[This is a multi-part post. To read part 1 please click here]
‘’The Danger of A Single Story’
“Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I remember the first time I read “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” a book written by the New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn, I couldn’t help but reflect on the words of the great African writer and educator Chinua Achebe who once so eloquently said: “If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.” Reading about Kristof’s most recent jaunt to Mali where he writes: “It’s time for my annual win-a-trip journey, in which I take a university student with me on a reporting trip to Africa.” You know what “a reporting trip to Africa means”: road blocks and jittery soldiers, militants, Islamists, fear, thank god for the French, killing, and, best of all, hunger,” my mind also meanders to the words of the popular Nigerian feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie whose TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” became an instant internet sensation as she reminded her audience: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” I reflect further on the ways African women have been represented in the mainstream Western media imagination – the way African women have come to be portrayed as helpless creatures wavering wistfully in the dangerously hot harmattan heat waiting for used underwear to arrive from Europe and promises of new clitorises from white American doctors. The ways in which the gargantuan effects of power and patriarchy play out in many of these post-colonial scripts could not be any more stark. These single stories of African women are disempowering and reductive and are created for the consumption of the west rather than for any real social change.
And therein lies the power and potential of popular culture to recognize and critique the dominant representations that exist in the mainstream and to provide platforms to tell different stories, first-hand stories, African stories. What popular culture provides is a means to shift the discourse – to tell more complete stories. Stories of the increasing violence experienced by South African lesbians, but also stories about the mothers and fathers who love and accept them; Stories of the community members that protect and advocate for them rejecting the idea that homosexuality is somehow ‘unAfrican’; Stories of the people, by the people.
‘Pop Culture as a means of resistence?
Today, there a multitude of online social spaces and platforms being curated by young Africans seeking both to transform existing narratives and to raise awareness about social justice issues at the same time. Popular media platforms such as Arise Magazine, dynamicafrica, AfroPop Worldwide, AfriPOP! Mag, OkayAfrica, and MyAfricaIs that spotlight the latest in African pop culture and highlight a burgeoning generation of young African’s who look to their experiences and communities to produce music, art, social commentary – ideas that are complex and intelligent, cogent and thoughtfully expressed. It is through these multiple cultural mediums that we see opinion-pieces on everything from same-sex marriage to the impacts of international aid and food sovereignty. We also see music videos filmed on the streets of Accra, Lagos and Nairobi opening up our own visual imaginations. We see conversations emerging about the effects of globalization and political transformation on the continent. We see engagement within communities and across the Diaspora around issues of ethnic, class and gender divides, conversations between ‘afro-rebels’ and ‘afropolitans.’ We see feminist voices in online communities speaking out against sexual harassment and women’s safety in public spaces from tahrir square to johannesburg. We see increasing attention being paid to fashion, adornment and body politics with young African feminists creating clothing lines committed to ‘challenging notions of beauty and creating clothing that is both fabulous and political.’ As noted by the brand mina danielle: “our goal is to create a space and canvas for womyn from around the world, of various shapes, sizes, religious affiliations, races, ethnicities, sexual orientation, trans identified, inter-sex, age and (dis)ability.” We also see magazines like ‘GoWoman Africa’ and ‘New African Woman’ contributing to discussions on everything from Uganda’s ‘Anti-Pornography Bill’ and the subsequent ‘mini-skirt ban’ to hairstyle choices and how these function as forms of cultural and political resistance.
Through these multiple spaces and expressions we see how a new generation of young politicized Africans are using pop culture as an extension of their identity politics and their activism.
Reflecting on popular culture and the internet as a site of knowledge production, blogger Minna Salami says: “Social Media is an additional tool to a conversation that we’ve been having for a long time. It’s social media that’s new, and not the conversation. With social media we can more easily link dialogues across countries, continents and issues and create archives which in return have an influence on future narratives.” Minna goes on to note “African feminists are at the forefront of using social media, activism, and creativity to change situations that affect women negatively.”
We see African feminist bloggers like Sokari Ekine (blacklooks), Rainatou Sow (Make Women Count) and Spectra Speaks creating stories that work to repair (as Chimamanda Adichie calls it) the dignity of African peoples. Through her widely-read blog Spectra seeks to tell multiple stories including covering (as she says): “LGBT Africa’s resistance in a way that doesn’t place sexual violence, political warfare, and death at the focal point, but reiterates over and over again that every day citizens are standing fast against oppression, speaking up for each other in the face of the west’s infantilizing media.” Spectra also refers to the ways in which she uses music, art and other forms of popular culture to “raise awareness of critical issues and under-the-radar uprisings.” Similarly, in the section of her blog labeled ‘CREA(C)TIVE SENSES’ Sokari Ekine offers poetry, photography, short stories and more to bring together narratives of lived experience and human rights activism.
And what could be more feminist than these ideas of self-determination, speaking back, resisting, challenging, individually and collectively, to define and fight for own liberation?
And what could be more feminist than celebrating the value, beauty and power of African women and girls?
And what could be more feminist than supporting the space for creativity, irreverence, imagination, dreaming and resistance that [popular culture] provides?
The truth is (whether or not we like to admit it), popular culture and the multiple spaces it encompasses continues to be one of the central means of engagement and participation in the world around us. Pop culture as a lens through which we view and shape the world provides opportunities for African feminists to provide nuances and to challenge existing stereotypes while making feminism more relatable and relevant. What popular culture offers is a means by which African feminists can amplify their voices and elucidate multiple ways of being and seeing in the world. Popular culture on the one hand helps us to make ignored voices more paramount, and on the other, provides a means by which feminists from across the continent can support each other from multiple locations by validating each other’s voices.