Visual Arts

The western portrayal of Africans in popular culture: are we too sensitive?

by Melinda Ozongwu

Obama - Ghana

We are always on the lookout for African references in mainstream popular culture. Whether in film, music, contemporary art or sports, we crave African representation and acknowledgement on an international level. We know every actor, musician and sports personality with the slightest bit of African heritage. Hence Africa’s full embrace of Barack Obama.

Oftentimes these African references are made without negative intention and merely for the sake of entertainment, but even the small and seemingly meaningless can hold power depending on the context and its interpretation.

"I’m a young money millionaire, tougher than Nigerian hair"A Millie lyrics, Lil Wayne

When Lil Wayne mentions Nigeria, we hear it. As for being proud of, or liking what he is saying, that’s debatable. Do African-Americans not have “tough” hair? Filmmakers, artists and musicians frequently draw on stereotypes and culture for material and inspiration, and Africans are not exempt from the pool. Although public opinion can be formed by such stereotypes, truth be told, most stereotypes are the combination of truth, opinion and outright fiction.  

People take these references to heart, they feel offended and racially attacked, but sometimes reference also indicates relevance. If the only mention of Africa is on the news channels, we have a problem. The dimension of Africa has increased in the global public's consciousness; we're no longer just war, coup and famine stories in the news headlines. A result of our development is the invitation to be mocked and mimicked. Since we're no longer sitting on the bench, we have to play. In my early teens in school in America, I was asked if my country, Uganda, was near Zamunda. Yes, the fictitious African country made famous by the film Coming to America. I could only laugh. I don’t believe it regressive of us to laugh at the exaggerated, the fiction, because we are smart enough to know the difference between entertainment and reality. On the other hand, not everyone does, and that's often our concern.

To this day, the segment from Eddie Murphy’s Raw where he jokes about bringing an African “crazy, naked zebra [woman], butt naked with a big bone in her nose and a big plate in her lip” home to America is seen as controversial.

But while Raw was filled with content that most stand-up comedy contains - racism, sexism, profanity, in 1987, where else was Africa being mentioned other than charity relief efforts?

The international impression of the typical African, isn’t only exploited through Hollywood and other avenues though, we often do it ourselves. At times we give people what we think they want to see, hear and pay for – and money talks. There are African musicians out there – mostly in the so-called “world music” genre – who sing in languages they aren’t really conversant in and dress in generic “African” attire while they claim to represent “the people”. In reality they are just trying to get some of that Young Money too, and that’s okay, but we probably shouldn’t blame the audience when we too are partaking in the projection of images we find objectionable or restrictive.

Recently, when a Swedish minister cut a cake in the shape of a black African woman complete with blood-red sponge at a celebration of World Art Day, African Swedes were outraged.

The artist, Makode Linde, who is black and Swedish, said the piece was meant “to create a Westerner’s perception of Africa in contrast to the real picture of slavery and oppression”. The controversy continues to rage, but the minister, whose resignation is being demanded by the Association for African Swedes, didn’t specify that the first slice should be cut from the genital area and then fed to the artist posing as the head of the cake while he screamed and moaned. The artist did. The museum in which the incident took place has received bomb threats, but it was only fulfilling its function as an institution for the exhibition of art. The fact that the artist was of African descent provided a false sense of security to all those present, the assurance that everything must be okay because an African was behind it. Only now do they know that we too partake in the projection of the stereotypes we complain about.  

What is more offensive than any stereotypical mention or feature of an African in a film, song or piece of art is the manipulation of the truth about Africa on platforms that are meant for educational purposes and fact-based information, e.g. history books that are still in use today. In my opinion all the rest is fair play, just as it is for everyone else in the world. For us to be so sensitive, implies far too much weakness, a lack of confidence and sense of humor. We are tough people from a tough continent, all the way from Zamunda to Nigeria.

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