Africa: Africa Insight - the New Africans Called Afropolitans
The Nation (Nairobi)
31 August 2007
Posted to the web 30 August 2007
There is a new breed of internationally mobile, young people of African descent making their mark on the world. They are neither Africans nor Americans or Europeans for that matter but children of many worlds. Afropolitans they are, writes TAIYE TUAKLI-WOSORNU
Artiste Akon Thiam: A true Afropolitan, he was born in the US, brought up in Senegal and lives in the US.
It is just midnight on a Thursday night at Medicine Bar in London. Zak, boy-genius DJ, is playing a Fela Kuti remix. The little downstairs dance floor swells with smiling, sweating men and women fusing hip-hop dance moves with a funky sort of djembe.
The women sport enormous afro hairstyles, tiny t-shirts and smile to reveal gaps in their teeth. As for the men, you wouldn't ask where they are from by the look of the torsos unique to and common on African coastlines.
The whole scene speaks of a cultural melting pot - kente cloth worn over low-waisted jeans and 'African Lady' over Ludacris bass lines. Here London meets Lagos and Durban, Dakar. Even the DJ is a fine specimen of ethnic fusion with Nigerian and Romanian blood flowing in his veins as he bobs his head and the crowd dances to 'Sweet Mother'.
Were you to ask any of these beautiful people "where are you from?'" you would get no single answer. This one was born in Accra, raised in Toronto and lives in London. That one works in Lagos but grew up in Houston, Texas. 'Home' for this lot is many things. It can be where their parents are from; where they go for vacation; where they went to school; where they see old friends or where they live (or are living this year).
At home in G-8 cities
Like so many African young people working and living in cities around the globe, they belong to no single place but feel at home in many.
They are Afropolitans - the newest generation of African emigrants, in the industrialised world. You'll know them by a funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics and academic success.
Global citizens, their accents are American but some espouse African values and speak an African language.
Also, there is at least one place on the African continent to which they tie their sense of self. Now that could be a nation-state, city or auntie's kitchen. Then there's a city or cities in the eight most industrialised nations (G-8) which they know like the backs of their hands, and the various institutions that know them for their famed focus. Afropolitans are not citizens, but Africans of the world.
It isn't hard to trace their genealogy. It started in the 1960s when their young, gifted and broke would-be parents left Africa in pursuit of higher education and happiness abroad.
A study conducted in 1999 estimated that between 1960 and 1975, about 27,000 highly skilled Africans left the continent for the West. Between 1975 and 1984, the number shot to 40,000 and then doubled again by 1987, representing about 30 per cent of Africa's highly skilled manpower. It is not surprising that the most popular destinations for these emigrants included Canada, Britain and the United States. The Cold War Era also produced scholarship opportunities in Eastern Bloc countries like Poland, former Soviet Union, Romania and others as well.
Some three decades later, this scattered tribe of pharmacists, physicists, doctors (and the odd polygamist) has set up camp around the globe. The caricatures are familiar: The Nigerian physics professor with faux-coogi sweater; the Kenyan marathonist with long legs and rolled rs; the heavyset Gambian braiding hair in a house that smells of burnt Kanekalon and the Somali running a food house in Toronto.
Even those unacquainted with synthetic cultural extensions can conjure an image of the African immigrant with only the slightest of pop culture promptings.
Somewhere between the 1988 release of Coming to America and the 2001 crowning of a Nigerian Miss World, the general image of young Africans in the West changed from the goofy to gorgeous. Leaving off the painful question of cultural condescension in Coming to America, one wonders what happened in the years between Prince Akeem and Queen Agbani?
Earned a string of degrees
One answer is adolescence. The Africans that left the continent between 1960 and 1975 had children mostly overseas. Some of them were bred on African shores then shipped to the West for higher education. Others were born in much colder climates and sent home for cultural re-indoctrination.
Either way, they spent the 1980s chasing after accolades, eating fufu at family parties, and listening to adults argue politics.
By the turn of the 20th century (the (last one), they were matching their parents in the number of degrees acquired and, or, achieving things their "people" in the grand sense only dreamed of.
