Are African arts and culture tainted by colonial affection?

Africa colonialism

Inequality is a far-reaching and ever complex issue that takes time and critical inspection to be able to empathize with, precisely because it impacts people differently and takes some unexpected shapes. Accordingly, I write this not as an expert, but as a curious voyeur, interested in generating discussion among readers.

My social media lately has been peppered with stories that seem to erase the hardships of inequality, and instead, trumpet a memorable and euphemistic catch phrase. Two such stories were called “Ghetto Classics” and “Slum Ballet.”

Both stories profile a slum in Nairobi, Kenya (it is unclear if they are the same place). “Ghetto Classics” is sponsored by the Kenyan Art of Music Foundation, and teaches patrons to play beloved Western music. As a researcher of colonialism, I must recognize my privilege and dissect it to understand why some Africans would seem to worship at the throne of European traditions.

To do so seems counter-intuitive to me, and my instincts tell me that this is a submissive act, but I am willing to be wrong. I hope that I am.

Fredrik Lerneryd

One member of the “Ghetto Classics” orchestra is noted saying that the band is her second family, and playing these songs helped her “realize herself, who she is.”

As a member of the African diaspora, it seems odd to me that playing Western music is how this Kenyan identifies her true self, but should it? I can recall, during my undergraduate studies, having to dissect a sensitive debate about two African authors who disagreed with each other about writing in an “authentic” voice, if there is such a thing.

Writers Chinua Achebe, renowned Nigerian novelist, and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, famed Kenyan theorist, were at odds with each other: Wa Thiong’o’s Decolonizing the Mind (a brilliant read I have taught many times) is his ‘farewell to English’, as he sees writing in the language of the colonizers to be an act of accepting imperialism, of letting it seep into his psyche, while Achebe (Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is another text praised in Western education) is resolved to assert that he has no choice, that English is the language he was given. Projects such as “Ghetto Classics” seem to align more with Achebe’s perspective.

The other Kenyan initiative I am learning about is called “Slum Ballet”, and features underprivileged, predominantly youth learning how to ballet dance, often without pointe shoes, unless they are donated to them. For the same reasons, it is curious to me, someone who is forever learning about pan-Africanism, for these African-born Kenyans to be learning a canonized Western tradition. With dances and music as rich and beautiful as there are all over Africa, I am enthusiastic about starting a discussion that may help bring understanding as to why art and entertainment of a colonizer is readily accepted and willfully performed.

I understand individuality and everyone having agency to exercise their own tastes, but is there more to be discussed?

Fredrik Lerneryd

From Decolonizing the Mind, the quote that has always resonated with me is, “The intended results are despair, despondency and a collective death-wish. Amidst this wasteland which it has created, imperialism presents itself as the cure and demands that the dependent sing hymns of praise with the constant refrain: ‘Theft is holy’. Indeed, this refrain sums up the new creed of the neo-colonial bourgeoisie in many ‘independent’ African states.”

Ghettos and slums have obvious, agreed debilitating stigmas, but should classics and ballet be praised, given their roots in imperialism? What are Africans, and those in the diaspora, to do? Washing over the issues of inequality that created, and sustains ghettos and slums in the first place is a problem very worthy of critique. Resting on the fact that “at least they’re happy” does not seem like much of a benefit and serves to instead mask the problems and leave circumstances unchanged. But I could be wrong.

Author, Ash Marshall

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