“This work explores how popular culture in Africa uses local specificities to create and respond in innovative ways to global cultural imports. It seeks to engage critically with various forms of knowledge production embedded in local cultural forms,” said Lynda Gichanda Spencer of the Department of Literary Studies in English at Rhodes University. “The research is concerned with popular modes of representation and interpretation, and specifically with the ways in which urban contexts and global imaginaries are articulated through aesthetic and social forms and relations. We question what constitutes the popular? How have and do popular forms create new publics and audiences? How and why do popular genres become appropriated and used in local contexts? What are the nodes of connections and divergence in forms of African cultural production? How do localised genres, which travel across the region, the continent and transnationally, help us understand ‘the episteme of the everyday’?”
Along with her colleagues – Danai S. Mupotsa of the Department of African Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand, Corinne Sandwith and Nedine Moonsamy of the Department of English at the University of Pretoria and Tina Steiner of the Department of English at Stellenbosch University – Spencer was highlighting work from the Urban Connections in African Popular Imaginaries project (UCAPI) which has been under way for five years, involves academics from across Africa and has incorporated conferences and workshops, the funding of post-docs, as well as the publication of numerous journal articles, book chapters and special journal issues. The project encompasses various forms of cultural production in Africa.
They discussed popular cultural production as that which communicates an African perspective to a wide audience in a way that is easily understandable and accessible in terms of distribution, cost and themes. Although locally produced, it illustrates how ordinary people understand themselves as part of a continental and global community. The research is concerned with popular modes of representation and interpretation, and the ways in which local specificities and global imaginaries are articulated through popular genres. It seeks to engage critically with popular knowledge productions embedded in local cultural forms. This includes genre fiction – crime writing, science fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy fiction, Afro-Gothic fiction, chick-lit and romance – as well as the popular press. The group includes new and ‘invisible’ writers who offer innovative cultural productions and perspectives on contemporary society; new modes of African writing finding expression through digital technology; and, performance art such as stand-up comedy, music, film, television, radio, magazines and graphic illustrations.
“Popular culture was originally seen as something transferred to and not indigenous to Africa,” said Moonsamy. “It was initially linked to the African elite and early ideas were around indigenous art and the affirmation of self-worth which began to resonate with early African independence movements. Opposing cultural importation became linked to nation building. Over time, it became about the right to be part of and contribute to African and global culture, and also to engage with the contemporary moment and ideas in their own terms. But the exchange is still often volatile without easy conviviality. It is still seen as cultural contestation. The redefining of culture requires endless learning and leaning into the discomfort.”
“There are still uneven power exchanges in the interface between Western-imported forms and African,” added Sandwith. “New spaces of encounter including social media and new technologies both shape consumption and open up new spaces of political contestation. We believe it is important to understand circulation and mobility and the multiple journeys of popular texts.”
The five presenters outlined their particular research interests within the project which range from genres like African crime fiction and memoirs; to Afro-futurism and science fiction; to romance and chick-lit; TV and online series (such as An African City – described as the Ghanaian equivalent of Sex and the City and Catching Feelings – a 2017 South African romantic comedy); and, black periodical and newspaper culture.
“We are looking at popular genres of fiction to ask how the authors appropriate the different genres for their own purpose,” said Steiner. “If we take seriously Karin Barber’s claim that African popular cultural production indicates an ‘area of exploration’ that engages with the status quo in unpredictable ways, then it is productive to ask: What kinds of interventions do particular examples of genre fiction make? What are its aesthetic features and what idiosyncratic work do the texts do?” Steiner pointed out.
“We are also trying to unpack and understand whether genres like science fiction or Afro-futurism are outside of local culture or inherently African in their fusion of myth, fable and fantasy,” said Moonsamy. “We want to understand the niche for African speculative fiction.”
“Science fiction is linked with the colonial narrative – with the invasion of alien spaces,” she continued, “so there is a somewhat ironic but inevitable political engineering when it is transferred into African fiction. There is a reconfiguring of the figure of the alien and what it means.”
Turning to the romance genre, Spencer pointed to its enduring popularity. “Mills and Boon sells 200 million copies per year,” she said. “Three of the top-selling authors worldwide are women and two of them write romance. I read it, people read it, it’s widely read. We are asking why it’s so popular and also why it is largely dismissed by critics as frivolous escapism.”
She pointed to the growth of the genre in Africa where there are six imprints written in English using digital technology to distribute.
“Romance literature from Africa is not a static genre,” she quoted Stephanie Newell. “It often encompasses novel constructions of femininity and is about women creating a space of their own in response to patriarchy. It aims to reflect the reality of readers from the continent.”
“We need to elevate the dismissed genres,” added Sandwith. “They are more than just entertainment and are used to disrupt the hetero-patriarchal normative narrative.”
Describing her work as crossing black, queer and feminist studies, Mupotsa pointed to the challenge of feminist conversations in the present. In response to a question, she said that “the uptake of public feminisms can cause an allergic reaction in some people. The articulation itself may close off dialogue.” Popular culture like TV series and movies can, however, be used strategically to express feminist ideas without overt use of the terminology.
Reading the news
Outlining her project which looks at Black South African newspapers and media in the 1930s and specifically the local response to the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, Sandwith pointed to the different functions of newspapers – as pure text, an index of the moment, a site of debate, popular knowledge production, as well as a site of transnational and Pan-African imaginaries.
“Articles, letters and editorials written in response to the Italian invasion provide clear evidence of an important early articulation of anti-colonial thinking in South Africa, one that so far has gone largely unrecognised. A reading of the newspaper as an archive of black intellectual life opens up an important history of public debate and political critique, directed not only at the singular example of Fascist Italy but extending outwards to a more general critique of Western imperialism itself.”
The group also discussed the impact of the digital space.
“Digital media opens up texts to everyday people’s reading,” said Spencer. “Some books start as blogs and readers then have the chance to change the next chapter by commenting. The diary series genre has become very popular in Africa enhanced by the digital space.”
“Digitisation encourages more interactivity,” added Moonsamy. “People become co-producers in producing art – which democraticises the global cultural field.”
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Anton Jordaan