This new demographic - dispersed across Brixton, Bethesda, Boston and Berlin has come of age in the 21st century, redefining what it means to be African.
Whereas their parents sought safety in traditional professions like medicine, law, banking and engineering, Afropolitans are branching into media, politics, music, venture capital, graphic design and so on. Nor are they shy about expressing their African roots (such as they are) in their work. Artists such as Keziah Jones, novelist Chimamanda Achidie - all exemplify what Trace editor, Claude Gruzintsky, calls the 21st century African.
What distinguishes this lot and its likes (in the West and at home) is a willingness to complicate Africa - namely, to engage with, critique, and celebrate the parts of Africa that mean most to them.
Perhaps what most typifies the Afropolitan consciousness is the refusal to oversimplify -the effort to understand what is ailing in Africa alongside the desire to honour what is wonderful and unique.
Rather than "essentialising" the geographical entity, Afropolitans seek to comprehend the cultural complexity, honour the intellectual and spiritual legacy and sustain their parents' cultures.
For Afropolitans, being African must mean something. The media portrayal (war, hunger) won't do. Neither will the New World trope of a bumbling, blue-black doctor. Most Afropolitans grew up aware of "being from" a blighted place; of having last names from countries which are linked to corruption. Few of them escaped those nasty "booty-scratchy" epithets, and fewer still that sense of shame when visiting their fathers' villages.
Whether they were ashamed of themselves for not knowing more about their parents' culture, or ashamed of that culture for not being more "advanced" is not clear. What is manifest is the extent to which the modern adolescent African is tasked to forge a sense of self from wildly disparate sources.
You'd never know it looking at those dapper lawyers in global firms, but most were once supremely self-conscious of being so "in between". Brown-skinned without a bedrock sense of "blackness," on the one hand and often teased by African family members for "acting white" on the other, the baby-Afropolitan can get what I call "lost in transnation".
Ultimately, the Afropolitan must form an identity along at least the national, racial and cultural dimensions with subtle tensions in between. While our parents can claim one country as home, Afropolitans must define their relationship to the places they live in. How British or American they are (or act) is in part, a matter of affect. Often unconsciously, and over time, we choose which bits of a national identity (from passport to pronunciation) to internalise as central to our personalities. So, too, the way we see our race - whether black or bi-racial or none of the above, is a question of politics, rather than pigment. Not all of us claim to be black. Often this relates to the way we were raised, whether proximate to other brown people (e.g. black Americans) or removed.
Making sense of themselves
Then there is that deep abyss of culture, ill-defined at best. One must decide what comprises African culture beyond pepper soup and filial piety. This can be utterly baffling whether one lives in an African country or not. But the process is enriching, in that it expands one's basic perspective on nation and selfhood. If nothing else, the Afropolitan knows that nothing is neatly black or white; that to 'be' anything is a matter of being sure of who you are uniquely.
To 'be' Nigerian is to belong to a passionate nation. To be Yoruba is to be heir to a spiritual depth while to be American is to ascribe to a cultural breadth. Being British is to pass customs quickly. This is what it means for me and that is the Afropolitan privilege. The acceptance of complexity common to most African cultures is not lost on the Afropolitans. Without that intrinsically multi-dimensional thinking, they cannot make sense of themselves.
And if it all sounds a little self-congratulatory, what about a little 'aren't-we-the-damn-coolest people-on-earth?' I say: yes .
It is high time the African stood up. There is nothing perfect in this formulation; for all our Adjayes and Achidies, there is a brain drain back home. Most Afropolitans could serve Africa better in Africa than at Medicine Bar on Thursdays. To be fair, a sizable number of African professionals are returning; and there is consciousness among the ones who remain, an acute awareness among this brood of too-cool-for-schools that there's work to be done.
There are those among us who wonder to the point of weeping: where next, Africa? When will the scattered tribes return? When will the talent repatriate? What lifestyles await young professionals at home? How to invest in Africa's future? The prospects can seem grim at times. The answers aren't forthcoming. But if there was ever a group who could figure it out, it is this one, unafraid of the questions.
Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu is a Nigerian-Ghanaian writer based in New York City. This article was written for The LIP magazine. Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group's Africa Media Network Project.