I formally came into feminism at university or rather I came to name my politics ‘as such’ during that time. But like many other young women of my generation, my formative understandings of, and identifications with feminism have over the years been shaped by popular culture.
I think of the ways social media (and other expressions of popular culture: music, art, fashion, film etc) have influenced my own self-definition as an African feminist nomad living between the continent and the Diaspora. I think about the ways many young women like myself have come into feminist consciousness through popular culture (regardless of whether these influences are deemed feminist or not). Young women for whom feminism has meant personal and public critical engagement around raunchy music videos and misogynist lyrics. Young women whose journey’s to feminism have been inspired by African feminist bloggers writing about pop culture, race, gender, identity, sex, relationships, culture, religion, spirituality and more; Or even collectives of young women in Ghana, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa whose contributions to African feminist thought have come about through blogging, tweeting and facilitating online discussions about women’s rights, community development, social justice activism and more.
When I think about African popular culture – I think about young women and trans* peoples who have felt affirmed by the words of African musicians like Shishani Vranckx from Namibia singing about sexual identity and gender equality, or South African artist Thandiswa Mazwai and her all-female band, or even Malian musician and peace activist Fatoumata Diawara tackling sensitive topics such as female genital mutilation. And there so many – Zimbabwe’s mbira maestro Chiwoniso who once sang stories of rebel women, freedom fighters. Kenya’s Sara Mitaru who describes her brand of Afropop as ‘social music’ which she says ‘talks about where we are as a continent and what needs to change.’ Nigeria’s own Afropop sensation Omawumi holding little back as she sings about sexual abuse and topics many consider ‘taboo.’ I think about the lighthearted Kuduro artist Titicawhose very image (and immense popularity) has fostered nuanced thinking and debate about what it means to be trans* in Angola. I think about organizations like ‘None on Record’ using digital media to tell the stories of LGBT Africans, others like Iranti-Org a queer human rights visual media organization based in Johannesburg or individual ARTivists like Zanele Muholi from South Africa challenging homophobias and documenting the lived experiences of African lesbians through photography.
I think about the ways that my own knowledge and understanding of African feminisms has constantly undergone formation and (re)formation thanks to these multiple cultural expressions and representations within popular culture. I look at the ways young African feminists (myself included) are using new media to build intentional communities on platforms such as facebook and twitter – questioning, debating, agreeing, disagreeing reframing the politics and praxis of online friendships and pushing each other’s level of critical engagement forward.
I look back at my mother’s generation and the ways that African women in music historically have been at the forefront of social change; ARTivists from across the continent fuelled with creative dissent. I think of women such as South African singer and political activist Miriam Makeba, musical rebels like ‘the queen of African pop’ Brenda Fassie, ‘the barefoot diva’ Cesária Évora from Cape Verde, and the legendary Zanzibari singer Bi Kidude – all women who used their music to speak passionately against social injustice touching on issues ranging from forced marriage to sexual violence and oppression.
And in the spirit of these reflections, I look to the power and potential of popular culture to recognize and critique the dominant representations of African women usually found in the mainstream. In this essay, I argue that it is exactly within the domain of popular culture that we see some of the most visible, vibrant and persuasive expressions of African feminisms today. Further, using examples I explore the potential popular culture has for social transformation and feminist consciousness-raising in Africa.
Popular culture by its own non-definition can be seen to constitute the expression of the masses. For some, popular culture (or ‘pop culture’ for short) represents a form of artistic language spoken for and by the people. Of course we must consider that the question of what one deems ‘popular’ is in large part determined by who is doing the defining and on what terms.
Today, in what feminist cultural critic Darnell L. Moore calls the ‘age of late capital and neoliberalism,’ we see that much of the way we experience the world (i.e. how we develop our identities) is shaped by the images, symbols, and narratives in radio, television, film, music, and social media. In speaking to this, cultural anthropologist Karin Barber argues that ‘the most obvious reason for giving attention to popular culture is its sheer undeniable assertive presence as social fact.’ Popular culture, she suggests, ‘loudly proclaims its own importance in the lives of large numbers of people given its ability to flourish without encouragement or recognition from official cultural bodies, and sometimes to exist in defiance of them.’ With that in mind, pop culture can be understood as a means in which a society tackles questions of identity and builds critical consciousness around issues of race, class, gender, sexuality and so on. African-American scholar Cornel West in conversation with the Black feminist author bell hooks posits: “I focus on popular culture because I focus on those areas where black humanity is most powerfully expressed, where black people have been able to articulate their sense of the world in a profound manner. And I see this primarily in popular culture.”
From a feminist perspective, African-American scholar Patricia Hill-Collins in her seminal text ‘Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment” critically looks at the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality and takes issue with the negative ways in which Black women have historically been framed within the American popular imagination. Challenging these stereotypes and images she says, “[is] a core theme in Black feminist thought as evidenced by the writing of many other Black feminist theorists. In her own work, bell hooks also examines how a wide range of media, from popular music, to advertising, literatures, television and film represent black people, and the social and political consequences of these representations. hooks is in large part concerned with imagining a means of engagement that ‘pushes against the boundaries of image’, a process she contends, ‘is deeply political, and represents the struggle of Black women to self-define and resist domination’.
Beyond these questions of identity and resistance, hooks also outlines the importance of recognizing engagement with popular culture as central to feminist praxis noting:
“There must be more effort to write and talk about feminist ideas in ways that are accessible…Those of us who already have been successfully working in this way must strike individually and collectively to make our voices heard by a wider audience. If we do not actively enter the terrain of popular culture, we will be complicit in the antifeminist backlash that is at the heart of the mass media’s support of antifeminist women who claim to speak on behalf of feminism. The time has come to interrupt, intervene, and change the channel.”
And just how do we change the channel? By recognizing that when it comes to feminism, popular culture through the vehicles of art, film, music, theatre, photography, books and other media helps to translate feminist philosophies, issues, and concepts into everyday language, making them more relevant and relatable. Popular culture has a unique capacity not only to raise awareness, but to build bigger constituencies for social justice and women’s rights and ultimately to meet people where they are.
To be continued…
By Amina Doherty