Rethinking Africa-US relations through the entertainment industry
This article is published in partnership with the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) at Wits University.
ue to advancements in digital media technologies, transport and communication, the ability of entertainment genres and personalities to travel across national and continental boundaries and to inform global relations, cultures and intercontinental conversations is evident more than ever before. Drawing from African media’s coverage of African and US entertainment news, this article proffers a reading of the entertainment industry as a site for examining Africa-US relations. This is done through a consideration of how the entertainment industry shapes these relations either at government-to-government levels or non-state state sanctioned interactions. This, I argue, enables a paradigmatic shift from the habituated structural governmental and corporate interactions to the complex cultural realm of the creative industries and economies.
Over the years, foreign relations scholarship has been more preoccupied with political and economic related factors with little attention paid to the examination of how the movement of cultural products can generate flows and counter flows of relations and influences. However, this preference saw a paradigm shift as from the 90s and the 2000s. The term soft power emerged as a framework of understanding “the cultural dimensions of international relations” and as a “practical guide to state investment in the international expansion of both news and entertainment media.” Although this concept has been variously contested, it is useful in distinguishing military and economic power from “the ability to get what you want through attraction” and the related “ability to shape the preferences of others.” Following this, this paper examines how the film and the music industry shapes Africa-US relations. Although I refer to Africa in undifferentiated terms, I am also cognisant of the particular ways in which individual countries relate to the US and the differences in their entertainment industries.
Historically, Africa’s relations and contacts with the rest of the globe is littered with fraught histories of conquest, domination and disenfranchisement. Although the US did not establish colonies in Africa, Africa-US relations are marked by steep social, economic and political imbalances. This dominance has been evident in the disproportionate way in which global popular culture is informed by trends that originate in the US, and the West in general. The Hollywood film industry and music has been one of the major ways through which the world, including Africa, experience the US American popular culture (films, music, sports, fashion, slang etc) is thus one of the most common exports to the rest of the world. This global reach of American culture has seen the ascendency of conversations on American cultural imperialism in analysing American cultural dominance. Considering the ease of dissemination and the power of artistic creations in doing/undoing the ideological and political work of representation, the American entertainment industry has been very instrumental in shaping people’s perceptions of the US and, by extension, Africa-US relations. In addition, these representations also shape how people live and experience the “here and now.” However, this is not to take away from the fact that “millions of people’s lives across the continent are shaped by aspirations and interactions that are more decidedly local.” Rather, it is an attempt to imagine and think of Africa and the USA as existing in a circuit of continental connections and asymmetrical contacts.
The entertainment industry in Africa and the US, therefore, meet within this backdrop of marked power differentials. In this matrix of inter-continental relations and contacts, Africa has often been figured through the reductive tropes of disaster, chaos and lack. This can readily be found in Hollywood constructions of Africa/Africans. In fact, some of the entertainment events covered in the news reports under study, as from February 2018 to March 2020, fall within the political economy of aid and philanthropy that often features in Hollywood films. This economy rests on what Teju Cole refers to as the White Saviour Industrial Complex. The White Saviour Industrial Complex enables “the hegemonic project of whiteness and white supremacy to do exactly as intended: to create a need for white intervention for ‘emotional needs to be satisfied.’” Arising out of a global environment of steep socio-economic and political inequalities, this economy problematically foregrounds the “politics of compassion” and empathy at the expense of “the politics of justice.” In addition, its approach seems to figure individual and civil society interventions as a substitute for chronic structural and systemic deficiencies.
The range of these stereotypical representations definitely reflect negatively on social and political relations. However, the cultural dominance of the US does not mean that Africa features in the global circulation of popular culture as a docile spectator. Far from passively absorbing American films or music, African audiences are actively involved in their interpretion and evaluation, and the creation and circulation of their own. As such, we can start to think of the entertainment industry as not only straining relations, it also creates room for counter-archives, cross-cultural dialogues and the possibilities of shaping and rehabilitating social-political relations. For this reason, I argue that the news coverage of Africa-US entertainment-related issues reveals instances of bidirectional cultural exchanges which, in turn, create room for cross-cultural understandings and the forging of intra- and interracial solidarities and connections.
Notably, the news coverage shows the relations forged through the film and the music industry can either happen with the support of the state or at the level of non-state actors. However, this divide is not always clear cut. An instructive historical moment that illustrates entertainment’s capacity to shape public relations in ways that blur government-to-government and non-state actors’ interventions is the 1970’s James Brown effect on Zambia-US relations. Charu Sudan Kasturi notes that Brown “was central to a largely forgotten but tumultuous chapter in US-Zambia relations that saw the two countries pull apart – their leaders snubbing each other – before rebuilding bridges that rested on a musical bond.” The tension arose when Kenneth Kaunda, the first Zambian president, visited the US in October 1970 and was to have a meeting with the American president, Richard Nixon. After the meeting was rescheduled, Kaunda refused to attend it. Later that December, he made a point of posing with James Brown who was on a Zambian tour. Noting the “bond that Brown and others had forged with Zambia,” the US State Department “convinced Duke Ellington to visit Zambia as part of an African trip” in pursuit of “its soft diplomacy mission in Zambia … And the plan to woo back Zambia and Kaunda worked.”
