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Afropolitanism: An Identity Crisis? A Commoditizing Force?

Afropolitan. Taiye Selasi is credited with having coined the term. It describes the newest generation of Africans emigrants, transnational Africans in the world. Selasi is articulating the identity of “brown skinned people” who without a solid sense of “blackness” and often seen by their African families as “acting too white” might “get lost in transnation”. Her aim, to de-essentialize geographies and politics, while emphasizing cultural aesthetics.

These are the “coolest-damn-people-on-earth,” that you will recognize by their “funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes.” She posits. They remain undisturbed by this aggrandized self-articulation, because, well, isn’t it time the “African stood up”?

To some Africans, the proposition remains unpalatable in spite of – or perhaps because of – its self-congratulatory nature. Afropolitanism, according to Binyanvanga Wainaina, signifies the commodification of culture (I suppose the African culture) driven by a focus on product and design, and potentially funded by the West. Stephanie Bosch Santanaan African Studies scholar and a PhD student at Harvard at the time of writing, can only agree with Wainaina that the term, unlike pan-Africanism, lacks African-centric engagement, and subsequently a stable foundation.

Critics have had a good run with the term, with some calling it the new word for “African Identity Crisis” , and others expressing disgust at it’s elitist focus that tells the story of a privileged few at the expense of many disadvantaged others. Could Afropolitanism become the new Africa’s single story?


Are you an Afropolitan?

I am not an Afropolitan. Even with my exposure to cosmopolitan world spaces, and with family members dissatisfied with my masterly of my ethnic language, I have a strong sense of nationality, and find it impossible to equate my connection to the continent with any Afropolitan’s whose deepest tie could be his/her auntie’s kitchen. Moreover, I, too, have a problem with African progress that can be appreciated in terms of cool Togolese hipsters at the beach, and with the idea that what would pass me as a “high level” Afropolitan has a lot to do with the much of the world that I have absorbed –and thus with the much of Africanness I have lost – in the process of fitting in. Worse still, I disagree that one can put real effort in understanding the “ailing” in Africa while failing to conceive geographic boundaries as essential, given that a lot of Africa’s socioeconomic and institutional ills can trace their roots to ill-conceived boundaries.

While I am not an Afropolitan, I remain equally baffled by arguments about the commodification of African culture. The continent is bristling with artists, designers,
and all types of cultural production, and states and societies are at pains to provide self-empowerment opportunities for their members. Should our intellectuals obsess over bashing a narrative of afropolitanism that drives the consumption of “African-y” design products, or over creating discourses that applaud Africans that are learning to ignore the allure of the world’s Pradas for the authenticity or just ordinary heritage of African-made products?

We can surely refuse to be party to a movement in which Africa’s expressive artists and designers are governed by a Western-driven rhetoric, but we cannot deny our own communities intra-consumption, especially in a world where open trade brings home overly competitive imports.


A self perceived as possessing responsibility

Selasi’s was an effort at self-articulation, one that is fraught with contradiction like any attempt at articulating a complex identity– and especially one that seeks to simultaneously dispel labels and categories – would. If this self-articulation seemed to hint (or to more than hint) at possessing transformative powers for the continent, blame it on being African.

Many of us, feeling a deep sense of responsibility for a place we want so much for, are at risk of reasserting such responsibility in highly contentious contexts. Even Ekwui Enwezor, the first Venice Biennale curator of African descent, is accused in an article on artnet News, for this year’s joyless exhibit whose works descend into the world’s miseries of “Ebola, civil war, human trafficking, natural disasters, labor exploitation, environmental destruction, inequality.” Reading the article, I mused over “The Burden of Africanism”, again.

Who has time for beauty and joy with an entire continent waiting for real action? Even when we give in and declare ourselves jazz fans and aesthetes, as did Selasi, we still must mention that we have not forgotten our immense responsibilities as Africans. You only have to look at Ysttyle’s (this site’s) fashion and interior decor columns, that somehow seemed insufficient without an Africa: Design, Art, & Culture Column – which unlike the name suggests, has articles that hint at an intent to prescribe socioeconomic and political progress for oh so beloved a place!

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