The pleasures of African popular culture
An anthology brings together 27 international scholars to deepen our understanding of popular culture on the African continent.
- Interview by
- Meg Arenberg
Pop culture may be easy to consume, but it is notoriously hard to define. Grace A. Musila’s ambitious and authoritative edited collection titled The Routledge Handbook of African Popular Culture has decided to meet this challenge head on by bringing together the work of 27 international scholars representing multiple disciplinary perspectives to deepen our understanding of popular culture on the African continent.
The premise is simple: “popular cultural formations convene valuable platforms for working through questions of everyday life, while mapping futures, desires and aspirations.” Musila acknowledges that while scholars have been interested in African popular culture for several decades, this handbook does not attempt to “secure the parameters” of an academic field but rather, it is fueled by a curiosity about what these African popular imaginaries may enable and what they may allow us to learn about African social and political life. In a rich opening chapter that riffs on the popular Kenyan children’s game, cha’mawe, Musila offers a framework for reading African popular cultural imaginaries through 13 interweaving theoretical strands, from individual questions of self-making and entrepreneurship to larger-scale perspectives on politics and networks.
The 23 articles range from the hyperlocal to the global in scope, from comic arts in Nigerian Pidgin English to globally circulating TED talks, football fandom in Eldoret, Kenya to queer internet counterpublics in Mauritania.
In its impressive geographic breadth and dazzling variety of genres, methods and mediums, the volume offers a complex and expansive view of contemporary African culture-making. It will be useful to instructors and scholars across the disciplinary spectrum in African Studies and connoisseurs of popular culture anywhere in the world looking to expand their repertoire and theoretical vocabulary. In this interview, Musila speaks about the book’s key interventions, the role of anthologies for African studies, broadly, and offers a list of works that should be read alongside this collection.
What motivated you to put this book together? What was missing from previous treatments of African pop culture?
I edited the volume at the invitation of Routledge publishers. The volume is part of the lively Routledge Handbook series which provides an overview of key debates in selected fields of study, paired with cutting-edge research on the current and future research trajectories. There is a wonderful and ever-growing library of books on African popular culture, some of which I mention below. This volume was in many ways necessitated by the very nature of African popular culture as dynamic by definition; and perpetually reinventing itself in response to new socio-political questions, technological developments, and cultural energies. In light of this reality of the field and its demands for scholars to regularly update our interpretative practices and conceptual resources, I saw this handbook as an opportunity to take stock of the state of the field at this juncture, while pointing to possible trajectories for the future of African popular culture studies. One important trajectory in this regard is the affordances and costs, in every sense, of digital canvases, as an increasingly prominent site of cultural production. Several of the chapters in the book explore this dimension.
What are the book’s key interventions? Does it push the boundaries of the now ubiquitous “handbook” genre?
I am a biased judge, but I think the Routledge Handbook of African Popular Culture’s main intervention lies in the mapping of debates, genres, and practices in what I call African popular imaginaries—in reference to interactions between cultural productions, contexts, consumers, producers, platforms, and the material, affective, and discursive resources they circulate. In curating the volume, I was intentional about bringing together contributions that would, collectively, help us track these debates across multiple disciplines as well as generational time frames, to orient readers in multiple ways. In this regard, it probably coheres with the conventional handbook genre. But thanks to the material contributors chose to engage with, the book exceeds the boundaries of the conventional handbook, particularly through the forms of methodological and conceptual frames that some authors develop in their chapters. These frames are exciting for the ways they update our methods and conceptual vocabularies for making sense of African popular imaginaries. To give one example, Katrien Pype’s chapter uses ethnographic research among tech entrepreneurs in Kinshasa to theorize how, in the context of digital entrepreneurship, these techpreneurs code the city in terms of zones of opportunity. Seen this way, their maps of the city and ways of occupying it intersect and diverge in interesting ways, from, say, how the popular visual artists studied by Johannes Fabian or the musicians studied by Gary Stewart, mapped the city.
This is definitely not your first time crafting an edited collection to represent a sub-field. What is the role of this kind of anthology to African Studies writ large?
I consider edited volumes and special issues of journals uniquely generative platforms for two reasons: firstly, they afford us scope for horizontal mapping of a field in ways that showcase different voices and perspectives which would ordinarily not be set in conversation in the same manner, in other modes, say a general issue of a journal or single-authored monographs. For instance, in this volume, I got to set Corinne Sandwith’s chapter on early 20th Century South African newspapers side by side with Stephanie Newell’s chapter on Ghanaian newspaper cultures of the same period. And while the two papers are preoccupied with different sets of questions, there is something immensely rewarding about reading them side by side and seeing the aesthetic and political investments of Gold Coast and South African newspaper contributors and publics in that period. Similarly, Dina Ligaga, Katrin Pype, James Yeku and Kwabena and Adwoa Opoku-Agyemang are all writing about the affordances of digital platforms and what people do with these platforms in Kenya, the DRC, Nigeria and Ghana; but there’s something distinct about having these chapters in one volume, that enables us to enact that classic Achebe proverb: watch the mask dancing, from different vantage points.
