies of ‘Othering’.

The remaining two contributions constituting Part Three, ‘Politics of Culture in Popular Texts’, evaluate nationalist movements in the African Diaspora and in Nigeria to show how educated elites used literature in the anti-colonial struggle. Both chapters provide a thorough account and analysis of the meaning of cultural practices in a particular historical context. In contrast to what the title of Part Three suggests, the papers are concerned with the literary productions of a minority of cultural nationalists that are trying to popularise their arguments of ‘enlightened reason’ (p. 282) to achieve change and overcome the oppression by dominant colonialist culture and politics. These articles are particularly valuable for the way they analyse the contradictory position of indigenous elites oscillating between established power systems and liberation movements in the defence of their legitimate self-interest. These last two chapters of the book are all the more rewarding when read in relation to one another and considering the questions that arise with the aims of the book: how to represent ‘Africans’ and ‘people of African descent’ and how to relate to their various interests and cultures from the perspective of a particular social group?

The multiple aspects of this problem of representation are evident throughout the book – whether the group in consideration is characterised by an authoritative or elite position – the ‘indigenous petite bourgeoisie’, the leaders or senior groups within special classes of professionals, including ‘modern’ as well as ‘traditional’ experts, entrepreneurs, performers, prophets, intellectuals, ‘enlightened’ reformers, and conservative ritual specialists – or by a marginalised and discriminated position, as in the case of African-Americans in search of a ‘usable past’, HIV contracted persons in Nigeria, homosexuals in the Caribbean, or economically independent and sexually autonomous women in Kenya. The divergent perspectives of these different groups of people can hardly provide an answer to the question raised in the introduction: ‘What, then, is popular African culture?’ (p. 5). This question, although of little, if at all, concern for most of the contributors to the volume, reflects the editors’ aim to react to the classical ‘Readings in African Popular Culture’ edited by Karin Barber.1 With their book, Falola and Agwuele want to contest Barber’s conceptualization of popular cultural productions in Africa as ‘sites of emergent consciousness’ (p. 6)

The editors’ statement that ‘Africans, like any other people, have always been fully conscious’ (p. 7 f.) is the starting point for the second chapter of the book, which engages in a general critique of something denoted as ‘Theory’ and made responsible for promoting a ‘universalism [that] privileges the unconscious’ (p. 18). The chapter thus calls for an alternative ‘theory of popular culture’ that would maintain ‘useful distinctions’ that could help ‘do justice to African civilizations and cultures’ (p. 33). Unfortunately, the author does not engage in a substantial and consistent reflection on any of the central terms. This, however, should not diminish the value of the various other contributions to the book. Instead of developing theoretical approaches, the intentions of the editors indeed can be much better understood as the kind of strategy described in the next to last chapter as the attempt of a literary elite to identify with the ‘dominated masses’ and to ‘re-present [...] their cultures to the dominant cultures’, namely to ‘return to the sources’ (p. 279 ff.). This is translated into a common concern of all the chapters that study particular ways of using (popular) culture in order to come to terms with the inequalities, tensions and conflicts emerging from the transformations taking place in both societies in Africa as well as in the African Diaspora.

1 Karin Barber (ed.), Readings in African Popular Culture, Bloomington 1997.

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