Africa Awakens

How African countries are transforming into cultural juggernauts.

“If the fires that innately burn inside youths are not intentionally and lovingly added to the hearth of community, they will burn down the structures of culture, just to feel the warmth."

Michael Meade

There was once a long-standing Hollywood myth that “black films don’t travel.” Of course such stereotypes aren’t platonic values, they require the support of a populace willing to perpetuate them. Indeed, domestic and foreign distributors fought tooth and nail against films that portrayed diverse story lines. So, the African-American community, and other minority groups later on, understood that a massive overhaul of the establishment wasn’t optional, it was mandatory: To make the films they wanted, they had no other option than to outmaneuver Hollywood’s anachronistic mindset.

Certainly, this was easier said than done. How could they tell these stories when nobody would give them a chance? These movies would never get made and more importantly, this community would never be supported by any major Hollywood monolith.

The power brokers in West Hollywood, sipping their chilled espresso martinis and munching on their cigars, repeated this phrase so often that “black films don’t travel” became a self-fulfilling prophecy. They were confident they were right, until they suddenly weren’t. Kazuo Ishiguro in his The Remains of the Day encapsulated this idea best: “One is not struck by the truth until prompted quite accidentally by some external event.”

What these power brokers couldn’t or wouldn’t know was that Hollywood’s external – and existential – event was right over the horizon. The world positively lost its mind upon the release of the movie, Black Panther, in 2018 and when, to the dismay of elites, it became the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time – totaling an incredible $1.3 billion at the global box office.

Caught blindsided, Dave Hollis – Disney’s president of theatrical distribution – insisted that"it just didn’t seem possible” that Black Panther would overtake the other movies in the Marvel pantheon. The notion that anyone or any power could challenge American exceptionalism was laughable. Why would the world care about non-American stories? Like always, the box office doesn’t lie.

But this scenario, while a microcosm in and of itself, is interesting in so far that it’s emblematic of broader ideas. Where and how are new cultural norms born? Is it apt to say that western audiences are exhausted by the same tired tropes barely refined and shipped over and over again? America’s biggest export is its eponymous “dream” and these stories we tell effectively light up the nocturnal stage thousands of miles away.

But as I wrote in The Last Industry, creative industries in America and elsewhere – like music and fashion – are decaying as developed nations transform into pseudo-technocracies. But it’s obvious that as hitherto outdated norms die, new ones must rise to take their place. And Africa, more than anywhere else, is at the forefront of this cultural refounding.

A Hard Day's Night

It’s tough to say what defines cultural norms. Is it the moral values that shape a nation? Or, is it how people choose to express themselves – what music they listen to; what movies they watch; and what clothes they wear? All of these factors are indeed important, blend together, and, in fact, birth a culture that is avant-garde. Although, it may be best to start with pop music as it concisely captures the feelings of a generation.

And, the stars which dominated the musical stage are now leaving, making space for new ones. Critically, different voices are finally being heard because of social media. Information can easily spread and generate various schelling points irrespective of borders, so once-hidden names can reach global stardom in mere seconds. This is best exemplified through the stories of pop icons in Africa like Nigeria’s Wizkid, Davido, and Mr. Easi. Nigeria, despite its political volatility, is a hotbed of artistic and financial talent.

To understand the magnitude of this shift, Nigerian artist Davido illustrates why so many people now flock towards African music:

“The music is amazing. The feeling you get from Afrobeats and African music is just different. When I was in school in America and would play African music, people would say, “Yo, what’s that? That shit’s hard.” They didn’t understand what the artists were saying, but the feeling they got [from the music] was just crazy. People have always loved African music, but we didn’t have the avenues to go worldwide. Back then, you actually had to have an African friend or come to Africa to experience it.”

Billboard

What we think of as pop music first starts on the fringes and then rapidly dissolves into the mainstream. The old guard and gatekeepers have to leave or perish. To their credit, global labels are taking notice of these changing tides. The three biggest record agencies – Universal Music Group, Sony Music, and Warner Music Group – are enlarging their presence in Africa; indeed, Universal opened its legendary Def Jam label to the continent earlier this year to promote African artists.