Secondly, the scholar-activist in me treasures the anthology and the special issue formats, for the ways they afford me scope to be deliberate about seeking out and making space for a range of voices and perspectives, which I want to see convened in one conversation. As an Africa-based scholar, I am acutely aware of how easily our voices are absented from scholarly debates in African Studies, for reasons of structural exclusion, access, and assumptions about the quality of scholarship we produce. I am also aware of how these dynamics replicate themselves continentally, in the unstated hierarchies and assumptions about the South African academy versus the rest of the continent’s academy. In light of these realities that inevitably color our scholarly practice as Africa-based scholars, I consider the anthology and the special issue to be excellent opportunities to be intentional about inclusion of these largely footnoted voices, which have unique interventions to make to our understandings of African lifeworlds.
Does your book expand upon your own previous work? How did your own research lead you to or guide this editing project?
My previous work in African popular culture has been concerned with rumors and comic genres, as modes of articulating distinct perspectives on social and political questions, primarily in East and Southern Africa. I find African popular cultural genres and practices influential in shaping African realities and unlocking a range of resources—material, discursive, affective, imaginative—with which to make sense of the freedoms, constraints, pleasures, and harms that enable world-making in African contexts. This set of assumptions and interests were central to how I curated this essay collection, and the way I frame the book in my introductory chapter titled “Thirteen Ways of Reading African Popular Culture.” Admittedly, the shape of the book and the introduction chapter bears the imprint of my curiosities and passions in African popular culture, although, I hope, the range of voices and perspectives featured here balance my particular scholarly investments in the field.
You use the childhood game of cha’mawe to frame your introduction to the collection and write much about the spirit of play and imagination that permeates popular culture. Was the process of editing this book also playful and experimental? Did the focus on popular culture allow for particular pleasures in the writing and editing?
I wish I could say an unconditional yes to both questions here. But it was a little more complicated than that. My introduction draws on cha’mawe, a childhood game I grew up playing; for conceptual inspiration on making sense of what I consider to be 13 definitive elements in African popular cultural imaginaries; key among these [are] play, imagination and experimentation. There was some scope for play and experimentation in the process of putting this book together, but a very modest portion of it, for two reasons: firstly, the conventions of academic writing remain largely inhospitable to play and experimentation, especially with regard to registers of writing; and because this was a conventional academic volume, as opposed to a volume intentional about such experimentation, we ended up restricting experimentation to the arguments and ideas we were exploring, and less so, at the level of form and register. Secondly, a good chunk of the book unfolded at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which cast a heavy shadow over the global academy broadly, and our respective everyday lives as individual academics. In some ways, the timing of the book, framed by the shroud of anticipatory grief, the reality of loss of loved ones, and the unprocessed grief most of us continue to carry, made for humbler portions of play and experimentation than I would have liked to see.
Are there other books and writers that this collection is in conversation with? Anything you would recommend to be read alongside?
This book is very much in conversation with the extensive ground-breaking work of the major voices in African popular cultural studies. Some key titles in this library, which I would strongly recommend, include Simidele Dosekun’s Fashioning Postfeminism: Spectacular femininity and transnational culture (2020); Nanjala Nyabola’s Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the internet era is transforming politics in Kenya (2018); Karin Barber’s A History of African Popular Culture (2018); George Ogola’s Popular Media in Kenyan History: Fiction and newspapers as political actors (2017); Matthias Krings’ African Appropriations: Cultural difference, mimesis and media (2015); Tsitsi Jaji’s Africa in Stereo: Modernism, music and pan-African solidarity (2014); Wendy Willems and Ebenezer Obadare’s Civic Agency in Africa: Arts of resistance in the 21st century (2014); Stephanie Newell and Onookome Okome’s Popular Culture in Africa: The episteme of the everyday (2014); James Ogude and Joyce Nyairo’s Urban Legends, Colonial Myths: Popular Culture and Literature in East Africa (2004); and Tejumola Olaniyan’s Arrest the Music! Fela and his rebel art and politics (2004), to list just a handful.
What do you want most for readers to take away from the book?
If readers can come away from the book with a serious appreciation of the complexity and promise of African popular cultural imaginaries as rich barometers of African lifeworlds; and not quite the simplistic, transparent texts they are often taken to be, then it will have done its work.