Why I’m not an Afropolitan

The problem with Afropolitism is that the insights on race, modernity and identity appear to be increasingly sidelined in sacrifice to consumerism above all else.

The writer, Chimamanda Adichie. Image credit Chris Boland via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Last summer, I was invited to take part in a discussion on ‘Fantasy or Reality? Afropolitan Narratives of the 21st Century’, as part of Africa Writes 2013 Festival. I was joined on the panel by Minna “Ms Afropolitan” Salami and the journalist Nana Ocran. Professor Paul Gilroy was the Chair.  At the time I was researching my piece I found little written about Afropolitanism beyond the celebratory (notable exceptions are the Bosch Santana critique Exorcizing Afropolitanism and Afropolitanism – Africa without Africans by Okwunodu Ogbechi, both of which are referred to below).

However, in the months since I published my critique, the voices of dissent seemed to swell in volume and frequency; from the insightful Is Afropolitanism Africa’s New Single Story? in which Brian Bwesigye reads Helon Habila’s review of NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names through the truncated version of Afropolitanism that he argues Habila represents, to Marta Tveit’s The Afropolitan Must Go, which side-lines the issue of commodification that I develop as one of the central challenges to Afropolitanism, to focus instead on a critique of the term and its relationship to identity politics.

Unlike Tveit, when I first heard “Afropolitan” I was excited. I am always looking for language that expresses my position as an Irish/Nigerian woman who is deeply connected to her Nigerianness. I’d rather refrain as describing myself as half anything, and I detest the word mixed-race. I thought perhaps Afropolitan presented an alternative to this terminology and, interestingly, positioned me with others through a shared cultural and aesthetic leaning rather than a perceived racial classification. Further, the term identified that you could be black or African without having to subscribe to the depressingly limited identities widely perceived as being authentic.

The enduring insights of Afropolitanism as interpreted by Achille Mbembe should be its promise of vacating the seduction of pernicious racialised thinking, its recognition of African identities as fluid, and the notion that the African past is characterised by mixing, blending and superimposing. In opposition to custom, Mbembe insists the idea of ‘tradition’ never really existed and reminds us there is a pre-colonial African modernity that has not been taken into account in contemporary creativity.

As Minna Salami writes on her blog Africans should be as free to have multiple subcultures as anyone else, but the problem with Afropolitism to me is that the insights on race, modernity and identity appear to be increasingly sidelined in sacrifice to the consumerism Mbembe also identifies as part of the Afropolitan assemblage. The dominance of fashion and lifestyle in Afropolitanism is worthy of note due to the relationship between these industries, consumption and consumerism.

The rapacious consumerism of the African elites claimed to make up the ranks of the Afropolitans is well documented. Frantz Fanon’s prophetic words once again resonate. In the foreword to the 2004 edition of Wretched of the Earth, Homi Bhabha asks: “what might be saved from Fanon’s ethics and politics of decolonization to help us reflect on contemporary manifestations of globalization.” He reminds us that the economic landscape engineered by the IMF and the World Bank continues to support the compartmentalised societies identified by Fanon. No matter how much wealth exists in pockets, “a dual economy is not a developed economy,” writes Fanon. It is largely in the pockets of the mobile Afropolitan class that much of the wealth is held.

What I want to ask is in what way does Afropolitanism go about challenging the enduring problematics of duality and compartmentalised society, identified by Fanon as one of the major stumbling blocks to African post-colonial independence?

To be honest, when I look at the launch of OK Magazine Nigeria (although I don’t know whether Afropolitans would claim OK magazine — I’m not sure it’s chic enough), or hear about palm wine mojitos and fashion shows at the Afropolitan V&A event, it leaves me feeling somewhat depressed.

Our value is not determined by our ability to produce African flavoured versions of Western convention and form. Such an approach will surely only ever leave us playing catch-up in a game the rules of which we did not write. That whole lifestyle of Sex And The City feminism, cocktails, designer clothes, handbags and shoes is not particularly liberating in an Anglo-American context, so I see no reason why we should transfer such models to Africa and declare it progress. I’m not saying there’s no place for such activities in the African context but it represents less of a departure from the behaviour of post-colonial elites than a repetition of same as it ever was.

