Fashion groupies swooned over Lupita Nyong’o’s recent skyscraping Met Gala updo and Vogue (being Vogue) jumped to credit the inspiration for her style to Audrey Hepburn. Lupita’s blunt response via instagram reminded us how African originality has sparked brilliance in many areas of artistry across generations and continents. Even if a quick Google search was not feasible in the moment, the central problem is the rush to presume that European aesthetics is the global touchstone for style and artistry.
While there is no such thing, of course, as a single or monolithic African culture, I will refer to African culture in the singular for this discussion because: 1)The roots of what we see now existed long before Europeans took liberties with geographical lines, and 2) Expressions of those roots continue to spring forth out of the entire African continent into the rest of the world both directly and indirectly via imperialism.
In other words, wherever a child of Africa walks, there is Africa. Whether she is a Kenyan Yale graduate by way of Mexico like Lupita, or a creole American singer from Texas like Beyonce, or a mid-western lawyer like First Lady Michelle Obama, Africa’s children carry and spread her influence all over the world. The African cultural heritage is often manifested, like these women, as a mixture of civilizations, past and present, from throughout the large, diverse continent. A fashion critic should not be surprised, therefore, that a Kenyan actress drew upon on traditional African hair styling ideas.
— I Love Melanin (@ILoveMelanin) April 24, 2016
Yet, westerners have been co-opting and monetizing African artistry for centuries. The old adage that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery does not apply here because the appropriation is done while at the same time dismissing the African work as inferior or primitive imitations of western style. Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, once wrote, that Africans “in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.” He gave Africans credit for being able to grasp music better than white people, but according to him “whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved.” In essence, Jefferson believed Africans could only be imitative, not creative.
Westerners like Jefferson have tried to assess something for which they had neither the tools or acuity to observe. First, at least in Jefferson’s case, there is the obvious absurdity of judging the creativity of people who were enslaved and thus, no limited time, energy, and resources to create. Most importantly, however, African-based art, architecture, traditional hairstyles, textile prints and other forms of artistry were never designed as copies of their western counterparts. In some parts of Africa, these hallmarks of civilization were borne out of a complex math inline with nature and reflective of the culture. In his academic book and a must watch Ted Talk, Ron Eglash, a Fulbright scholar, explains:
“When Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture very disorganized and thus primitive. It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of mathematics that they hadn't even discovered yet."
Jefferson, in trying to determine African potential for invention, was obviously out of his depth. And, perhaps he was too busy writing uninformed criticism in the comfort of his office chair to notice the people he enslaved were multi-tasking in the fields—picking cotton and laying the foundation for a new genre of music, gospel. Jazz certainly would have fried his colonial brain.
In fact, most of all the other music (except for indigenous) that ever originated in the United States and the rest of the Americas was invented and cultivated over the years by African descendants. Country, blues, rock, pop, and salsa sprang from the souls of Africa. The Motherland’s complex beats and rhythms smuggled in hearts across the Atlantic was the only language the slavers could not take away.
Recently, a critic implied that the popularity of a meme about Prince and Eric Clapton was evidence of the fact that “we” think extraordinary Black guitarists are rare. Clapton fans should know that Johnnie Lee Hooker taught Clapton and the Rolling Stones what a guitar is supposed to sound like. Revolutionary artists like Hooker, B.B. King, and Bo Diddley, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe dropped their mantles for all edgy successors, especially Prince and Clapton, to pick up.
— Dawn Summers (@realdawnsummers) April 21, 2016
Yes, Africa has been colonized and exploited, but it has left a dominant mark on all of modern era as an integral part of the today’s most imperialistic and aggressive culture. While living abroad for a time, I realized much of what is now held up as the modern standard for “white is right” has been made possible by the imagination and work of the descendants of Africa. America’s original cuisine, fashion, music, and even the technological means we use to consume all of this Americana, has been brought to you by the pioneering minds of the Black diaspora. As actress and activist Amandla Steinberg recently asked, “What would America be like if we loved Black people as much as we love Black culture?” Accordingly, a bigger, more universal, question is: Would the world be like if we loved Africa’s people as much as we love the work and ideas of Africa?
African artistry and style defies western constructs. It pushes boundaries to threaten the white gaze. And, as we have seen everywhere from the runway to the museum to the concert halls, it can captivate like none other. And, as in Lupita’s work, it refuses to be judged on western terms. Beyonce’s Lemonade, and its teaser Formation, drew upon the imagery and cultural history of the African Diaspora. The overwhelming Blackness in Bey’s artistic triumph set off brush fires of think pieces from writers and protests from law enforcement personnel.
So, why does 21st century media insist on implying that Black innovation is but a mere interpretation of whiteness? We certainly want to know.
Tasha Williams is a writer by day and an human rights activist during nights and weekends. Her base of operations is NYC, but she's been spotted writing in the coffee shops of Philly, Paris, Amsterdam, and Brussels. Find her tweeting about the nexus of economics, politics, technology, and female heroes @riseupwoman