The beat of SA cultural arrogance

2012-04-14 10:59

South Africans act like the Americans of Africa, a friend of mine said not long ago. She’s a Zambian girl, brought up in Britain and living in Lusaka, although her job requires her to travel across Africa.

So that’s where her chosen stereotype-within-a-stereotype has its basis: the generalisation about Americans is that they are blinkered and not too bothered by life beyond their own backyard.

Mzansi’s economic and, it seems, cultural dominion affords its citizens a similarly lazy and arrogant outlook. When they describe someone’s origins as “from Africa” they mean a land far away, homogenised into one country by untold suffering.

I get it all the time here. A taxi driver will attempt a conversation with the charming opener, “O bloma le mang?” (Hello, nice.) I offer my best basic Setswana, blagging through the small talk until my increasingly unintelligible responses and dark skin give me away.

I’m foreign and now he knows it. I brace myself as we switch to English. “Where are you from?” he will ask, sometimes even offering a guess or two: Zimbabwe and Nigeria are the favourites. “Uganda,” I answer, just short of explaining where that is.

Usually there’s a short pause, then out comes the smug remark, “It’s nice here in South Africa, neh?” I nod and smile.

It’s not just a blue collar attitude either. Last month, in the yellow fever incident between SA and Nigeria, endemic antagonism at the highest levels made itself quite clear.

This weekend Motswako rap pioneer Hip Hop Pantsula is off to Accra where, along with stars such as Angolan Cabo Snoop, he’s one of the main attractions at the Ghana Music Awards.

I wonder whether we’d ever see Nigerian singer Flavour N’Abania on the SA Music Awards stage. Seeing he gave Africa (the one including South Africa) its biggest hit last year, he should.

Nwa Baby was originally a high life song on Flavour’s debut album with modest national success. When it was remixed, at first for a Ghanaian audience, it took on a life of its own.

East Africans take to basic dancehall riddim like ducks to water. So it was a no-brainer, especially for a region where urban music from other African destinations has a strong presence anyway.

South African music has always found an enthusiastic audience within such receptive cultures. My memories of living in Kampala aged eight are infused with Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s Thank You Mr DJ constantly on the radio.

And today, with the well documented global rise of SA house music, there is a continental aspect to the trajectory: Kenya’s biggest youth-driven radio station Homeboyz hosts club nights and radio shows dedicated to Mzansi-style house.

You can’t miss the kwaito influences in azonto, the dance craze started in Ghana that exploded on the growing Afrobeats scene. In the space of a year DJ Cleo has been to spin in Zambia seven times.

Moving down south, the ascent of Nwa Baby was nothing short of phenomenal. Blaring in taxis, playing as ringtones and shattering the mould of top 40 radio programming, it became a contender for best-loved song in SA in 2011. In February, SA record label Soul Candi scrambled to cash in on the profit that pirate vendors had enjoyed since last June when the song’s video (made in SA) came into heavy rotation on MTV Base before spreading like wildfire to other networks.

The closest South Africa ever came to this hearty embrace of a pan-African banger was when Ivorian group Magic System’s song Premier Gaou hit these shores circa 2003, after it raged the length of Africa and the diaspora.

Before MTV Base you had to dig deep to hear African songs like that. In cosmopolitan Joburg, your best bet was clubs like Sankayi, the haunt of middle-aged foreign African men, prostitutes and under-aged girls with daddy issues.

Nowadays MTV Base is your first port of call to track what urban African youth are listening to.

We blame popular culture for everything: Hip-hop for misogynism, video games for violence, and movies for teenage promiscuity. Obviously there’s a lot wrong with this oversimplified view, but we all agree that there is no better tool to get into a young mind than pop music.

Maybe the conceit of a generation which thinks nothing happens beyond Botswana will come out in the wash eventually. Maybe not. My hope is in generation 2.0 – the kids who use YouTube to make up their own minds about what is cool.

They saw Kanye West perform live in London with D’Banj after the Nigerian pop star had been signed to West’s label and understood what the big deal was.

Soon enough they will be able to reciprocate the millions of dollars Nigerian artists invest in SA on music videos and advertising. They just might rescue South Africa, perceived largely as aloof and insular, from being the most resented country on the continent.

» Okumu is editor of the AfriPOP website

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