Making African celebrity culture

Considering the proximity of celebrity culture to how capitalism operates in Africa, why is it not given more serious attention?

Davido performs at the MAMA. Photo Credit: Al Nicoll, MTV Networks Africa (Pty) Ltd.

Soon after the MTV Africa Music Awards chief executive drops hints that there will be a special guest, Khloe Kardashian and her entourage appear at the awards’ press conference in Durban, South Africa. The audience buzzes with excitement as she glides towards the plush stage. She generates more interest just by walking around than do her then-boyfriend, American hip-hop superstar French Montana, or any of the African headlining musicians. A reigning icon of global celebrity culture, Khloe is famous for being famous; her family’s celebrity comes not as a by-product of other talents, but as the central, self-generating goal of carefully orchestrated social media and branding work.

The excitement around Khloe’s appearance is a sign that this awards show is more than a musical event. It shows the rise of celebrity culture in Africa and the sense that it is not just about music and style but also business strategy.

The MTV Africa Music Awards, more popularly known by its acronym MAMAs, was held on June 7th, 2014 at Durban’s International Conference Centre (ICC). It is one of the biggest African celebrity events in recent years. Under the rubric “Celebrating Africa’s Finest Talent,” the MAMAs stake MTV Base’s—the African channel of the Viacom network—claim as definitive tastemakers in the competitive popular music market. The event has three tasks: packaging African music for US and European audiences, uniting diverse tastes of African audiences from across the continent, and pleasing a South African crowd and news media.

All images courtesy of Jesse Weaver Shipley, unless otherwise noted.

Before traveling to Durban, I stopped in Johannesburg. There I make plans to attend the MAMAs with Addiel Dzinoreva, a long-time media strategist who I have known since he became a central player in South Africa’s late 1990s pop culture boom. Dzino attends the MAMAs not for the musical experience but to strategize about potential sponsorship and collaborations for Johannesburg’s first Social Media Week 22-26 September 2014 which he is co-organizing through DigiSense.

Savvy media people like Dzino recognize how entrepreneurial capitalism has become a way of life and personal philosophy that blurs the distinctions between commerce and pleasure. And, celebrity culture is the celebration of this business philosophy in Africa and around the world. But, I am surprised it is not given more serious attention, considering the proximity of celebrity culture to pressing contemporary issues like wealth distribution, rising media technologies, international trade, and political, ethnic, and religious identity in Africa.  Most writings on celebrity life are pithy journalistic accounts or scandalous dirt-digging personal tales.

I arrive in South Africa from Accra, Ghana where I have also been exploring the links between new media, popular culture, and business strategy. There I met up with Ghanaian hiplife stars Reggie Rockstone and VIP who have just shot a video for their hit collaboration “Selfie,” that celebrates the art of taking pictures of yourself and posting them on social media. I also ran into a Multichoice TV music video shoot “Africa Rising” with some of the hottest stars from around the continent including Davido, Sarkodie, Tiwa Savage, Lola Rae, MiCasa, and Diamond, most headed to the MAMAs in Durban the following week. The collaboration is exemplary of recent attempts by the culture industry to combine national musical tastes to shape a more pan-African continental fan (and consumer)-base. Crowds in Accra’s markets and streets jump with excitement when they see these musicians who they have seen mostly online. Ghanaian musicians and industry insiders are in awe of the visiting Nigerians as they flex around town in their Porsche SUVs acting every bit the superstars. The selfie and the collaboration are practices that perhaps best characterize how fame is being remade through social media and how popular music is permeating African public life.

This is not new. In the colonial and early independence eras, musicians like Ghanaian E.T. Mensah, Nigerian Fela Kuti, and South African Hugh Masekela were heroes and key social commentators. However, today the confluences of popular culture and digital technology with the opening up of continental online markets make musicians into a new celebrity order which recasts collective racial and political struggle as dreams of personal pleasure and branded wealth.

Peter Okoye, half of the Nigerian twin-brother super-duo P Square, recently posted to Instagram several pictures of new cars, including a 2014 Bentley said to cost around $200,000. P Square’s impeccably produced infectious dance hits like “Personally” and “Chop My Money,” huge performance fees, and fabulous lifestyle—including the widely rumored purchase of a private plane—make them emblematic of Nigeria’s current dominance of continental popular culture.

The images are immediately reposted across social media and influential entertainment blogs. While some commentators call Peter’s Instagram vain, others celebrate the cars as signs that “money is good ooo” and “hard work really pays.”

The image of Peter’s baby daughter in the car’s driver seat is a sign of pure aspiration and ambition paying off. These images celebrate both work and leisure, private wealth and public spectacle. Famous musicians are role models who, as one Ghanaian fan of Nigerian music explained to me, “allow you to forget your life and hope for something better.” Celebrity fosters consumption that makes fans hungry for more.

“Celebrity is escapism. Celebrities live the lives that people want,” argues media consultant and freelance publicist Selina Ifeanyi M.  Selina regularly travels between London, Lagos, and Kinshasa though was in Accra consulting for visiting Nigerian musicians. In developing an artist’s personal brand and social media presence, she encourages them to tweet at least six times a day, creating an intimacy with followers. “The key is for fans to get to know who the artist really is… to bring them into the musician’s personal life.” Successful musicians seduce fans by being fabulous and larger-than-life—perhaps even miraculous—while simultaneously drawing them in to their personal struggles and intimate pleasures. For entrepreneurial PR folks like Selina and large media houses, celebrity is a strategy. The artistry of publicists and managers behind the scenes involves creating fame by association so that audiences and consumers pay attention. Celebrity turns style into potential success; luxury is not a sign of preexisting material wealth but a marker of identity and a marketable value in and of itself, a sign of mobility and possibility. Celebrity-ness is a potent, sometimes contradictory combination of work and leisure; producing present pleasure and erasing past struggle. Social media shape how this aspirational, highly-mobile generation imagines possible futures, allowing stars and fans alike to abstract ideas of self from immediate lived contexts and project them into digital communities made through online and mobile circulation.

Celebrity culture is a microcosm of entrepreneurial capitalism as it dominates economic conversations and strategies around the globe; it is the idealized lifestyle of an aspirational consumer-oriented worldview. Celebrities are like tourist sites, IPOs, and apps; managers and strategists package these products to create wealth out of the process of self-making itself. The language of celebrity is optimistic and future-oriented at its core, opening the possibility that success can appear out of nowhere, that anyone can be a star, and that immanent talent can triumph over conditions of structural and historical inequality. Celebrities are focal points for struggling peoples; celebrity culture is a business strategy built on hope and desire.

