Tuesday, January 26, 2021

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Beyonce and the Use of Black Utopias: By Saratu Abiola

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Saratu Abiola

Beyonce’s recent oeuvre has been a full-on embrace and celebration of blackness — both hers and yours. Formation in its lyrics and its video was very much a celebration of the black experience in America, and the sinking of a police car was “Fuck the Police” without saying “Fuck the Police.” Her visual album Lemonade was a abundant celebration of blackness, with nods to Yoruba traditional religion while holding space for women who had lost their loved ones to police violence. She has also walked the talk by supporting Black Lives Matter protesters. She has even written to the state Attorney General urging that the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor be charged. Her vision of blackness also embraces other experiences of blackness as well, as evidenced from her “love letter to Africa” with The Gift, where she collaborated with Nigerian and South African artists (to the consternation of many East Africans, given that Lion King was studied in Kenya and uses the Swahili phrase “Hakuna Matata”). She now has an upcoming visual album called Black Is King, where from the trailer we see uses of Africa-focused imagery.

One can obviously not review a piece of work until it’s been released, but it is worth thinking more generally about the nature of collaborations across the black diaspora, and the impact of more powerful Black American creatives’ use of Africa as an Idea on the work of less globally recognized creatives from African countries.

This shift in Beyonce’s work aligns with Black Americans’ own cultural shift that has been a much longer time coming. Black Lives Matter’s increasingly mainstream acceptance is not because the record of state-sanctioned brutality is anything new. Indeed, lynchings in the early 20th century were public displays where white families might hold picnics and take photos next to dead black bodies as keepsakes. These photos even made it onto postcards. Horrific police brutality during the Civil Rights Era was televised for all to see. We never saw Diallo shot 41 times, but the beating of Rodney King in 1992 by police in Los Angeles was indeed recorded on video. Yet, it is only just now that affirming that Black Lives Matter is approaching something close to uncontroversial. Of course, wanton police brutality against black people is not the only challenge that black people in the US have to deal with. In spite of their strides in sports and the arts and other forms of cultural production, black people also face other forms of discrimination that have left them less likely to own homes, less able to build wealth, less likely to access justice, less likely to be seen as human.

It therefore makes sense that imaginative work embracing blackness and representing a more equal and empowering future has resonated since as far back as the 1920s. As Mark Dery asks in his 1993 essay where he first coined the term Afro-futurism: “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures? Furthermore, isn’t the unreal estate of the future already owned by the technocrats, futurologists, streamliners, and set designers […] who have engineered our collective fantasies?”

Black people in America, given their history, have a right to creative work that nudges them towards liberation, as much as they do their advocacy for their rights. These notions of Black futures, though, have always been limited; even by Dery’s own definition, the “afro” in afro-futurism is “African-American”, not African. Therefore, it is inevitable that there is no real reckoning with Africa in this line of thinking. Indeed, not even when Africa is being used as an idea. That is the origin of the obvious schism between how Africa is used and what Africa actually is.

Besides, real people who live on or are of the continent have already seen the failure of pan-Africanism to bring about any kind of cohesive direction towards progressive change. Pan-Africanism was, as Kenyan writer Nanjala Nyabola says in her 2016 essay on Pan-Africanism in the wake of AU’s tacit support of Omar al-Bashir following his state violence against his own people, “a return-to-purity doctrine” to purge Africans of the stain of colonialism and its accompanying capitalist systems that were built to extract from, not add to, us. Much like afro-futurism, its embrace was to allow for a path to liberation and a more empowered future. In practice, however, very few of Pan-African leaders — Sankara and Machel come immediately to mind — actually worked towards more open societies that created more opportunities for women or other minorities. With Pan-Africanism as a rallying cry, post-independence leaders merely replicated patriarchal and oppressive socioeconomic structures. As Nyabola writes:

The possibilities of independence were squandered. African nations not only inherited oppressive state structures, but ended up reinforcing the very systems that had been used to keep them oppressed, often through gender. Pan-Africanism was kidnapped. Calls to unity were used to justify state violence and repression, to animate calls for blind loyalty to the state. Those who led us to liberation did not live to see it: so many of the intellectual architects of the independence struggle did not survive to see their theories tested. And so, only the core idea that there was a single African identity—and a male one—seems to have survived. Pan-Africanism had a “what” but no longer a “why.”

This crisis persists, and cages our imaginations. While the idea that we are all Africans endures, few work to define what else “African” might mean, or how African solidarity can be built. This intellectual vacuum costs millions of Africans their lives and well-being. We have forgotten that solidarity must benefit the vulnerable, those who would be crushed if they had to stand alone. Instead, Pan-Africanism has been co-opted and corrupted by power, has become an elitist discourse protecting the interests of power.

The lesson that Pan-Africanism teaches is that the intentions behind our ideologies are not deterministic of their impact. The same can be said of whatever positive intentions are meant in the uses of Africa as Idea. The uses of a Black futurism to conjure up visions of Africa as an idea is especially problematic precisely for the same reasons why Africa caught Beyonce’s attention in the first place: a new generation of African creatives are only just now strengthening their cultural voice. Younger musicians from the continent are only just now experiencing stronger global mainstream acceptance. A recent crop of young writers are just beginning to build a name for themselves, telling stories we recognise and gaining plaudits for it. Newer, younger music artists are only just now emerging as distinct voices and collaborating with their contemporaries elsewhere in the Global South as well as in the West on work that is not cookie-cutter or stereotypical. Art curators, many of whom are based on the continent, are now pushing artwork from a new crop of artists on global platforms. Netflix has only just recently started engaging with African filmmakers on content creation. Nollywood, one of the biggest movie industries in the world and the biggest on the continent, is in flux, engaging with these new structures and trying to figure out what its audience wants. This revival of cultural production on the continent is driven mostly by private efforts in spite of — rather than because of — government and its (lack of) institutions. Western acceptance is key not just in terms of access to new audiences, more structured support and money, but also validation in a way that is simply not the same when Western artists seek new audiences.

