Saturday, 11 July 2009

What exactly is an "Afropolitan"?

by Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu

culled from

It’s moments to midnight on Thursday night at Medicine Bar in London. Zak,
boy-genius DJ, is spinning a Fela Kuti remix. The little downstairs
dancefloor swells with smiling, sweating men and women fusing hip-hop
dance moves with a funky sort of djembe. The women show off enormous
afros, tiny t-shirts, gaps in teeth; the men those incredible torsos
unique to and common on African coastlines. The whole scene speaks of
the Cultural Hybrid: kente cloth worn over low-waisted jeans; ‘African
Lady’ over Ludacris bass lines; London meets Lagos meets Durban meets
Dakar. Even the DJ is an ethnic fusion: Nigerian and Romanian; fair,
fearless leader; bobbing his head as the crowd reacts to a sample of
‘Sweet Mother’.

Were you to ask any of these beautiful, brown-skinned people that
basic question – ‘where are you from?’ – you’d get no single answer
from a single smiling dancer. This one lives in London but was raised
in Toronto and born in Accra; that one works in Lagos but grew up in
Houston, Texas. ‘Home’ for this lot is many things: where their parents
are from; where they go for vacation; where they went to school; where
they see old friends; where they live (or live this year). Like so many
African young people working and living in cities around the globe,
they belong to no single geography, but feel at home in many.

They (read: we) are Afropolitans – the newest generation of African
emigrants, coming soon or collected already at a law firm/chem lab/jazz
lounge near you. You’ll know us by our funny blend of London fashion,
New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes. Some of us are
ethnic mixes, e.g. Ghanaian and Canadian, Nigerian and Swiss; others
merely cultural mutts: American accent, European affect, African ethos.
Most of us are multilingual: in addition to English and a Romantic or
two, we understand some indigenous tongue and speak a few urban
vernaculars. There is at least one place on The African Continent to
which we tie our sense of self: be it a nation-state (Ethiopia), a city
(Ibadan), or an auntie’s kitchen. Then there’s the G8 city or two (or
three) that we know like the backs of our hands, and the various
institutions that know us for our famed focus. We are Afropolitans: not
citizens, but Africans of the world.

It isn’t hard to trace our genealogy. Starting in the 60’s, the
young, gifted and broke left Africa in pursuit of higher education and
happiness abroad. A study conducted in 1999 estimated that between 1960
and 1975 around 27,000 highly skilled Africans left the Continent for
the West. Between 1975 and 1984, the number shot to 40,000 and then
doubled again by 1987, representing about 30% of Africa’s highly
skilled manpower. Unsurprisingly, the most popular destinations for
these emigrants included Canada, Britain, and the United States; but
Cold War politics produced unlikely scholarship opportunities in
Eastern Bloc countries like Poland, as well.

Some three decades later this scattered tribe of pharmacists,
physicists, physicians (and the odd polygamist) has set up camp around
the globe. The caricatures are familiar. The Nigerian physics professor
with faux-Coogi sweater; the Kenyan marathonist with long legs and
rolled r’s; the heavyset Gambian braiding hair in a house that smells
of burnt Kanekalon. Even those unacquainted with synthetic extensions
can conjure an image of the African immigrant with only the slightest
of pop culture promptings: Eddie Murphy’s ‘Hello, Barbar.’ But
somewhere between the 1988 release of Coming to America and the 2001
crowning of a Nigerian Miss World, the general image of young Africans
in the West transmorphed from goofy to gorgeous. Leaving off the
painful question of cultural condescenscion in that beloved film, one
wonders what happened in the years between Prince Akeem and Queen

One answer is: adolescence. The Africans that left Africa between
1960 and 1975 had children, and most overseas. Some of us were bred on
African shores then shipped to the West for higher education; others
born in much colder climates and sent home for cultural
re-indoctrination. Either way, we spent the 80’s chasing after
accolades, eating fufu at family parties, and listening to adults argue
politics. By the turn of the century (the recent one), we were matching
our parents in number of degrees, and/or achieving things our ‘people’
in the grand sense only dreamed of. This new demographic – dispersed
across Brixton, Bethesda, Boston, Berlin – has come of age in the 21st
century, redefining what it means to be African. Where our parents
sought safety in traditional professions like doctoring, lawyering,
banking, engineering, we are branching into fields like media,
politics, music, venture capital, design. Nor are we shy about
expressing our African influences (such as they are) in our work.
Artists such as Keziah Jones, Trace founder and editor Claude
Gruzintsky, architect David Adjaye, novelist Chimamanda Achidie – all
exemplify what Gruzintsky calls the ‘21st century African.’