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MTV Base has two offices on the continent in Lagos and Johannesburg. The MAMAs were first held in 2008 in Abuja, Nigeria, 2009 in Nairobi, and 2010 in Lagos. But the show has not been staged since, and there is a lot at stake for MTV in reviving them now in Durban, the second city of South Africa. For this event they must reconcile the independent spirit of African musical innovation with the interests of their parent company Viacom and main product sponsor Absolut Vodka—both global corporations with local subsidiaries working to develop their brands in South Africa and Africa. Crucial to their task is to link various tastes into a Pan-African brand as fans of various genres and from countries across the continent often have little in common.

At #MTVMAMA, in front of the Selfie station, V J Nomuzi prepares to do an interview.

The MAMAs are part of an explosion of awards shows across Africa over the past decade, most sponsored by events promoters, drinks and mobile telecom companies, and media outlets, that celebrate music and film in attempts to expand market share for companies by directing audience tastes. The economics of popular culture oscillate between mass marketing and creating the image of exclusivity; widely publicizing music and images of stars while creating scarcity and coolness by excluding fans from the worlds they desire. Numerous large and small awards events compete to be definitive places for discerning excellence. As Selina notes, “red carpet events in Nigeria, and other places in Africa, are driving the music industry.” Smaller events struggle for legitimacy and a piece of the entertainment market, enticing established artists to come by nominating them for awards, while artists vie for spots at established red carpet galas. Most fans, of course, cannot attend elite shows with theirs displays of a luxurious lifestyle—high fashion, cars, drinks, beautiful bodies. Their exclusiveness creates public desire for something just out of their reach. People follow the proceedings on TV and online, voting via text message for their favorite artists. Elites, executives, bloggers, media, and artists circulate celebratory images of a fabulous life for the masses to scrutinize and admire. In this sense, live events are of secondary importance, acting as flash points for simultaneous social media circulation. For the MAMAs, #MTVMAMA (that’s the hashtag) is publicized as the event’s official Twitter feed. Facebook pages, Instagram and Vine accounts, and Twitter handles for stars and influential bloggers, artists, and publicists direct social media traffic to build anticipation for the awards. Stars send out pictures of themselves arriving in anticipation of the awards.

Most MAMA participants fly to Durban on the Friday, filling up the hotels along the beach. The South African entertainment industry relocates from Johannesburg while international participants settle in for the weekend. The activities begin Friday afternoon with a series of workshops organized by Phiona Okumu, marketer, writer, social media guru, and editor of Afripop! who has been instrumental both in creating and reporting on numerous Afro-cosmopolitan arts and media projects. She is also working with Dzino as a key organizer of Johannesburg’s Social Media Week. Moving between London, Kampala, and Johannesburg, she has helped link African artists to British mainstream tastes by writing on music for The Guardian. The workshops are held at the downtown Durban Playhouse. Panels of artists answer audience questions about how to be successful in the music industry. In the two afternoon sessions, “DIY Music Marketing” and “Reaching Africa and Beyond,” artists discuss how the internet has created new opportunities for music making and distribution, allowing artists to be successful without corporate support.

About fifty students from Durban’s Creative Arts College attend the workshops. One first year student Calvin Motaung, who is studying sound and music technology, asks the panelists whether they have ever compromised their music to cater to consumers. He wants tips from successful artists on how to balance artistic content and marketing. During a break in the workshop, Calvin and his mates drink coffee in the theatre’s lobby. He tells me that in learning sound and music technology at Creative Arts College they study the business side of things as a foundation for their artistic work. “Music and production software we already know. We need to learn how to connect to audiences and how to be professional.” Calvin is still searching for his own sound but cites hip-hop star Drake as his major musical and personal influence. He is hungry for tips from the panelists. “These workshops give insight into how the industry works… for upcoming artists it is important to stop mimicking. You can’t aspire to be different if you keep doing the same things that the people you look up to are doing.” Calvin wants to reach global audiences with his music; it is both a musical and a marketing challenge. “The message I took from the panel was ‘you have to be versatile to cater to listeners.’ If you have enough drive you can push towards your goal, but you have to be business minded as well finding your own unique sound … take charge of your career.”

While the students cannot afford tickets for the actual MAMAs the following evening, the workshops energize these aspiring artists. Speakers encourage attendants to work on their own and not to wait for a manager or corporate support. “You are the publisher of your music… you do not need a record company…you don’t need a marketing strategy… put stuff online then email and contact radio stations… People download songs on line it might not be played on radio that might not matter.”

Clarence Peters, Diamond, and DJ Edu at MAMA Music Workshops.
Clarence Peters, Diamond, and DJ Edu at MAMA Music Workshops.

Blinky of Nairobi’s groundbreaking alternative funk-disco-rock-hip-hop group Just A Band encourages artists to make music, ignore traditional distribution and marketing routes and get their sound out to the public however they can. Blinky jokes about the infrastructural differences between South Africa and Kenya and the implicit significance of digital and transportation infrastructure for connectivity. The audience laughs as he teases that while South African roads are great and the cities developed, internet access is terrible. The joke points to where public life happens. For a growing cosmopolitan segment of youth, it is less in the streets than online. Panelist talk about a South African musician touring Greece with DJ Black Coffee because he had a hit song even though it never got on radio. “If your song is good, people will play it. Find a way to get it out and bring people to listen to it; use YouTube or Soundcloud or whatever. The internet allows you to create your own industry. Radio often picks things up that are already big on the streets through internet. Some African artists are touring the world and earning from their music even if they are not known commercially.” Calvin explains to me that music is a possible career as well as a passion. “Music is a way to make a living. If you can stay current and relevant you can afford to make it your job. That you can get your monthly salary and pay bill; that is my goal; here it is we must be able to feed your family first; but music is what I know how to do and what I love.”