This incident presents an example of the transformation of musical events into a political language to initiate and cement diplomatic ties that would have some relative benefits on both sides. On the one hand, the wooing of Kaunda who had “major credibility with African American” civil rights leaders and the resumption of ties with Zambia was useful to the US on two fronts. To begin with, it would have helped project a benign image of the US among the newly independent African states. Secondly, it would also have an effect in the domestic arena with the African-American population. On the other hand, Kaunda’s connection to James Brown also helped in shaping his image with the Zambian youth.
The entertainment industry has also been an important platform for confronting negative African representations and fostering cross-cultural dialogues and understandings. For example, the coordinator of the 2018 AFRIKFEST in Las Vegas, Darlington Okpebhobo Ray, noted that it “was designed to change the narrative of negative perceptions about Africa and Africans by the western media.” The push to create counternarratives and archives through entertainment underlines the desire to challenge racist imagery and symbols through the presentation of alternative narratives and voices from the continent. This desire is increasingly being reflected in the production of various entertainment or popular culture genres. Among these, the film Black Panther, stands out as a site of not only curating an archive of African representations but also a site of contesting the outlines and limits within which Africa figures in hegemonic regimes of representation. Erica Ayisi seems to have this in mind:
“The film connects black Americans to a continent that has been positioned as mysterious, disease-infested and dark to the Western world. Moreover, most African Americans are descendants of the slave trade, whose African heritage, customs and religion were deliberately erased and replaced with a European system created by colonisers. Watching the two worlds marry in Hollywood matrimony is prime black pride.”
From the foregoing, Ayisi affirms Black Panther’s ability to create political, cultural and psychological affinities to the African continent for the African American diaspora. It also overturns an image of Africa in Hollywood/Western imaginaries and envisions African autonomy outside common narratives of colonial and neo-colonial contacts. In so doing, this futuristic film represents alternative possibilities of Africa and African peoples being and becoming. Lupita Nyong’o, one of the actors in the film, captures this when she observes that the film allowed the African experience to exist aspirationally. Ultimately, Black Panther engages with anti-Blackness and at the same time affirms blackness in the backdrop of white supremacy. It’s reception and celebration in Africa, US and globally gestures at its centrality in awakening a certain consciousness in Black publics.
Because the US has the second largest population of the African diaspora in the world, it is inevitable that this will inform Africa-US relations. The entertainment industry has played a significant role in the relations between Africa and its diasporas in the US. Through various collaborations in music, film and travels to Africa/US by entertainment personalities and groups, entertainment has created opportunities of resuscitating and forging links and connections to Africa and its American diasporas. As such, it has been key in reconfiguring old social and political networks while also generating new ones. This, for instance, is reflected in some of the entertainment events organised with the direct aim of nurturing these connections. Deacon Darlington Okpebhobo Ray, the coordinator of the April 2018 AFRIKFEST Las Vegas INC, revealed that the festival was organised with the hope of providing a platform that “would bridge the gap for African Americans who desire to have a realistic link to their roots.” In this way, entertainment is given the ability reconnect the African diasporas to Africa – with all its attendant political meanings. For some members of the African diasporas in the US, Africa has morphed into a space that offers this opportunity of reconnection and belonging in the quest for self-discovery and identification. Significantly, African American entertainers/creatives like Christopher Brian Bridges (Ludacris) and Samuel L. Jackson have taken up Gabonese nationality, while Tiffany Haddish has taken an Eritrean nationality. While some might dismiss this as a marketing and public relations gimmick, it has considerable implications if we consider that it happens within the backdrop of the American racial exclusions and hierarchies.
In the final analysis, Africa-US news coverage of the entertainment scene shows that it has the capacity to foster productive relational networks and also to create moments of strained socio-political relations at the state and non-state levels. As the overwhelming number of news items show, the entertainment industry has been particularly beneficial to the relations between Africa and its diasporas in the US. In this way, it has been instrumental in providing a platform for communicating cultural perspectives, amplifying black voices, experiences and struggles. In addition, it has enabled the creation of communities of care that have the potential to transform aesthetic products and moments into sustained political and socio-economic movements.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.
(Main image: Lupita Nyong'o attends the European Premiere of 'Black Panther' at Eventim Apollo on February 8, 2018 in London, England. - Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images)