Africa, Afrobeats, Angelique Kidjo, black people, Cultural exchange, Fulbright, Howard Theatre, Howard University, Lisner Auditorium, Nigerian Music, P-Square, Peace Corps, white people
Washington DC is full of idealistic former Peace Corps volunteers, Fulbright grantees, and other assorted aid workers and international travelers (often white people) who delight in living vicariously by traveling to various African destinations. They occasionally sample the local cuisine, but can even more reliably be found ensconced in the local dress or viewing the local animals. Typically, their stated aim is to live like a local or to at least better understand them by getting to know their culture. Consequently, having now attended several concerts of major African superstars in the DMV, I find it exceedingly odd that I see none of those people at these shows.
In the past 14 months or so, I have seen pan-African Nigerian superstar entertainers like 2Face, Ice Prince, Jesse Jagz, J. Martins, Wizkid, Banky W, P-Square, and Timaya perform at various DC venues – Howard Theatre, Howard University, Love, and Lux Lounge. The number of non-black (and presumably) non-Africans attending these shows is incredibly limited. It’s entirely possible of the four or so shows of major African performers that I’ve been to, I’ve seen less than ten non-blacks in total. The same thing is also true when I go to clubs that play African music, but that doesn’t get me worked up quite as much.
Most non-Africans with a deep interest in the continent are likely not even familiar with these names. For many Americans to enjoy African music, it must have that traditional feel that more distinctly fulfills the typical stereotype of Africa, perhaps some banging drums that make one feel like they are in a densely populated jungle – not a raunchy, pop love ballad. The next time Fulbright peer reviewers are at work, I hope they will keep this in mind when they read of the countless ways in which the applicant plans to integrate into the local community.
I’ve gone to shows with more ‘underground/hipstery’ African performers at venues like Rock n Roll Hotel on H Street and Tropicalia on U Street. Those crowds have been predominantly white. Lack of familiarity with these performers aside, I suspect the venue also has a great impact on the crowd that turns out. If D’banj toured DC and performed at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium (like Angelique Kidjo and other African musicians that fit the Western stereotypes), I’m confident he’d get a much more diverse crowd than if he went to Howard.
As a white man who enjoys African women, I find the lack of diversity at these shows of Nigerian performers to be great from a personal perspective. However, as someone who has been profoundly influenced by cultural exchange and its transformative power, I find the seas of black faces at these events to be quite troubling:
- It indicates that white people interested in Africa are not interested in its most popular musicians. I should not need to elaborate why this is unhealthy.
- It indicates that the Africans attending these shows most likely do not have many non-black friends.
- It indicates that humanity in general is quite ill at ease in getting out of its comfort zone.
In two things that really matter to people in life – church and entertainment, racial segregation is quite pronounced. This is something that only recently I’ve come to fully appreciate and understand.
Your thoughts readers?
I think that we can agree that a lot of returned Peace Corps kids are insufferable. I think for a lot of PCVs, its more about feeling quasi-Messianic and believing that they are single handedly “saving Africans” than it is about learning about other cultures. I will point to this example *cough cough* from our own Peace Corps experience (http://i.imgur.com/n3hss.jpg) as exhibit a.
That said, I still take issue with your analysis here. I think the bigger issue here at play is an unlisted variable:
(4) It indicates that a lot of people simply aren’t all that found of contemporary pop music. Would you see the same “white hipster” folks at a Drake or an Akon show? Probably not.
For me, I dig Fela Kuti not because it sounds like “the jungle” to me, but because I tend to his music. He has an incredible ability to slow build tension, let his musicians really play, and keep it tight all at the same time. Fela was incredibly inventive in that he pulled in a lot of elements of jazz, funk, soul, high life and had a strong social conscience.
For me, I want to hear people actually playing instruments, and you know, soloing and stuff when I put on music, then again, I’m a bit of a jazz snob to begin with. That said, I really dislike a lot of the conventions inherent in modern music and feel like musicality is now secondary to spectacle and I feel like a lot of it doesn’t really go anywhere musically.
There is nothing wrong with liking pop music, I just find it weird to read some sort of comfort zone issue into other people not liking similarly, somewhat raunchy pop music. I think people tend to gravitate towards African music that is similar to what they like in Western music. People who like old soul records are going to like old highlife because there are very clear thematic links, etc. If the pop sensibilities of today don’t speak to someone, so be it. I think we presently live in a in world where telecommunications, rather than casting a wider net, is creating something of an international mono culture, while simultaneously, popular music is now largely divorced from rhythm (where African music historically excelled), melody and harmony (where western music excelled). To me a lot of it sounds like flat dance beats against vocoders and 3 note melodies, which basically leaves not a lot for me to sink my teeth into.