I first met Just a Band in their Nairobi studio not long after their music video for “Ha He” featuring Makmende a Kenyan superhero in a 1970s Blacksploitation style adventure went viral. They became an alternative voice of Anglophone African music. Just A Band might never have tens of millions of YouTube hits like top Nigerian pop musicians. But their goals are less in line with mass appeal of most popular artists. As Blinky and I chat after the panel he explains that African music has evolved with room for various sub-genres and small-scale styles as well as massive pop stars. Blinky and his bandmates are part conceptual artists and intellectuals and part pop stars. He is skeptical of the red carpet spectacle to come. “We play the music we want to play. We can be ourselves and represent the world in our own way. We are not trying to be these red carpet celebrities.” Success requires both artistry and business savvy.

Alex Okosi and Tim Horwood launching the MAMA Press Conference. Image Credit: Al Nicoll, MTV Networks Africa (Pty) Ltd

The official MAMA press conference is on Friday evening. Alex Okosi, Senior Vice President and Managing Director for Viacom Media Networks Africa, and Tim Horwood whose Twitter account lists him as “Creative Director Viacom Africa / Channel Director, MTV Base. Undercover Corporate Ninja” launch the press conference by unveiling the redesigned award, a gold sculpture of Africa built from abstracted microphones. Okosi is often credited with starting MTV Africa in 2005 as part of the MTV family of global networks to challenge Channel O as the preeminent South Africa based music television station. From Nigeria he studied business in the US, relocating to Johannesburg to head up Viacom’s corporate office. To the press Okosi is relaxed and in charge, joking that he perhaps is no longer a youth but is there to support new movements. Horwood started in South African television as a child actor, later working his way up at MTV. Okosi explains that the MAMAs are a “celebration of the best of African talent… amazing, beautiful, creative vibrant young people; [it is] an opportunity to show [our] amazing youth culture… something we can repackage for global consumption… We are live bringing the event to the world and using social media to bring the event to the continent.” Horwood explains that the MAMAs is “a world class production ” its production standards on a par any event around the world. One of his main passions at MTV has been pushing for African music and video productions that conform to international technical standards so they can compete next to work from American and European markets. When I interviewed him at MTV back in 2010 he expressed frustration that, while there was so much musical talent from across the continent, the musical and video production quality was often so bad that they could not be broadcast. Corporate Africa has worked hard to professionalize the DIY technology revolution that created the current boom of African popular music.

Marketing strategy is built on critical understandings that racist stereotypes continue to shape Euro-American representations of Africa as either radically exotic or endlessly tragic. Okosi explains, “It is key to have a good story about Africa written. People can see awards and young people and glamour better than the same sad story that is always told.” Social media buzz is already questioning the logic of picking an American host—comedic actor Marlon Wayans—and American headlining performers, Trey Songz, Miguel, and French Montana—for the MAMAs. As Okosi explains the goal is “to showcase the best of Africa’s talent to the rest of the world and across Africa. We are going to have great African talent and some international celebrities. It’s going to be an incredible showcase of what Africa is all about.” Placing African artists alongside a well-known American host and musicians, the two executives explain, will bring broader international exposure by association.

It takes hard work to create and circulate images of leisure and pleasure. Pop culture is built on a division of labor between artistry and business savvy, front and back stage. The MAMAs require the work of hundreds of Viacom employees, freelancers, marketers, publicists, brand managers, public relations workers, sponsorship sales people, artists’ managers, stylists, videographers, photographers, DJs, bloggers, Tweeters, print journalists, fans, aspiring artists, and superstars. In some ways, the real artists are not the singers on stage but the people behind the scenes who are planning, writing the scripts, and creating stories of desire through a mix of corporate and personal entrepreneurship, branding tactics, and social media orchestration that make the celebrity world appear. But folks used to being behind the camera or notepad or keyboard often actively avoid the spotlight. Stars and wannabe stars are good at providing perfectly crafted, predictable answers to question and posing just-so for pictures. That is part of the job: be boringly effortlessly perfect. But back-stagers and scene-makers so adept at celebrating others balk at being placed in the public eye themselves. They freeze when asked the most basic questions about their motivations and their work. It is not usually talked about. As I write this article many key coordinators tell me not to use their names or pictures. They prefer to remain anonymous. As one explains to me, “there is a reason I am backstage and not seeking the spotlight like these artists.”

South African and Nigerian journalists dominate the proceedings. They ask artists about their chances of winning awards. Artists express gratitude, humility, and excitement at being there. They are paired in ways designed to link linguistically and geographically disparate artists and audiences, Ghanaians with Angolans, Nigerians with Tanzanians. Diamond from Tanzania is followed everywhere by his own documentary video crew. Sarkodie from Ghana wears accessories from his fashion line “Sark.” Nigerian stars Davido, Flavour, Tiwa Savage, Ice Prince, Dr. Sid, and Don Jazzy take the stage with glamour, confidence, and humility, pulling well-dressed entourages in their wakes.

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Sarkodie and Anselmo Ralph at a press conference.

Famed South African producer and DJ, Oskido is one person who bridges the gap between front and back stage. At the press conference he answers questions with the hot duo of Mafikizolo, the big stars for the South African press. Oskido discusses his two decades as a foundational producer and DJ who shaped South African House and Kwaito music. His work began with the 1990s revolution in DJing and computer beatmaking/production. The rise of small private studios in bedrooms and kitchens across African cities like Soweto allowed for young artists to make electronic music without access to instruments and major studios and circulate them on cassettes and then radio. Kwaito provided a gritty, celebratory sound track for the end of apartheid and the transition to democracy. In the 2000s this gave way to digital production, internet circulation, and mobile downloads. Oskido labored through these productive though difficult times. He is asked if it feels good to finally get industry recognition by being nominated for awards. He says he appreciates the glamor of the event but explains that often the best music does not get nominated. Making music “is not about awards but about respect in the community.” He is looking at the MAMAs as an opportunity to network and gain exposure. “We don’t want to end up in Africa but to grow internationally. Media can help. We need them to profile us as African artists to put our stories out.”

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Diamond, Oskido, and others planning collaborations outside their press conference.

