BET, Afrobeats and Black Lives Matter

African artists must not forget that the Blackness employed by Black Entertainment Television (BET) is an American identity-based phenomenon.

File image: RealRedCarpet, via Flickr CC.

If you have been closely following developments in the Afropop music industry recently, you may have noticed an interesting twist to the story of BET’s award for Best International Act: Africa. In the wake of the latest BET awards show, several African artists have accused the network of treating them as second class citizens, and have demanded more respect from the show’s coordinators. In the wake of that the creator of the award, BET’s Lilian N. Blankson, has responded with an interesting series of tweets, a statement that seems to be telling the artists that they just need to accept the award, and be grateful for what they have. Statements such as: “BET will always signify Black Star Power… Africa, if we want to be featured prominently, we need to know the facts and be very practical.” Or: “BET domestic does not and has never aired African music so to have a category is a major deal. Let’s prove and show them our worth not anger.” And, “finally, let’s be a little humble. No one owes us anything. Like everything else, we have to work our way to the top so we can stay there.”

Without weighing in on the specifics of the award (for that, revisit my post from 2012), I would like to share a few observations about what the implications are of this latest episode, in an ongoing saga of Black identity politics.

First of all, it’s interesting that African artists now feel powerful and influential enough to challenge American cultural hegemony publicly. I chalk this up to a general international success African pop artists have enjoyed on the continent and in Europe in recent years. Nigerian artists can sell out stadiums across the continent, reaching into monied international hubs with diaspora populations like Dubai and London. In the UK Afrobeats artists fill the O2 Arena, and have a dedicated radio show on BBC1xtra. In Caribbean communities, West African pop songs dominate the road at Carnival celebrations from Trinidad to Toronto. For artists who are the top stars in their home markets, and increasingly taking a central role in global ones, it would make sense that they would expect at least comparable respect they receive in London, Lagos, Port of Spain, and Johannesburg from the BET awards in Los Angeles.

I applaud the African artists for standing up to a continued marginalization of Africanness from international dialogues around Blackness – especially in global pop culture, a realm where a Black Americanness in service of corporate U.S. interests is employed worldwide. Fuse ODG, one of the artists who led initial calls for a boycott, himself is a sort of cultural activist out of London. He has experience working in marginalized communities in the UK, so it makes sense that his artistic work would reflect that personal history.

Yet, African artists must not forget that the Blackness employed by “Black Entertainment Television” is an American identity-based phenomenon. Complaining about second rate treatment is not really knowing the rules of the game on a foreign (and globally dominant) playing field. And the truth is, although there have been several high profile artist collaborations — Fuse ODG with Wyclef, Ice Prince with French Montana, Davido with Meek Mill, Sarkodie with Ace Hood, P Square with Rick Ross — these, most likely being paid feature agreements, often end up looking like superficial attempts to hang with the cool kids. If anything they reinforce American hegemony, not question it (Wale’s seemingly sincere flirtations with his Nigerian identity are a welcome reprieve from all this, but he’s already made it in America — also, I would be remiss to not mention Skepta and Drake voluntarily hopping on Wizkid’s Ojuelegba). That’s not to excuse American Black music audiences. As a friend of mine in San Francisco told me recently, after I showed him a few of the above videos, “American Rap is too NFL, not enough NBA these days.” I couldn’t agree more.

Continuing on, if we take it out of the pop culture field into the political one, the BET awards issue reflects an interesting reality of the relationship between Blackness as defined by the USA, and the African diaspora at large. Anyone who lives in a major (or even not so major) American city knows about an inherent tension — both between communities, and within individuals — when it comes to US notions of blackness versus the cultural norms of black immigrant communities. The way individuals deal with these tensions often comes down to a question of assimilation or escape, or any combination of those two methods of social navigation. However, politically the tension between the experiences of Black Americans and immigrants are rarely resolved. Sometimes the two positions are even purposely placed in opposition to each other.

Extending that to the field of foreign policy, as an observer from far of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, mostly via social media but also from mainstream media, I can’t help but notice a lack of solidarity between Black Americans and their fellow African diasporans in places like Dominican Republic and Brazil, let alone the African continent. This is often justified via the need to account for the peculiarities of the Black American situation. The danger of this for Black American leaders, intellectuals, activists, and entertainers, is that they are allowing their politics (alongside their art) to be used to uphold one of the key tenets of American imperialism, the myth of American exceptionalism.

There is good news from on the ground, however. After spending about a month in the U.S., traveling from city to city, and talking to folks doing work in those places, I have noticed an awareness amongst American activists of a need for solidarity between places like Ferguson, Santo Domingo, Rio de Janeiro, and Luanda. This (like Wale) gives me hope. Still, it pains me when that these connections are absent from conversations in the mainstream. And that’s why I think that BET and this awards debate are also a good barometer for where mainstream Black American politics is at generally.

As African artists gain more and more success globally, using cultural platforms like House music and Hip Hop – innovations from of American Black communities – to assert their claim to an international stage of belonging, one can only hope that a sense of both cultural affinity and political/economic solidarity will start to form on both sides of the Atlantic. Africa has very little to lose in this game, and all the world to gain. The worst thing that could happen for American Blackness, in the global ascendancy of African Blackness, would be for American Blackness to be cast aside as a remnant of American cultural imperialism. Caught up in the rush to defend their position, the possibility of such a thing happening isn’t something that the executives at BET, or mainstream Black American politicians would ever even consider. So, maybe it’s time for all of us as black people to reconsider who our real representatives are.

Further Reading

A worthy ancestor

The world is out of joint and Immanuel Wallerstein, one of its great public intellectuals, has left us—albeit with tools to battle the dying kicks of capitalism.