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  • on 30.11.2013
  • at 10:00 AM
  • by Kevin Hind

The Afropolitan Must Go 0

My first thought when reading Taiye Selasi’s 2005 essay ‘Bye-Bye Barbar’ (or ‘What is an Afropolitan?’) was that this is the kind of sludge that would piss off Binyavanga Wainaina.

One quick google and lo and behold: “For Wainaina, Afropolitanism has become the marker of crude cultural commodification — a phenomenon increasingly ‘product driven,’ design focused, and ‘potentially funded by the West.’” My second thought when reading Taiye Selasi’s ‘What is an Afropolitan?’, gesturing wildly at my MacBook in my local coffee shop, is that this is the kind of sludge that pisses me off.

I am angry for different reasons to Wainaina (though if he wanted to hang out sometime I’m sure we could have fun being pissed off together); I am not so much concerned with the commodification inherent in Afropolitanism as I am with the danger of reproducing a reductive narrative, one which implicitly licenses others to reproduce the same narrative because it has been confirmed by an ‘Afropolitan’ herself.

First, in ‘What is an Afropolitan?’ Selasi somehow manages to other her own perceived identity, as well as everyone else with an African parent or two — other, that is, against an original (i.e. a Westerner), as she describes the scene at a London bar:

The women show off enormous afros, tiny t-shirts, gaps in teeth; the men those incredible torsos unique to and common on African coastlines. The whole scene speaks of the Cultural Hybrid: kente cloth worn over low-waisted jeans; ‘African Lady’ over Ludacris bass lines; London meets Lagos meets Durban meets Dakar. Even the DJ is an ethnic fusion: Nigerian and Romanian; fair, fearless leader; bobbing his head as the crowd reacts to a sample of ‘Sweet Mother.’

Besides from adopting the tone of a National Geographic documentary, the text is clearly addressing a Westernised audience, explaining to them the strange ways and particulars of this tribe of ‘Afropolitans.’

Second, Selasi’s representation of Afropolitans in general (a group to which I too apparently belong and for which Selasi has taken it upon herself to speak) is weirdly prejudiced.

Were you to ask any of these beautiful, brown-skinned people that basic question — ‘where are you from? — …They (read: we) are Afropolitans — the newest generation of African emigrants, coming soon or collected already at a law firm/chem lab/jazz lounge near you. You’ll know us by our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes.

But what about the non-affluent African diaspora? What about insanely hideous brown-skinned people? What about white African natives? What about Africans who despise jazz?

“It’s a problematic term because it’s supposed to combine (the words) African and cosmopolitan,” says editor of Afropolitan magazine, Brendah Nyakudya, to CNN:

What it should mean is an African person in an urban environment, with the outlook and mindset that comes with urbanization — people who live Lagos, Nairobi, and have this world-facing outlook.

I agree that the term Afropolitan is problematic, but more than that, I don’t understand why a person with African roots in an urban environment needs a term to set her apart from the rest of the young people in an urban environment. Why separate African urbanites from the rest of the urbanites? How can that be constructive?

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