At the press conference, the City of Durban spokesperson unfortunately follows more charismatic artists, explaining that the international prominence of MTV will showcase Durban as an attractive destination and bolster its tourist industry. Durban’s slogan for the event is “The Warmest Place to Be.” A marketing manager for Absolut Vodka says that MTV “is an iconic brand” that brings their product positive associations. Their association is a long-term project to link MTV’s stylishness, glamor, international appeal to Absolut. As Absolut brand representative Connor Mcquaid explains for the MTV cameras, this is part of a global branding strategy. Absolut is partnering with hip edgy digital youth culture platforms like Vice, Wired, and Pitchfork to rebrand themselves for a younger generation. Sponsoring edgy street culture and rising artists is a relatively cheap, on-the-ground way to appear in touch with youth and reach new markets. Over the past five years across Africa, drinks (Absolut, Guinness, Ciroc, Hennessy), mobile hard-ware (Nokia, Samsung, rlg), and mobile service providers (MTN, Glo, Zain, Vodaphone) in particular, have been the major sponsors of musicians and events across Africa using musicians’ local appeal and coolness to brand products in increasingly competitive markets.

Energy rises as American R&B heartthrob Trey Songz mounts the stage. Though young he is releasing his 6th album Trigga. He is polished, engaged, and incisive. He teases the media by humming the opening line to his mega hit “Nana.” It is his second time in Africa, he explains, and he is excited by the MAMAs spectacular preparations. Asked about the recently kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, he refers to his Instagram where he has addressed the #bringbackourgirls campaign. “It is devastating that something like that can still happen today. The best thing we can do is use our voices to bring attention to it.” He causes a stir when he cuts off a female reporter asking a question, by giving a boyish smile and cooing, “you’re pretty.” He is acutely aware of his sexiness, stating directly that his performances are about creating “a fantasy,” fulfilling a desire. He pretends to take his shirt off as members of the press lean forward. “When I take my shirt off, women love it.”

Next up are headliners Miguel and French Montana, and then comes Khloe Kardashian, the icon of current celebrity fetishism, whose attendance at the event is calculated to cause local excitement and gain international exposure. She walks in, looks around, and walks out. All eyes turn. Everyone is Tweeting. Whispered debates swirl through the crowd about whether or not she had butt implant surgery, even though Khloe recently took to Twitter to deny rumors that she artificially enhanced her rear end. So the press conference for the biggest African awards show has its defining moment. The goal of using well-known Americans to showcase African talent is successful. Newspapers splash Khloe across their pages with headlines like The Independent’s “Khloe Jets in For MTV Awards.” She epitomizes pure fame, a celebration of self-fashioning. Her presence at the MAMAs shows how at its core celebrity is a celebration of the ability to create, brand, and market the self.

When beautiful people congregate, there is a buzz of excitement, but also anxiety. After all, celebrity culture is driven by aspiration which entails hope as well as uncertainty about the future. The MAMAs, like most mainstream Anglophone African popular culture, is haunted by the fear that things are better, more classy/glitzy/glamorous/trendsetting in the American music industry. As a thirty-year old female Durban native now an executive at Deloite in Johannesburg explains, “South Africans are insecure about local content. We always have to have international artists to feel legitimate.” Critics feel that African trend-setters and business strategists too often look “outside” for guidance. For many fame in ones home country, or even across the continent, is often not enough; true success entails recognition in America and Europe. One aspiring rapper I meet is annoyed by the MAMAs. He has “no interest in African awards or acts.” He raps in English and admires K’naan and Akon as African artists who have reached broader audiences. “I don’t want my music to be seen as African music or African hip-hop. It is hip-hop. We should not be in a separate category or awards show… I am not a African rapper but rather I am a rapper.”

Khloe Kardasian arrives. Photo Credit: Al Nicoll, MTV Networks Africa (Pty) Ltd

After the press conference, artists, executives, and press mingle and network over cocktails courtesy of Absolut Vodka. Musicians and managers from different countries chat about potential future collaborations. Journalists plot out their stories. Camera crews conduct impromptu interviews. An attendant helps artists use an iPad selfie-cam snapping images for instant social media upload. Publicists organize sound bites, images, and social media for easy re-circulation. Strategists are already planning for future connections. Dzino talks with colleagues about potential tie-ins for Social Media Week in three months time. He jokes about how the language of business has come to dominate the entertainment world. “You should always use words like ‘outcome’ and ‘synergy’ and ‘content development’ and ‘social entrepreneurship.’ It is about selling an approach, creating a brand, not the specific product because you believe it is good or useful… And of course, you know artists are brands not people!” Social Media Week will showcase the significance of new media in all facets of business, social life, culture and politics. It takes place at numerous cities around the world twice a year. The New York-based parent company that owns the brand take a percentage of the proceeds from each city franchise in exchange for the use of its globally prestigious image. Last year it was held in Lagos for the first time in Africa. Dzino and the Digisense team won the rights to put it on in Johannesburg. They are putting together the program of well-known attendees, searching for major sponsors, and looking for ways to connect with civic, educational, and corporate institutions.

Dzino’s first company Black Rage Productions, incorporated in 1996, shows how the relationship between media, business strategy, and politics has changed in the 20 years since the end of apartheid. It was one of the first black owned and run production companies to have a major impact on post-Apartheid media and entertainment. After attending Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape, three friends, Dzino, Maria McCloy, and Thuli Skosana, founded Black Rage to combat prevailing racist, stereotypic ways that Africans were presented in the media. The company was a pioneer in using entrepreneurial business strategy to rethink popular culture for a rising Black South African consuming public.

As Dzino recalls, “we had radical ideas about reshaping how the media portrayed Africans and how to reach African consumers. At the time, entertainment was just Black people dancing or being violent or stupid…racist imagery dominated the media. We saw a huge market for smart, edgy content for and about African people… In the mid-1990s, mostly white executives were running things; they did not realize there was a huge African market with changing cosmopolitan tastes.”

Black Rage presented a critical, eclectic vision of how young black Africans lived, connecting pan-Africanist politics to everyday life through popular arts. As Skosana remembers, “we wanted young artists to be in charge of their destiny.” They worked in radio, print, fashion, with musicians like H2O and Zubz, and in television producing influential shows like lifestyle variety program “Street Journal” on SABC. Their popular website—now defunct—was, in the late 1990s, one of the first attempts to create a comprehensive online entertainment portal with streaming music, reviews of events, venue lists, fashion, etc.