But, one could do worse than wonder if there’s a different reason for this investment beyond simply supporting new art.

In the last decade, the music industry was at death’s door, gasping for its last breath. Vinyl and CD sales were collapsing and the advent of YouTube along with easy piracy threatened to destroy everything these firms stood for. Streaming changed all that – so much so that both Warner Music and Universal Music are ready, adamant even, that they should go public.

But streaming is highly contextual – its driven entirely by consumers: their whims, composed of their geography and age. Age is perhaps the most important factor. While the 2010s saw the biggest bubble the world had ever known, it was because of demographics across the world’s developing nations, many of which are now tending older (e.g. China).

Africa has the youngest population in the world; yet, internet penetration in most of its most populous countries stands at 50% or lower. Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry, indirectly employs over one million people while less than half of its population, 97.5 million, are mobile telecom subscribers. When consumers earn access to a high-speed internet connection, their demand for content skyrockets. It’s not farfetched to say that Nollywood is ready to supply its content-hungry public with a steady outpouring of new music.

While afrobeats is marshaling supporters from every country, it and music doesn’t work alone. Music feeds into fashion and vice versa.

“I don't do fashion. I am fashion.“

Alongside the shifting tides of music, it’s cultural cousin, fashion, doesn’t solely concern the textile industry; rather it reflects a changing zeitgeist throughout the ages. “Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm” as Virgina Woolf emphasized. “They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”

If what we wear says a lot about us, then admittedly, what we avoid wearing is equally as important. And, many are losing their taste for western fashion: They’re looking across the river for different modalities of expression. The story of Black Panther comes full circle: the more these stories are brought into the light, the greater the exposure of these different styles. This is largely the core driver of what many call the African “fashion renaissance.”

The exposure also arrives from ultra-popular celebrities like Beyonce, Alicia Keys, and Zendaya who have been seen wearing clothing from African designers. In fact, with a single picture, Beyonce turned Senegalese designer Sarah Diouf’s Tongoro brand into a worldwide phenomenon.

In a matter of years, Ankara gowns and patterned dashikis went from a counterculture statement to an almost-commonplace garb worn by the African diaspora in their respective countries. In private, these members have always been proud of their culture: now it’s socially acceptable, and even lauded, to do so.

Now that they’ve tasted international success, these designers are not pandering to Anglo-Saxon tastes; rather, they’re doing the opposite. They are so successful because they stayed true to their origins, not in spite of it. And the pandemic has provided them with an opportunity to show off their ingenuity.

Digital Runways

I suspect that, despite being a $31 billion industry, African fashion is just getting started (the entire textiles and apparel market, by the way, is $1.5 trillion). Anifa Mvuemba, the Congolese designer, turned her fashion show completely digital in a matter of months with the help of 3D models that mimic how real women move. The GIF shown above is what the show looked like: A series of virtual models gliding across the runway. Tens of thousands of viewers across the world tuned in to witness virtual garments and fashion history by extension – many called it a “groundbreaking” experience.

Mvuemba’s indomitable spirit is a remarkable contrast to that of western fashion conglomerates, which were once the hallmark of places like Rodeo Drive and Madison Avenue. Due to the pandemic, most have all but given up trying to display their new collections. Giorgio Armani conducted its Women’s Autumn/Winter show without an audience; Saint Laurent bowed out of Paris fashion week; Gucci, pretending its woes weren’t economic, took the moral high ground and ordered that its 5 annual shows be cut down to a paltry two for “environmental reasons.”

What does this say about the future of fashion? If these textile oligarchs stop producing new works of art, will the field come to a grinding halt? Of course not, it’ll burgeon into something new. These titans of industry, like Gucci, don’t think that they have any challengers – a poisonous thought, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Ideally, culture is not only music and fashion. But these two areas play more than their fair share in the final result; together, they cast a firm imprint on a generation and how it acts across time. The world will soon recognize Africa as a cultural juggernaut – whether or not they can handle it is a question for another day.


Other notes: I was recently on the Long Game Podcast discussing aging, charter cities, china, and how the world can build new utopias. Let me know what you think!

Until next time,

Anirudh