In an era such as ours, characterised by the chilling commodification of all walks of life — including the commodification of dissent — we should be especially vigilant about any movement that embraces commodification to the extent that Afropolitanism does.

In her eloquent piece “Exorcizing Afropolitanism” Bosch Santana outlines Binyavanga Wainaina’s “attempt to rid African literary and cultural studies of the ghost of Afropolitanism” in his plenary lecture entitled I am a Pan-Africanist, not an Afropolitan. Bosch Santana explores the way in which Afropolitanism has become “a phenomenon increasingly product driven, design focused, and potentially funded by the West.” She recognises that “style, in and of itself, is not really the issue” but fears rather that it’s “the attempt to begin with style, and then infuse it with substantive political consciousness that is problematic.”

In a response to “Exorcizing Afropolitanism” Salami argues that Bosch Santana is taking umbrage at African agency. She frames the debate as a choice between African victimisation and Afropolitanism, asking ironically, “how dare Africans not simply be victims, but also shapers of globalisation and all its inherent contestations? How dare we market our cultures as well as our political transformations?”

I would argue that our options are not reduced to one or the other (nor does Bosch Santana suggest they are). However, in countering Salami’s interpretation of the debate: I challenge a position wherein defining ourselves as Afropolitan is presented as the only alternative to the Afro-pessimism narrative. Furthermore, I harbour serious reservations that the duality identified by Fanon is challenged by a small group of Africans who are in a position to be able to “market their cultures”. Salami herself admits that Afropolitanism possibly goes “overboard in commodifying African culture”. This should not be a throw-away comment. It is a cause for concern. The centrality of capitalism and the importance of commodification is confirmed when one searches Afropolitan on Google and here. See what’s comes up? Online shops, and aspirational luxury lifestyle magazines. There is lots of African-y stuff: jewellery, art and ankara toys. Such items are recognisable from Fanon too, who writes: “The bourgeoisie’s idea of a national economy is one based on what we can call local products. Grandiloquent speeches are made about local crafts.” With the exception of a few well-positioned individuals of African origin, who now have a larger market to who they can ‘sell’ this image of Africa, whom are really the beneficiaries?

Paul Gilroy has argued that commodity culture has resulted in the sacrifice — to the service of corporate interests — the loss of much of what was wonderful about black culture. Afropolitanism can be seen as the latest manifestation of planetary commerce in blackness. It seems as though having consumed so much of black American culture, there is now a demand for more authentic, virgin, black culture to consume. Demand turns to the continent where a fresh source is ripe for the picking.

Personally, I need to position myself with a more radical, counter-cultural movement. For me Afropolitanism is too polite, corporate, glossy – it reeks of sponsorship and big business with all the attendant limitations.

Should we be taking comfort in the fact that the world’s eyes are again on Africa? Headlines decree “Africa is the world’s fastest growing continent” and the ‘hottest frontier’ for investments. Time magazine’s cover of Africa Rising announces “it is the world’s next economic powerhouse,” While The Wall Street Journal is dubbing it “a new gold rush.” Here’s one of my own: “The Scramble for Africa.”

It’s no surprise the Western media is supportive of Afropolitanism. As Fanon reminds us – “In its decadent aspect the national bourgeoisie, gets considerable help from the Western bourgeoisie who happen to be tourists enamoured with exoticism.” Afropolitanism is the handmaiden of the Africa Rising narrative and I suspect its championing by the Western media, runs the risk of leading us ever further astray from the “disreputable, angry places,” noted by Gilroy, “where the political interests of racialised minorities might be identified and worked upon without being encumbered by an affected liberal innocence.”

Africa Rising and its cohorts should not be allowed to obscure the fact that Africa has lost $1.2 to 1.4 trillion in illicit financial outflows…more than three times the total amount of foreign aid received. Africa gives more to the rest of the world than it receives and is in fact a net creditor through illicit means.