Listening to Ice Prince (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2A576XVrgD4) for example, the only thing that really distinguishes him to me from, whatever is Top 40 here in the States is that some of his lyrics are in a different language. OK, that’s fine. The melody doesn’t do much for me (then again, I’m a jazz guy) but more surprisingly, the rhythm is sitting there as a flat 4/4. Which is what is remarkable – African music, historically has a long, long history of rhythmic invention. Where are the polyrhythms? To me, Ice Prince has basically gone the route of everyone else, turned his back on that which would make his music culturally African in order to sell records in the West. The West, in a lot of ways, is to blame for this by shoving Michael Jackson down everyones throats in the 80s and 90s, meaning now, everyone looks externally to America rather than towards their own culture for ideas. Except, a lot of American popular music has been stuck in a rut since the early 80s at least. I really think we are losing a lot. Telecommunications technologies are ideally supposed to drive exposure, instead we are developing an internationalized mono culture, and it’s sad.
And I actually like hip-hop. I just wish everyone would not not adopt the aesthetic of hip hop.
(I have a similar critique of a lot of contemporary indie rock (which people seem to love) but which just sounds stillborn because very people are doing something that hasn’t already been done to death in 1981, with minor variation.)
Let us contrast, what is going on in contemporary music with what say, Randy Weston is doing:
Now, Randy Weston is an American jazz musician (who is in his 80s) who lived in various parts of Africa for the better part of 50 years. It’s rhythmically very African music, melodically very interesting and harmonically ties the two together well. I don’t know, this is just so infinitely more interesting to me.
Or check out the Orchestre Poly-Rhythmou de Contou:
The singer is sort of doing a James Brown thing (I dig James Brown!) but then those rhythms are great. There is a main beat that is subtle and a whole lot else sort of cascading around it, such that you can listen to a lot of different stuff going on there just in the drums. Then they can turn on a dime. And the guitar solo is absolutely killer – and then he throws in a organ/synth thing just for fun, but you’ll notice that when he plays it, he plays it AGAINST the main rhythm, suggesting several new dynamics, which were you dancing to it, you could hop onto. And it has a great pop melody and is fun. I would rather listen to this because there is just so much going on musically and yet, it all works.
I think what you do well here is point to an extremely lazy, incurious white mono-culture that predominates a lot of people’s thinking, particularly when it comes to other cultures. To me, NPR, and what NPR elects anoint as canonical, exemplified this. This mono culture pretends to be reasonable but never really allows its own assumptions be challenged. While a lot of pop music may be a form of cultural imperialism, the NPR/Pitchfork Media set does nothing to acknowledge this and instead pushes itself as a gold standard of cross cultural awareness, despite having an extremely narrow focus and positively dripping an non-acknowledged Orientalism. This Orientalism though is careful not to go too far. A little exotica is fine, too much of “the other” makes people feel uncomfortable. This is an of itself, I think drives the mono-culture I spoke about earlier. What is interesting is that, as the author of this post noted, this has resulted in a de facto segregation of work that should be accessible to people across the spectrum of “pop music listeners” but who are apparently afraid to seek alternative sources of information, etc than the limited channels that they subscribe to. It’s a failure of telecommunications technology to actual broaden people’s scopes as much as anything else.
I wrote you book:
Citizen E said:
First, your observations are welcomed but your perspective is tainted. Promoters of concerts are responsible for drawing the crowd…promoting it through their channels that derive the most likely source to draw that crowd, their crowd. Are the promoters of Afro-pop music using the mediums that will draw the PCV crowd…obviously not. Do the promoters of “traditionally African” music played at Lisner auditorium and such promoting through channels that reach the African audience readily…not really. Would the PCV crowd be into Afro-pop or the crowd that Afro-pop draws, perhaps each PCV would be best to answer that. Because frankly, people who go to concerts go because they are familar with the music, enjoy it and the crowd it brings.
As Alexdeley, rightly pointed out some people just don’t like pop music no matter its popularity, cultural or lingual origins. What Alexdeley, fails to understand is that most African pop artists are not “selling out” when they make their records…and they are definitely not making them for the “west.” Most young Africans in the metropoles of the continent are heavily influenced by hip hop just like many people in Europe are heavily influenced by the Jazz that emerged in earlier era…Scandanavian jazz is dope by the way. But that just shows musical influences and cultural influences have no particular negative connotation unless you give it one. I rarely hear people talk about how Scandaniavians bastardize their culture through their love of jazz. Perhaps its more a comment on how one may view the underlying influencing art…like jazz is more revered than hip hop in certain circles.
I digress. The promoters of shows are just as if not more responsible for the crowd drawn as the attendees. I do understand your point about the friends of those attendees being of a segregated sort, however I believe thats more a comment on the PCV as opposed to the Africans at the afro-pop shows.
Thanks for these comments Citizen E. I see your point regarding the responsibilities of the promoters to an extent – and likely that goes along way to describing the makeup of these crowds. However, the shows I’ve been to are very big name performers – P-Square, Wizkid, etc and to me that makes it a little different.
My larger point was that the PCVs (and other types as well, I didn’t mean to just pick on PCVs) who flaunt their proclivity for cultural exploration shouldn’t need to rely on promoters alone. A good student will not solely be influenced by their Professor. Lots of people in DC follow Nigeria just because its one of Africa’s economically dominant nations (consultants, aid workers, economists, etc.). Entertainment is a huge part of that domination. If those people really want to be the experts they claim to be – expressing some sort of interest in its major musical acts might be a good place to really round out their knowledge.
