The New York Times’ printing press is still radiating from January 8th, 2014 when the newspaper’s East Africa correspondent Nicholas Kulish published a story (with accompanying video) about how the presence of African artists on the Internet represents a cultural revolution.
The viral music videos from Kenyan group Just a Band are presented as exhibit A. Finally, insinuates Kulish in the Times article, artists from African countries are learning how to use YouTube. He then begins to flail wildly, making vague statements about democracy and mentioning any creative African artist or project he has ever heard of, from Fela Kuti to Ngugi wa Thiong’o to Chimurenga Magazine as evidence that Africans are beginning to figure out how to be creative.
Kulish seems to feel as though he is presenting innovative African creative production to the world as breaking news, banking on the philosophy that once something is published in the New York Times it becomes true or real. What he is actually demonstrating however, is just how out of touch the New York Times can be. Just a Band’s impressive music videos started coming out in 2008 and went viral with a largely East African audience. Literary journals such as the Nairobi-based Kwani? and Cape Town-based Chimurenga have each been contributing to the evolution of the publishing game for more than a decade.
Beneath the surface, the ironic trend being reported here is not that African arts are new or innovative, it is that mainstream Western media outlets are only now learning to recognize and value diverse and creative African phenomena that have thrived for years. In effect, the New York Times and its peers are having schizophrenic conversations with themselves. Just a Band and their fans don’t need to be convinced of any kind of African cultural revolution, they are the revolution. The incipient change, the cultural awakening, is occurring in the minds of those that have embraced and promoted, sometimes subconsciously, the narrative of African backwardness.
All this brings to mind the age-old philosophical question: If a Kenyan DJ uploads a mixtape to soundcloud and the New York Times isn’t around to hear it, does it make a sound?