What distinguishes this lot and its like (in the West and at home) is a
willingness to complicate Africa – namely, to engage with, critique,
and celebrate the parts of Africa that mean most to them. Perhaps what
most typifies the Afropolitan consciousness is the refusal to
oversimplify; the effort to understand what is ailing in Africa
alongside the desire to honor what is wonderful, unique. Rather than
essentialising the geographical entity, we seek to comprehend the
cultural complexity; to honor the intellectual and spiritual legacy;
and to sustain our parents’ cultures.

For us, being African must mean something. The media’s portrayals
(war, hunger) won’t do. Neither will the New World trope of bumbling,
blue-black doctor. Most of us grew up aware of ‘being from’ a blighted
place, of having last names from to countries which are linked to lack,
corruption. Few of us escaped those nasty ‘booty-scratcher’ epithets,
and fewer still that sense of shame when visting paternal villages.
Whether we were ashamed of ourselves for not knowing more about our
parents’ culture, or ashamed of that culture for not being more
‘advanced’ can be unclear. What is manifest is the extent to which the
modern adolescent African is tasked to forge a sense of self from
wildly disparate sources. You’d never know it looking at those dapper
lawyers in global firms, but most were once supremely self-conscious of
being so ‘in between’. Brown-skinned without a bedrock sense of
‘blackness,’ on the one hand; and often teased by African family
members for ‘acting white’ on the other – the baby-Afropolitan can get
what I call ‘lost in transnation’.

Ultimately, the Afropolitan must form an identity along at least
three dimensions: national, racial, cultural – with subtle tensions in
between. While our parents can claim one country as home, we must
define our relationship to the places we live; how British or American
we are (or act) is in part a matter of affect. Often unconsciously, and
over time, we choose which bits of a national identity (from passport
to pronunciation) we internalize as central to our personalities. So,
too, the way we see our race – whether black or biracial or none of the
above – is a question of politics, rather than pigment; not all of us
claim to be black. Often this relates to the way we were raised,
whether proximate to other brown people (e.g. black Americans) or
removed. Finally, how we conceive of race will accord with where we
locate ourselves in the history that produced ‘blackness’ and the
political processes that continue to shape it.

Then there is that deep abyss of Culture, ill-defined at best. One
must decide what comprises ‘African culture’ beyond pepper soup and
filial piety. The project can be utterly baffling – whether one lives
in an African country or not. But the process is enriching, in that it
expands one’s basic perspective on nation and selfhood. If nothing
else, the Afropolitan knows that nothing is neatly black or white; that
to ‘be’ anything is a matter of being sure of who you are uniquely. To
‘be’ Nigerian is to belong to a passionate nation; to be Yoruba, to be
heir to a spiritual depth; to be American, to ascribe to a cultural
breadth; to be British, to pass customs quickly. That is, this is what
it means for me – and that is the Afropolitan privilege. The acceptance
of complexity common to most African cultures is not lost on her
prodigals. Without that intrinsically multi-dimensional thinking, we
could not make sense of ourselves.

And if it all sounds a little self-congratulatory, a little
‘aren’t-we-the-coolest-damn-people-on-earth?’ – I say: yes it is,
necessarily. It is high time the African stood up. There is nothing
perfect in this formulation; for all our Adjayes and Achidies, there is
a brain drain back home. Most Afropolitans could serve Africa better in
Africa than at Medicine Bar on Thursdays. To be fair, a fair number of
African professionals are returning; and there is consciousness among
the ones who remain, an acute awareness among this brood of
too-cool-for-schools that there’s work to be done. There are those
among us who wonder to the point of weeping: where next, Africa? When
will the scattered tribes return? When will the talent repatriate? What
lifestyles await young professionals at home? How to invest in Africa’s
future? The prospects can seem grim at times. The answers aren’t
forthcoming. But if there was ever a group who could figure it out, it
is this one, unafraid of the questions.


seyoyo said...

Why can't we simply be African?

Better still, why can't we be Ghanaian, or Nigerian or Ivorien?

Yes, I know we're not simply just any of those identities, but you've copped out from going into why.

Oyinda said...

Identity is a strange thing!
It is never limited and even worse, never static, making it a difficult thing to define.
Take for instance the Brazilian, in being brazilian the Afro/black brazillian is told that his race is not a part of his identity, yet when he looks at his social situation he see's that it is mainly the brazillians who look like him who live in poverty/ bound by subversive racism! What about when the Dominican rejects their colour and defines them self as indian, is this their identity?

Who is the African? is he the White South African, the Indian east African, the Arab in Morroco, is it the Black Nigerian.

National identity is great, in that the American refers to them self in that way, the French, the German it is usually the African who is identified as being African and little else. This definition is usually by the other/ outsider and well its up to us to understand what it really is.

We are what we are seen to be either by ourselves or by others however real or imagined this is.

Who has the answer?