The Black Rage founders were models for a rising generation of tech-savvy entrepreneurs that emerged, perhaps unexpectedly, following the 2008 economic crash. The global crisis corresponded with the corporate penetration of many markets across Africa despite economic hard-times. It had the unintended effect of spurring many first-generation Africans working in Europe and America to seek better opportunities in African capitals. Skosana, now working in Copenhagen, notes, “Young Africans get sick of Europe, tired of racism and of being foreigners. We are highly trained; and now there is so much opportunity in returning to Africa.” Their digital, cosmopolitan sensibility challenged traditional business models and their knowledge of young African markets allowed creative business approaches to reaching and uniting dispersed African consumers.

Tiwa Savage at the "Selfie Station"
Tiwa Savage at the “Selfie Station”

Holding the MAMAs in Durban is a bit of a surprise. While it hosts the Durban International Film Festival, perhaps Africa’s premiere film event, it is not a media hub. The beachfront strip with its art deco hotels and apartment blocks was an apartheid-era whites-only vacation area. Recently renovated, it caters to locals and tourists alike with cafes, surfing, bicycling, jogging and all manner of relaxation. A major global port, it has historically been a center of the country’s South Asian community, Zulu nationalism, and labor organization. Durban is laid-back and slightly out of the way in contrast to Johannesburg’s reputation for violence and edgy creativity and Cape Town’s European urbanity and township sprawl.

Saturday afternoon outside of the main hotel on the beachfront, stars come and go. Media reps languidly hang around hoping for interviews. I meet Faith History who is CEO of Faith History Productions. Born in Nigeria and schooled in the US, she is a television presenter and content producer for a numerous media outlets. In the mid 2000s, she recognized the potential of rising popular music and film in Nigeria. With a friend she started doing interviews with artists when they toured the US, eventually relocating to South Africa to fully focus on African culture and media. In 2010 as the FIFA World Cup was held in South Africa, she began hosting “Rolling with Faith” a program to showcase people from all over the world coming to South Africa. Faith’s business model is built around her desire to shape her own content and business strategy.

You can either work for an outfit or be independent like me. I want to have control over what I do. My name highlights that I want to celebrate history. Everything we do is important and should be recorded and presented. History shapes how we understand the world.

Outside the hotel with her cameraman and assistant in tow, she smiles and greets artists as they stroll out into the sunshine, orchestrating multiple impromptu interviews for her EL TV (Ebony Life Television). She is also licensing material for the Africa Magic channel on DStv. I chat with one of the headlining performers Nigerian rapper Ice Prince as Faith prepares to interview him. I last saw him at the 2013 SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas where we were both on a panel discussing African digital music. He had recently been part of a tour of a US by Nigerian music stars that was well attended by Nigerian-Americans though unsuccessful in its goal of penetrating the American market.

Faith History and her crew interviewing Ice Prince.
Faith History and her crew interviewing Ice Prince.

Next to Faith, British-Kenyan DJ Edu and his producer discuss their radio program while British-Ghanaian DJ Abrantee and his video cameraman prepare to do an interview. Edu, currently on BBC Radio 1xtra and Abrantee, currently on Capital Xtra, are the two London-based pioneering radio personalities responsible for bringing African music to a mainstream British listening public, popularizing “Afrobeats” as a catch all term for Nigerian and African pop and “Azonto” for the West African dance craze that went semi-global.

As Edu notes, “a lot of the artists who have gone mainstream we, have been part of the journey. Now big corporates are investing their time, there is interest. So we have to be a part of it as the BBC has vested interest all over the world.” As Edu points out, African artists continue to struggle to gain recognition. “It is such an unstructured industry that corporates are the best way for artists to make enough money… to push the genre to new audiences.” Abrantee interviews Dorcas Shola Fapson, a London-based British-Nigerian actress. While her character Sophie is “an unapologetic party girl,” the actress is thoughtful and soft-spoken with a degree in Criminology… She is in South Africa for the first time having been flown in to present an award. Fapson came to prominence in MTV’s co-sponsored TV serial “Suga” about relationships, HIV, sex and youth culture set in Nairobi and Lagos.

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DJ Abrantee interviewing Dorcas Shola Fapson.

Helen Jennings, fashion journalist, former editor of Arise magazine, and veteran reporter on African pop culture and style, has also been flown from London, contracted to do several different articles on the event. With her Johannesburg based photographer, Chris Saunders, she takes Nigerian artist Dr. Sid across the street to the beach for a quick interview and casual photographs.

Efya from Ghana is presenting an award and it nominated for Best Female Artist. We chat as she poses for photographers. For her, awards shows are an opportunity to seek out collaborations helping artists “to come together as a continent not just shine within their countries.” Awards also push the African music industry as “they bring out competition and competition is good for any time of business. It is a great way for everyone to step up because if you want to win you have to work hard.”

The strong London contingent confirms that while Lagos and Johannesburg are the current centers of Anglophone African music, London is the third point on the axis, a launching point for artists, media, and business links in Anglophone African entertainment. Other cities like Accra, Dar es Salaam, Kinshasa, Luanda, Nairobi, Kampala, and Lusaka are of secondary importance in this particular corporate imaginary of Africa for entertainment industry marketing purposes—of course there are other Francophone and Lusophone corporate maps of the continent being simultaneously drawn.

In and out of the hotel lobby event organizers, artists, journalists, and managers rush to make final preparations for the evening. MTV PR people manage media accreditation, press, red carpet, and VIP access. They want to provide the conditions for favorable reviews, articles, and social media. As the afternoon wears on some people head to their hotel rooms to relax and change for the evening while others go to the shopping mall for last minute fashion accessories.

As night falls, there is a buzz surrounding the International Conference Centre (ICC). Groups of teenagers hang around the entrances. Those with tickets navigate security, while others peer into the glass atrium looking for stars in the elegantly appointed lobby. Selfie-ing is highly encouraged. A crucial part of any event is taking pictures of yourself looking glamorous, having the time of your life. Young couples flirt and pose against branded backdrops or ask celebrities to pose with them. Standing room tickets for the venue floor cost 200 Rand; seats around the sides of the cavernous concert space are 450 Rand. For Durbanites, this is a rare opportunity, as one young attendee explained to me, “we do not get many international events here so this is a chance for us to be part of bigger things… to see and be seen.” Fashions are on display from formal suits to hip-hop swag to eclectic hybrid looks, mixes of skinny jeans and bow ties, bright colors and classic elegant patterns. A small but visible contingent of gay-boys camp it up in the lobby. Women flaunt skintight dresses, some to the floor some barely below the hip. Event organizers are efficient and hectic, coordinating last minute stage arrangement, access for the press and VIP, organizing the Red Carpet.

