“The Hipster Africa Experience does not represent anything particularly progressive”

I missed Emma Dabiri’s piece “Why I’m Not an Afropolitan” when it came out last year, but Jen Gaugler linked me to it recently.  It’s an insightful critique of the type of commodification of African cultures which Dabiri sees exemplified by “palm wine mojitos and fashion shows at the Afropolitan V&A event.”  I’ll say up front that I don’t share all of her concerns about this kind of consumerism, in part because I’m happy that I live in a world where I can buy these wax print espadrilles from Ohema Ohene, and in part because I think capitalism writ large is a phenomenal poverty reduction tool.  However, she had a number of thought-provoking points about whether Afropolitanism replicates neocolonial power dynamics rather than challenging them.

As Minna Salami writes on her blog Africans should be as free to have multiple subcultures as anyone else, but the problem with Afropolitism to me is that the insights on race, modernity and identity appear to be increasingly sidelined in sacrifice to the consumerism Mbembe also identifies as part of the Afropolitan assemblage.  …

Our value is not determined by our ability to produce African flavoured versions of Western convention and form. Such an approach will surely only ever leave us playing catch-up in a game the rules of which we did not write. That whole lifestyle of Sex And The City feminism, cocktails, designer clothes, handbags and shoes is not particularly liberating in an Anglo-American context, so I see no reason why we should transfer such models to Africa and declare it progress. I’m not saying there’s no place for such activities in the African context but it represents less of a departure from the behaviour of post-colonial elites than a repetition of same as it ever was.

The question of who produces culture, and for whom, is also well-taken.

The danger of Afropolitanism becoming the voice of Africa can be likened to the criticisms levelled against second wave feminists who failed to identify their privilege as white and middle class while claiming to speak for all women. Because while we may all be Africans, there is a huge gap between my African experience and my father’s houseboys.  …

While Afropolitans talk and talk about what it means to be young, cool and African, are many of them concerned with addressing the world beyond their own social realities, to the issues that concern other Africans?

Her closing paragraph on the “hipster Africa experience” really hit home as a description of expat circles as well.

In a recent Guardian interview, Taiye Selasie, who popularised the term in her 2005 essay ByeBye Barbar or What is an Afropolitan?, presents an image of an Instagram-friendly Africa.  …  In Burkina Faso she danced until 5am in a western-themed club and watched movies at a feminist film festival.  …  To her Togo was a seaside treat which she likens to Malibu with motorini.  Later she gushes about hanging out on the beach with hundreds of super-cool Togolese hipsters.

Such an itinerary would be acceptable to any self respecting inhabitant of hipster capitals Hackney or Williamsburg and it’s wonderful that you can now have the Hipster Africa Experience, but I fail to see how this represents anything particularly progressive.

I don’t think it’s wrong or inherently problematic to do any of these things.  But the complexities of privilege and intersectionality that Dabiri lays out here are fascinating.  While many aspects of this type of commercialized Afropolitanism are about reclaiming a previously marginalized African identity, that doesn’t free the producers of this new identity from participation in other unequal power dynamics.  This was also a good reminder to me that while talking about white privilege and Northern privilege is necessary, it certainly isn’t the only important conversation to be had about this.

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