The danger of Afropolitanism becoming the voice of Africa can be likened to the criticisms levelled against second wave feminists who failed to identify their privilege as white and middle class while claiming to speak for all women. Because while we may all be Africans, there is a huge gap between my African experience and my father’s houseboys.

The term Afropolitan is also increasingly used in the art world. Similar concerns to mine are raised on the Aachronym African arts blog — in a blog post Afropolitanism — Africa without Africans, Okwunodu Ogbechi questions the art world’s championing of Afropolitanism, arguing it supports a bias that only views African artists working in the west as relevant, while the artists, living and working on the continent remain largely ignored. He reminds us that, despite the international lifestyle enjoyed by the Afropolitan, most Africans have almost absolute immobility in a contemporary global world that works very hard to keep Africans in their place on the African continent. They point out there is no immigration policy anywhere in the Western world that welcomes Africans, while a major bias against African global mobility abounds in international media. Most African-based artists would find it difficult to impossible to get a visa to visit Western museums or to show their works abroad!

We are now well versed in the danger of the single story. While Afropolitanism may appear to offer an alternative to the single story, we run the danger of this becoming the dominant narrative for African success.

The traditional Afro-pessimistic narratives, while obsessed with poverty, denied the poor any voice. While Afropolitanism may go some way in redressing the balance concerning Africans speaking for themselves, the problem lies in the fact that we still don’t hear the narratives of Africans who are not privileged.

The problem is not that Afropolitans are privileged per se — rather it is that at a time when poverty remains endemic for millions, the narratives of a privileged few telling us how great everything is, how much opportunity and potential is available may drown out the voices of a majority who remain denied basic life chances.

While Afropolitans talk and talk about what it means to be young, cool and African, are many of them concerned with addressing the world beyond their own social realities, to the issues that concern other Africans?

Illustrating the above argument is the recent case of the security bonds being introduced for UK visitors declared ‘high-risk’ such as Nigerians and Ghanaians. This has huge consequences for Africans not from monied backgrounds yet hasn’t received much Afropolitan air space. Rather it has been ignored in favour of topics more relevant to the social realities of the international jet set.

I think maybe we need to have more consensus on what constitutes Afropolitanism. Salami says in the comments section of her response to the “Exorcizing Afropolitanism” piece that Afropolitanism means “being African without detouring through whiteness” which seems somewhat at odds with Mbembe’s vision. For him Afropolitanism is a way of being African that is ‘open to difference’, and is conceived of as transcending race.

In a recent Guardian interview, Taiye Selasie’s, who popularised the term in her 2005 essay ByeBye Barbar or What is an Afropolitan? presents an image of an Instagram-friendly Africa. Her interpretation of Afropolitanism goes beyond being ‘open to difference’ to something resembling African versions of American or European cities. Afropolitanism it appears is grounded in the ability to engage in the same pastimes one could expect to enjoy in a Western capital.

In Burkina Faso she danced until 5am in a western-themed club & watched movies at a feminist film festival. Adama, her charming host, is an ‘Afropolitan of the highest order’: by virtue of his Viennese wife, and the fact he is studying German at the Goethe Institute. To her Togo was a seaside treat: which she likens to Malibu with motorini, later she gushes about hanging out on the beach with hundreds of super-cool Togolese hipsters.

Such an itinerary would be acceptable to any self respecting inhabitant of hipster capitals Hackney or Williamsburg and it’s wonderful that you can now have the Hipster Africa Experience, but I fail to see how this represents anything particularly progressive. It seems again that African progress is measured by the extent to which it can reproduce a Western lifestyle, now without having to physically be in the West. This doesn’t appear to signal any particular departure from the elites enduring love affair with achieving the lifestyles of their former masters. It seems that increasingly many who define themselves as Afropolitan seem to have evacuated much of the rich potentiality the term might once have suggested.

Further Reading