The “Red Carpet” is a concept that extends the idea of arrival in time and space. It is a sort of place at the beginning of an event, an entrance that has been prolonged and transformed into a destination; it is a narrative frame for desire, the desire to arrive somewhere and be someone celebrated purely for your glamorous presence. It is a celebration of the possibility of beginnings, of reinvention, of the purity of appearance and first impressions. The Red Carpet is a frenetic runway for staging intimate moments between press and stars. It is setting for fashion, perfect smiles and neat sound bites.

On the Red Carpet everyone plays assigned roles. It is the art of not saying anything to express pure presence.

One artist leans in to a microphone explaining, “I am blessed to be here.”

Another says, “This nomination is humbling… it is just an honor.”

Marlon Wayans on the Red Carpet.
Davido on the Red Carpet.


Various small and large video crews and still photographers gather behind barriers as stars are announced and parade past. Celebrities most in demand cause minor frenzies. Camera operators shout their names to get them to turn. A photographer standing on a metal chair hurls insults at Miguel for walking away too quickly; he quickly refocuses his lens on the next star. Microphone-wielding interviewers rush to grab a few personal words. Interviewers curse under their breath when they are ignored. Lesser known artists look slightly insecure, unsure where and how fast to walk. Only, official MTV crews are given direct access to artists, while smaller crews must struggle with metal barricades and hope stars turn in their direction.

Jesse Weaver Shipley photo-bombing Davido behind the Red Carpet. Photo credit Zaba Simbine.

Zaba Simbine, a DJ for Durban’s East Coast Radio and TV presenter for teen style show Hectic Nine-9 on SABC 2, is one of the people behind the Red Carpet. We chat as her crew waits for artists to arrive. She explains, “every single news publication, radio, TV show is behind the Red Carpet. It gets very cut throat behind here. You can’t even stand. I am waiting in the back so I can scoot to the front to do interviews.” A self-described medical school dropout, Zaba explains she was a child model, singer, dancer, and musician, brought up to be an entertainer. But, she is concerned about the affect of celebrity culture on South Africa. “That was my strength. But everybody’s forte is not being a DJ. Some people need to be doctors and lawyers and receptionists. I actually don’t like celeb culture in South Africa because in this country we have a very high unemployment rate. But every single child wants to be on TV wants to be on radio wants to be a singer wants to be famous. You find girls on Twitter posting up revealing pictures to get that attention to become famous which to me is a very big problem… Celeb culture right now is consuming the youth of our country. Now they are thinking the only way you have a real job is if you are famous.” Still, she is impressed by the Kardashian’s entrepreneurial model and excited to try to meet Khloe. “Kristen, the mother, is a mastermind business woman. It is very very smart if you have five beautiful daughters and you say I am going to train my daughters to always be beautiful, to always carry themselves well and to make money off of just having the surname Kardashian. The Kardashians are a huge brand… They understand the entertainment industry. Every time they pull a media stunt, it is what the media wants at that time.”

Efya and Miguel on the Red Carpet.
Efya and Miguel on the Red Carpet.

Leaving the Red Carpet, I run in to Ghanaian rapper D Black on the up escalator to the VIP section. Elite patrons mingle upstairs while the masses cue to enter the main auditorium. He has not been nominated for an award this year and is relaxing with friends and networking. Absolut Vodka sponsors the VIP section; aspiring models all six feet tall in skintight non-dresses serve fruity drinks with smoking ice and edible flowers. Attendees finish their drinks and take their seats as the awards show is about to begin. It is an event made for television—and social media—and as such the live audience’s experience is secondary to their job as prop for electronic consumers. The audience must display enthusiasm, glamour, and pleasure to frame the staged activities.

The well-orchestrated stage show is backed by video displays of geometric fluorescent patterns and clips of artists and nominees. A DJ hypes up the crowd before host Marlon Wayans takes the stage. Wayans routine is meant to play with the idea that Americans have one-dimensional ideas of Africa. While he tells stereotypical, simplistic jokes about Africa he simultaneously makes fun of the idea that Americans have such perceptions of the continent. His live jokes, about the immense size of African women’s butts and how he is shocked that South African weather is cold, are interspersed with pre-recorded clips of him interviewing African artists while taking on the persona of a naïve questioner, making fake African-language clicks, clapping his bare feet, etc. But the ironic and critical tone of Wayans performance is lost on most of the audience; the sound system’s reverberations allowing the live crowd to only half hear the jokes. Twitter, Instagram, Vine, and Facebook criticisms of his semi-ironic humor quickly fly and, much to the organizer’s chagrin, continue as one of the event’s prominent social media afterlives.

In the days leading up to the show, nominees and organizers encourage fan interest by imploring them through social media to vote on line and to follow various news feeds. During the show Twitter, Vine, Instagram images and comments from artists, bloggers, publicists, and fans provide instant commentary on performances, fashion, awards etc. Social Media-ites aim for pithy and snarky comments for easy re-circulation or detailed reflections on a particular person’s dress or speech or performance. Live social media feedback is not like older electronic and print media commentary about an event but rather is itself part of the action. The MAMAs highlight a fundamental tension between the digital life of celebrity and the liveness of performance which has implications for the changing economics of music industries. Time moves differently on social media than in face-to-face lived experience.

D Black is watching and Tweeting from the audience. He has attended numerous awards shows as both a nominee and business strategist. He was at the first two MAMAs in Nigeria and was a nominee at the BET Awards in the U.S. two years ago. The grandeur and scale of this show impresses him. He likes the fact that American artists are here, “I can’t imagine an African artist complaining about sharing a stage with them. American culture, for better or worse, is what we all have in common. If they tune in to hear Trey Songz then they will listen to Sarkodie and Davido and South African groups, cool… At the MAMAs in Lagos a few years back there was less hype, less press. No one in South Africa was listening to Naija music and no one in Nigeria was listening to South African music. Now there is much more cross over. This is a more ambitious event… linking audiences between countries.” But he corroborates what many social media comments say: “an African host could have done better.” D Black recognized early on the importance of social media for the African music business. When he has a new track he hypes it first on social media, linking it first to his Facebook and Twitter followers. Top Nigerian artists have huge Twitter followings like Davido with almost 900,000. D Black does well for a smaller market with 133,000 Twitter followers. Like other stars and publicists, he gets paid to Tweet and post things on-line. Sponsorship deals have come from companies like Ciroc Vodka and Ghanaian hard-ware technology company rlg who seek a young hip presence on social media. Popularity becomes a self-generating income stream.