It's all good said:
The “very big name performers” you talk about are only “very big” to people who follow via youtube and certain websites and word of mouth, the digital technology using artists who are popular with a predominantly younger audience in certain African countries. P-Square and Wizkid are not on American record labels that have released old-school style Nigerian music played with guitars and drums nor are they on American rap and r’n’b labels. Their music and their live performances are not being pushed via pr companies to websites and magazines that cover indie-rock, or to locations like the Atlas Theatre and Artisphere and Lisner that showcase more traditional rooted African music. Also, for us longtimers in this area, the stereotype that live one-off African shows will start very late at night and possibly have poorly mixed sound also discourages attendance. Your experiences at these 1 to 3 something AM shows is not exactly encouraging.
P-Square and Wizkid are not on US labels, but P-Square have recorded with several big US names. D’banj is (or was) on a US label. Would the demographics of his show be any different?
My experience with P-Square and Timaya is indeed not particularly encouraging.
However, my main thrust here was not to try to explain why certain crowds go to certain shows. It was to point out that a lot of the talk of cultural inquisitiveness expressed by those of my generation in particular (but this should really apply to those of all ages I meet who try to shock and awe with their knowledge of Africa) is a talk that is not walked.
I’m sure students who go to Ghana for study abroad enjoy going to clubs in Osu in Accra and dancing to P-Square and others, yet they don’t seem to do this at home.
It's all good said:
If people want to learn about and keep up with Nigerian, Ghanaian, and South African (or elsewhere) programmed beat dance music and rap, how do you suggest they do so (especially if they have no hands on familiarity from dancing to those artists in their respective countries)? You have sometimes posted photos of flyers you have seen in the Silver Spring area. If folks can’t make it over there, how are they supposed to know about events (other than reading your blog!)? Afropop Worldwide.com covers old-school African music more than the new school stuff you are talking about. Are there certain yoututbe channels or other sites you look to? Also, as was suggested above– some folks may not be into programmed dance beat and rap sounds from any country (despite your observation re some visitors doing so there).
Glad you’ve been reading the blog closely, It’s all good. I actually learned very little about west African music while living in the region (oddly, that was not the case when I studied in southern Africa). I found the Africa is a Country Friday music breaks to be my initial entry into West African pop music, and internet research took over from there. The entertainment section of AllAfrica (which most readers should know) is informative. Bella Naija is another well known site that should give people this sort of info. In the digital age, there are plenty of outlets.
As for in DC specifically – I know of no one stop shop to hear about upcoming shows. I even missed Ice Prince, which devastated me. So yes, it is hard, but much easier than it would have been a decade ago, thanks to rise of the internet. And certainly, like with AlexDeley, I recognize that some people just don’t have a taste for this music.
(believe) I get the overall pt you are trying to make but this is not the right example, for most PCVs money is tight, with the plethora of options in DC ( I”m on so many entertainment distro lists, I can’t keep up) and, if just coming from the region, are you going to splash out on the music you just heard everyday for 2 yrs or on something different? I’ve passed on a couple of acts b/c I saw them live, multiple times, for cheaper.
And the econ pt is very tangential, you don’t have to understand/appreciate the cultural to appreciate the dollars and sense of the industry. Can’t watch a Nollywood movie all the way but doesn’t stop me from understanding its effect on the economy.
I’d like to flip it and say, why are there so little African representation at the abundance of Sub Sahara Africa related policy discussions/talks? both in the audience and the panel.
Thanks for the comments. I see the merits in your point about the economics, but I don’t fully buy into it. First, I didn’t mean to just single out Peace Corps types – there are also a lot of well-heeled consultants and academics in the area who have studied the continent for years – why don’t they take the time to connect to African cultural events when they come to their neighborhood? And with its oil reserves and large population, Nigeria is a country which is one of those most studied.
That said, I’ve met plenty of young Peace Corps types at shows at the Rock N Roll Hotel – the Very Best (Malawi/UK) and K’naan (Somalia/US) for example. Also, there are plenty of recently returned volunteers making 40 – 60k a year, who certainly have $20 to spend on a show.
On the flip side, if I had just been living in coastal west Africa and could see these shows for much cheaper, I’d certainly have a hard time shelling out 20 – 40 bucks here. I understand economics depressing turn out, but I don’t think these people really turn out for the sort of shows I am talking about at all.
Pingback: White Girls and Africa at Georgetown and Dissing Jackson M’vunganyi | Africa in DC
Pingback: Meeting Readers at the African Studies Association Meeting this Friday, Talking about Belgian Refugees in Africa | Africa in DC
Pingback: Considering the Treatment of Justine, ‘Just Kidding I’m White!’, Sacco Via Personal Reflections | Africa in DC
Pingback: In Observance of Black History Month: A Comment on De Facto Segregation | Africa in DC
I appreciate the comments and posts. But I’m wondering why one would find more England white kids assimilate into the culture than an American? You do make a good point that in America there is a big issue with segregation. Not like England is better but you can find on YouTube more people getting into the culture and attending these concerts than you would in the US. The promotions and venue doesn’t matter if the individual cares enough to go.