Is being African defined only by the tragedies that have befallen the continent? The African existence has been overwhelmingly marketed by outsiders as an endurance of endless wars, famines and diseases, which only entails Africans living through endless civil wars, famines and diseases.
This pervasive, hopeless narrative is a dated, misinformed one many young Africans across the diaspora today are working towards dispelling. The documentary series AfroPop: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange is wrapping up their eighth season tonight with two stories of innovation and creativity, in Kenya and Ghana. My Africa Is and Native Sun offer fresh perspectives on contemporary African life, shunning the prevailing homogenous storyline.
“The sensationalized news that pops up when there is a disaster in Africa is what we need to change. It’s not that some of these things aren’t true; the problem is the perspective,” says Nosarieme Garrick, executive producer and director of My Africa Is. “There is no other news coming from the continent because people aren’t bothered to know more.”
Garrick, who is Nigerian and resides in Washington, D.C., launched her independent documentary web series, My Africa Is, back in 2013 to spotlight diverse African continent through the eyes of Africans. Garrick and her team have traveled to a number of African countries seeking out game-changing young entrepreneurs driven to build a better future for their respective cities.
“An image can dictate how much funding a country gets and how many people are willing to start a business there,” she says. “To some it’s just an image, but really it is so much more than that. We try to explain the necessity of something that might sound trite to some.”
MY AFRICA IS
For the final episode of Afro-Pop: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange, My Africa Is travels to the bustling city of Nairobi. Kenya is celebrated for its world-famous safari and is best known to Westerners as President Obama’s ancestral home. But there’s a lesser known notable fact about Nairobi that drew Nosarieme Garrick to the city.
“Nairobi is the Silicon Valley of East Africa. There has been so much innovation coming out of there, from mobile money to tracking election violence,” says Garrick. The entrepreneurial and tech-savvy spirit of the city has won Nairobi the title of the most intelligent city in Africa in 2015 (for the second year in a row) by the Intelligent Community Forum. “The people are forward thinking, and we wanted to explore what is taking place there and what is to come,” adds Garrick.
My Africa Is introduces viewers to young entrepreneurs and inventors carving a place for themselves in the city’s tech hub by developing games. There has been a thriving gaming community in Nairobi for years now, with youths frequenting a number of the very popular game lounges spread out across the city. If we go by the narrative we’ve been force-fed about Africa, it’s hard to believe Kenyan youths have any time to indulge in video games, what with all the trauma of African life. “It’s important to show these kids just being kids. We need to humanize these individuals,” says Garrick.
These self-taught game developers may have been raised on a Western gaming diet, but when it came time to create their own games, it was obvious that the Anglo-Saxon superheroes they were accustomed to were not a true reflection of themselves.
“We consume so much Western media in Africa, it’s embedded in our African psyche. It was important for them to create characters they could relate to. Africans can be superheroes too, and that in itself can do wonders for the self-esteem of the youth,” says Garrick, who points out that one of the game developers had to learn how to draw African people, having been so accustomed to the Western image starring back at them while playing.
The do-it-yourself ethos doesn’t end with gaming; it also extends to conserving Kenya’s wildlife. One ingenious software-engineer uses materials found on the street, such as cardboard and metals, to build surveillance drones to monitor elephant herds and keep them safe from violent poachers. Kenya is a major transit route for ivory destined for Asian markets.
“When he talks to kids and teaches them to build these drones, they have access to all the parts. When the parts aren’t locally available, it then becomes something unattainable,” Garrick points out.
The Nairobi music scene has also been going through an experimental stage in the last 15 years, with a growing rock and punk scene. Garrick features bands that—while being influenced by the likes of Metallica and Black Sabbath—have been able to create a sound uniquely their own by adding Swahili lyrics. They aren’t only defying the standards of African music to outsiders, but to Kenyans alike.