In that context, the collective eye-roll and frustration from Beyonce’s recent uses of African popular culture, just as with the muddled representations of Africa in the Black Panther film and its soundtrack, starts to make sense. Having come so far in building a voice over the years, it is important that cultural productions from people who use Africa the Place in their imaginings of Black Futures at the very least be wary of the power relationships inherent in that cultural production.

The divergence between the idea of Africa and the people for whom Africa is their reality is the exact shape of the difference in cultural power. The stakes are higher for Africans than it is for Black Americans, because these uses of Africa as an Idea could make it difficult for African artists to come to the table with their own narratives of who they are, and not what someone wants — no, needs — Africa to be. Be they Beyonce or Ryan Coogler or anyone else, western representations of Africa the Idea will carry more global resonance than whatever our filmmakers, writers and artists produce at this time.

That is no liberation at all, unless it is beyond black people to imagine a liberation that does not rely on the subjugation of one to another.

Burna Boy’s Not So Wonderful Music Video

I often praise Burna Boy’s intentionality, but this video for his new single Wonderful misses every mark. I found it especially disappointing because I actually like the song itself; it reminds me of the jauntiness of old Brenda Fassie and Yvonne Chaka-Chaka songs I grew up listening to. That said, for someone seemingly interested in introducing global audiences to where he’s from, you have to wonder why he chose to create a music video that buys into the worst “Africa as uncivilised jungle” trope and is nothing like the corner of Nigeria that he actually lives in.

Showcasing a more rural setting is not even the problem. Dija’s video for Wuta had a humble setting and still managed to be cool. So did Chidinma’ Ekile’s video for Kedike. This particular rural setting, though, did not have any real people in it aside from Burna Boy himself. While he was dressed in western clothing, everybody else was wearing straw masks and wrappers. What does any of this have to do with “coming home,” as he tells us he has to do in the song?

Even from a storytelling perspective, the video does not work. The gathering of angry people went from trying to attack him with spears to dancing around him. There’s a brief 10-second moment in the second minute of the video where we see a young boy carrying a fish on his shoulder and regular looking people with black circles tattooed on their skin, but we don’t see them again after that. This, by the way, was after he peered into a river and saw an ape reflecting back at him. I know he uses the ape emoji a lot for African Giant in a King Kong kinda way, but….

Come on.

If artists are going to cultivate increasingly global audiences, it is important that they also cultivate the art of paying attention with the narratives they depict.

Watching, Reading, Listening

Have you seen I May Destroy You? No? Go watch it. I’m still gathering my thoughts and I have no intention of spoiling it for anybody, but the work is powerful. It’s being sold as a drama series about consent, and while there is certainly that, it’s so much more. It’s also about trauma, friendship, relationships, and just generally a thoughtful rumination on how messy we are as human beings. I like this quote from Alex Jung’s excellent profile in New York Magazine:

Watching it is like entering a pool of Coel’s consciousness. Her performance as Arabella, a Twitter-famous writer who is on deadline to finish a draft, feels like truth telling, though the truth of the thing is not in “what happened” but in how it feels. There’s an expansive, long-limbed, genre-casual energy held together by Coel’s performance. The way her face flickers from placidity to horror and levity to devastation reflects the mercurial nature of trauma itself. Even though the show has been marketed as a “consent drama,” the label feels insufficient, maybe a touch misleading, because she is less concerned with political correctness or the failures of the criminal-justice system than with the psychology of the self: How do you become whole again after trauma breaks you open?

Every year, for a period of eight weeks, Issa Rae’s Insecure grips my timeline in an endless debate over the lives of its central characters as though they’re everyone’s closest friends. This past season was the show’s best yet, and it made me think about how much the relatability of the characters that makes it such a great show is also perhaps its greatest undoing. We recognize Issa, Molly, and Lawrence so much that we forget that writing them this well requires work. Its why Issa and her team will likely never get the credit they deserve for bringing them to life as wonderfully as they have. One of the defining aspects of the show is their use of music. I don’t know if its because I miss the show so much, but I’ve been jamming a lot to the soundtrack. My current favorite song Baby Rose’s Show You was played during a sex scene between two of the main characters, and I remember thinking how genius the placement of the song was for the scene in terms of capturing the mood and underlying story. On its own, the song is moody, sultry perfection absolutely not meant to be played in the middle of a pandemic lockdown if you’re missing someone. Her album is also worth your time. While you’re at it, check out Kirby’s Velvet then her EP Sis. I also really like Jidenna’s Feng Shui and Tyler the Creator’s Boy is a gun. The playlist has something for everyone, so go get you some.

I’m a big fan of Native’s curation of Nigerian pop culture, and not just because ya girl has been published there. The publication walks the fine line between alte and mainstream Naija pop music very well, digs out some of the best new artists to refresh your playlists with, is unafraid to take a strong stance, and has a good eye for a story. Native makes big calls sometimes — it could be argued that Tems doesn’t quite deserve a cover and big feature yet, but I’m hoping she lives up to it — but it always does its work with such style. More than anything else, I’m just glad that there is a publication powered by young Nigerians curating and archiving the rise of such powerhouses as RemaNaira Marley, and Santi. The Naira Marley feature is from the most recent work, and both the story and the photos are a real treat.

Until next time.

Saratu Abiola
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