Workshop organizer and strategist Phiona Okumu is also Tweeting from the audience. Former Black Rage founder Thuli Skosana follows Phiona’s Twitter comments from Copenhagen. Watching the live TV broadcast she tells me that she “felt there was something missing. I could not tell who was who. On social media I got more of the atmosphere and details and personalities. All I got on TV was the rent a crowd appearing to have fun. That is the problem with watching when you know how these things are orchestrated, though! Phiona provided play by play” of activities on stage and “quirky things you would not see.” Since celebrity is a business strategy, Twitter is at the moment, one of its main tools. As Skosana points out, in some markets like New York Twitter may have oversaturated the market, in South Africa is it still being rolled out. “Most people do not realize that a lot that happens before you see a Tweet. Someone is paying many visible people to make social media links.” Brands pay stars to post on social media, while artists and event organizers hire publicists and bloggers to live Tweet.

The show is well managed and quick paced, despite pauses to coordinate performances for broadcast and occasional microphone issues. The live audience is exuberant, enjoying the short, frequent musical performances interspersed between the announcements of award nominees and winners. Award nominees seem to come from geographically strategic markets across the continent. And the winners reflect the dominant market share of Nigeria and South Africa.

Davido is the big winner of the evening, taking home Best Male Vocalist and Artist of the Year Awards. Only 21 years old, the Nigerian-American singer is at the pinnacle of stardom. He is energetic and expects success. He likes to Tweet pictures of expensive watches and cars. With a string of recent hits like “Skelewo” and “Aye,” he has taken over as the leading Nigerian—and thus African—pop musician. D Black is happy for his success but warns of fans’ short memories, “Davido is the hottest thing at the moment. But he needs to work hard to stay there. He should enjoy it now because he will fall off quickly if he doesn’t have another hit. It is not easy to stay at the top in this business.” Davido (on Twitter: @iam_Davido) Tweets pictures of himself from backstage. Ice Prince (@Iceprincezamani) Tweets a picture of Davido receiving an award from French Montana taken from the stage looking out into the audience.

Nigerian soul singer Tiwa Savage is another big winner, taking home Best Female Artist. Tracks like Eminado ( ) showcase her vocal and stylistic range and excellent production team. Her fashion sense, relaxed confidence, and energetic stage presence show her to be at the top of her game—smart, sexy, and in charge.

While the Nigerian artists celebrate freshness, the South Africans show the power of longevity and reinvention. Mafikizolo, around since the 1990s, is riding a wave of renewed national popularity of Kwaito-House. They receive the loudest cheers, winning two awards for Best Group and Song of the Year for “Khona”. During the performance of Khona, a haunting dance track with jazz piano overtones, the crowd shouts and dances as one, waving their mobile phones and iPads in the air.

Mafikizolo Performing Photo Credit: Geotribe, MTV Networks Africa (Pty) Ltd.
Mafikizolo Performing. Photo Credit: Geotribe, MTV Networks Africa (Pty) Ltd.

Sarkodie wins the Best Hip-hop Award. He raps primarily in the Akan language, though even listeners who cannot understand his poetic wordplay, enjoy his rapid fire delivery and melodic vocal precision. Though his announcement is met with relative calm from the ICC audience who seem unsure who he is. Sarkodie is at the top of the hip-hop scene in Ghana and seeks more international recognition. In the audience, D Black Tweets congratulations for his Ghanaian compatriot. While Nigerians, Ghanaians and other artists from relatively smaller markets come to South Africa to shoot videos and to meet MTV Base and Channel O executives to try to get their music played on television, they still struggle to reach beyond their national audiences.

Sarkodie wins Best Hip Hop. Photo Credit: Al Nicoll, MTV Networks Africa (Pty) Ltd.
Sarkodie wins Best Hip Hop. Photo Credit: Al Nicoll, MTV Networks Africa (Pty) Ltd.

Nigerian Clarence Peter is perhaps the most the sought-after African music video director whose numerous works are credited with bringing a new level of technical and artistic quality to the genre. He is tapped to win the Transform Today Award by Absolut aimed to promote the sponsor’s goal of making long-term links between their brand and young creatives around the world. Actress Lupita Nyong’o, who got her start in MTV Base series Shuga and has rocketed to success in Hollywood in 12 Years a Slave wins Personality of the Year. She is on-set shooting the new Star Wars film and her acceptance speech has been prerecorded and shown on the video screen.

The crowd is quiet as Toofan wins Francophone Artist and Anselmo wins Lusophone Artist. As one journalist jokes, “we treat French and Portuguese artists the way that the BETs treat African artists. Just give them one award and send them on their way.” The Best Alternative music category nominees are white South African groups; the winner is Gangs of Ballet. Similarly, the audience is polite but uninterested.

Clarence Peters poses with his award and fans.
Clarence Peters poses with his award and fans.

Many of the performances are collaborations. The logic of collaboration is important in the contemporary music industry. For rising artists associating with more established musicians gives them wider exposure. For artists from nations with smaller markets performing with musicians from other countries promises new audiences. For corporations and media outlets they help maximize brand exposure. In recent years, African musicians have sought international collaborations as vehicles for global recognition. Some are improvised as when Reggie Rockstone and other Ghanaian artists grabbed Jamaican Beenie Man and Haitian Wyclef Jean after their performances in Accra to record impromptu tracks and videos. Others are more organized attempts to bring American attention to African musicians as when D’Banj featured Snoop Dogg on the remix of “Mr. Endowed” in 2011, when Fuse featured Wyclef Jean on the remix of “Antenna”, and when P Square featured Akon on “Chop My Money”.

Mafikizolo, Davido, and Diamond are all aiming to reach audiences outside of their national constituencies. Davido and Mafikizolo have collaborated on “Tchelete (Goodlife)”. Davido and Diamond perform a live collaboration that synchs with a playful, prerecorded video of them running through the building. Diamond, who mostly sings in Swahili, is shifting his style and using more English though has been criticized for trying to be “too Western” and forgetting his Tanzanian fans.