Although fans of this genre are steadily growing, rock and punk music have yet to break into the mainstream. The negative association that older (and even the younger) generations hold about rock being demonic and evil could be blamed for this. In any case, the bands featured in My Africa Is aren’t letting the negative feedback deter them. Their passion has inspired many other Kenyans to create their own rock music.
“We are inspired by people who look just like us and sound like us,” says Garrick. “We need to have a diversity of heroes and innovators, because it lets us know it’s achievable.”
“These stories about Africa are very important because Africa itself is seldom shot beautifully,” reveals Ghanaian rapper and director Blitz the Ambassador. “For me, as someone who is invested in aesthetics, I believe it has a psychological effect on how people view themselves. If you are constantly seeing yourself shot or photographed in the worst light, that is going to become who you are.”
That’s precisely what Blitz and co-director Terence Nance set out to do with the mesmerizing short film, Native Sun. “Visually, we wanted to make something beautiful and stunning. I wanted to focus on the little idiosyncrasies that a place like Ghana has. It shows the separation of the rural versus the urban. It’s a very different experience. A lot of people don’t understand how urbanization has changed the landscape of Africa,” shares Blitz.
Shot in Accra, Ghana, the atmospheric Native Sun is an exploration of hope, love and culture through the eyes of a precocious boy who, following the death of his mother, leaves his rural home for the city in search of a father he’s never known. The film’s effective use of magic realism is right in line with what we’d expect from the mind of an 8-year-old trying to make sense of life on such an emotional journey. There’s no clear narrative here, and Blitz wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The advantage of dealing with magical realism is, you can deal in the abstract,” says Blitz. “That is rare in cinema today. Everything seems to be answered in the first 20 minutes of a film. This is for the audience that is looking to let their imagination work. There is a lot open to interpretation.”
The story came to fruition following the release of Blitz’s critically acclaimed album by the same name in 2011. “This is before Fela! was on Broadway and people understood there was more than Fela to African music. I created a sound that blended hip-hop with highlife, Afrobeat and soukous. I knew that sonically we painted a world people may not be familiar with. I needed a visual component, so people could be able to relate to the sound they were hearing,” says Blitz, who came up with the story on the flight to Accra from Washington, D.C., to shoot the project.
While shifting external perceptions of Africa is one step to redefining the continent, Blitz stresses that the future of Africa is much more dependent on how African youths view Africa. “I don’t think any one people should have that burden of proving they are worthy of being taken seriously or to be appreciated as contributors to culture, science and the arts,” Blitz indicates.
“I’m more interested in how our work influences those on the continent,” he continues. “How they can start to look at themselves as enough and as having the ability to create a world that isn’t from a dependency standpoint. It will then ricochet to the diaspora, which is our next closest ally, then it will ricochet to the larger world after that. If we focus from outside first, it’s gonna be more of the same.”
Film is one way an internal focus can be achieved, says Blitz. From the 1960s to the early ’80s Ghana had a prosperous film corporation which trained filmmakers and gave birth to some great films. Once the film corporation folded, that put an end to quality work and opened the door for the current bootleg DVD business that produces, from all accounts, a ton of poorly made and poorly written movies.
“That has been the Achilles heel for us. Are you going to spend $500,000 to make a movie that will be bootlegged by people you don’t even know?” asks Blitz.
Often times, the films are shot quickly with no regard for the craft. “We often think high standards are a European concept. An American film is supposed to look good. We don’t realize that it doesn’t matter where you shoot. If you are diligent about your craft and if the equipment is cheap, you can still tell amazing stories that look good,” says Blitz, who had a small budget and the most basic of film equipment to produce the very impressive Native Sun. “The difference is that we understand that beauty and storytelling are a craft and we take that seriously. These images and stories are so very critical to us as Africans.”
Airs on WORLD Channel tonight! Check worldchannel.org for more info.
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she’s not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she’s writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and magazines. Check out her work and blog at AlexandraPhanor.com.