The award for Best Collaboration goes to South African House DJ collective Uhuru for their Kwaito-House hit “Y-Tjukutja” featuring DJ Buckz, Oskido, Professor and Uri-Da-Cunha which they perform to the crowd’s delighted cheers.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s performance also reflects a crossover sensibility. They rehearse and tune their voices as a stage manager does last minute adjustments to their movements. They begin again with a mobile Steady-Cam operator in front of them, performing into the camera for the television audiences. They do beautifully arranged acapella versions of DBanj’s dance anthem “Oliver Twist”, “Y-Tjukutja”, and “Xigubu”.

Americans Trey Songz and Miguel both wow the crowd with their stage-craft. The show concludes with French Montana and then all the artists streaming onto the stage waving flags of various African countries. After the show, the after-party is at Boulevard on Florida Road. Servers stagger under the weight of giant trays laden with food amongst the well-dressed crowds. Upstairs Trey Songz dances on the back of a couch near the DJ booth. With a mischievous smile he surveys the crowd of women dancing seductively trying desperately to catch his eye. DJ Edu from London shakes his head and jokes about the playlist upstairs. “We come all this way to hear New York music. At least Trey Songz and Wayans feel at home!” Downstairs there is an eclectic mix. The crowd heats up as the ageless Oskido spinning Kwaito-House late into the night.

As the weekend winds down, the South African music industry returns to Johannesburg. Strategists are already planning for future events. Dzino and his team ramp up their Social Media Week plans, working non-stop, strategizing on how to use connections to bring well-known celebrities and significant brand sponsors on board and create buzz. MTV uploads still images, sound bites, and video to their website for press to use. Artists and event organizers anxiously monitor the press and social media to assess the outcome and long-term effect of the show. Much to the organizers frustration, some of the South African print media spend an inordinate amount of time criticizing the MAMAs based on getting poor seats for the performance and for not receiving the preferential treatment they feel they deserve, despite being given accommodation, travel, and VIP access. Some journalists are more concerned with reporting on their own experience rather than the audience, artists, or contexts of the event. Snarkily playing off of the MAMAs anagram, one headline reads “MTV Alienates Media Again it Seems.” The article begins, “I couldn’t see anything… I looked around in terror; wondering if it was because I was older than the Tweeting, Instagramming, attention-of-a-flea, reality TV wannabes next to me. But, nay, they and the other real journalists were just as peeved.” The article reflects broader anxieties among journalists about their growing obsolescence in the face of new social media. This points to a crucial aspect of current celebrity culture in which bloggers and social media-ites increasingly blur the lines between publicity and publicness. Digital entrepreneurs both make hype as well as are a part of it, and stars are often their own best publicists, while traditional journalists seem confused by the simultaneity of an event and its social media representation. Self-made bloggers and social media personalities are not observers of the fabulous life but participants who Tweet it into existence. As they praise or criticize an event they constitute a network of digital interactions that give it social significance. Social media sparks debates that in themselves constitute a poplar cultural sphere. Buddha Blaze, Kenyan hip-hop impresario, watched the MAMAs from Nairobi. Using the show as a chance to start online conversations about the state of Kenyan music, he posts to Facebook, “The debate now is does Kenya have enough strong pop artists to compete against their Nigerian, South African and global counterparts???” Buddha is critical of Kenyan artists for only thinking about local audiences and praises Mafikizolo as an example of a group reaching out to broader audiences because they are not confined by a “South African sound.” Some followers agree while others defend Kenyan music.

Two weeks after the MAMAs, Davido, Sarkodie, Tiwa Savage, and Mafikizolo are all together again at the BET awards in Los Angeles, California, nominated for the Best International Act: Africa category. BET—also part of the Viacom family—is making an effort to give African artists an American platform, experimenting with American interest in international music. Davido wins, but the award is presented the day before the actual awards show. Performances by the African artists are also held the night before, as a minor side event. Davido re-Tweets comments from fans, corporates, and colleagues congratulating his win. The mobile service provider MTN, Sarkodie and many others send congratulations, proclaiming he deserves the award for all his hard work. The artists use the opportunity to publicize their growing international appeal. Some are frustrated, however, with the lack of interest or attention from the event and from Americans in general. But there is always another awards show. Plans are under way for the All Africa Music Awards sponsored in part by the Africa Union as well as BET, Channel O, and SABC. Judges meet in August in Lagos assessing over 2000 entries from across the continent. One of the judges explains to me that this awards show will be different, not just a corporate show but a real celebration of the best of African music.

The rare success of a hand-full of stars stands in for the potential of their nation and the continent. Youth across the continent gauge their personal potential through images and tales of their celebrity heroes while corporations promote these associations for their own ends. Pop stars display leisure and decadence but also highlight hard work as the moral pathway to success. African superstars are both idealized figures and everyman archetypes, icons to the fantasy that everyone is potentially a star. Celebrity culture seduces audiences with their own aspirations. The power of celebrity is to create endless desire and convince people to want something they cannot have or be someone they cannot be. Increasingly, celebrity is not a sign of desire or value but an abstract object of desire itself—both content and form; something to be manufactured, circulated, and marketed.

Fame is an old idea but it has a particularly virulent and intoxicating power in the era of digital social media. While holding onto the idea of celebrating individual genius and miraculous, God-given talent, celebrity culture values populist tastes and the idea that talent could be anywhere. In some ways social media gets rid of the expert, the connoisseur, the professional assessor of value and talent in favor of the crowd. The logic of fame implies that being known is a product of a set of skills or accomplishments or aesthetic sensibilities that a public values. But increasingly across the globe celebrity is an engine in itself, driven by marketing, PR, corporate interests, aspiring artists, and adoring publics all of whom use social media that makes the celebration of celebrity a beginning and an end in itself. Celebrities are objects of public desire requiring continual work to maintain as fresh; people behind the scenes—cosmopolitan young business executives, DJs, bloggers, beat-makers, publicists, and managers— travel and toil to create artists’ on and off-stage performances and stories. Celebrity creates icons of a successful lifestyle who mix sex, wealth, leisure, and work, building the desire for a personal future that is better than the present, fulfillments more intense than the ones you have; successful business dealings; money and luxury accessories; attractive bodies. Celebrity is a mirror for the self, contrasting who you are with who you could and should be very soon.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.