/ 25 May 2019

Fela in Versace: how popular culture is driving 21st century pan-Africanism

Fela in Versace artist AKA.
Fela Kuti.


This Saturday marks the 56th anniversary of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which became the African Union (AU) in 2002. This day is known as Africa Day, and this year it aligns with South Africa’s inauguration of President Cyril Ramaphosa as the country’s fourth democratically elected president. While South Africans hope for political renewal in the new administration, this day invites reflections about the state and quality of African independence and the achievement of unity.

The original motivation for the founding of the OAU was the liberation of Africans from colonial invasion. The defeat of apartheid as the last terrain of white settler rule in Africa, for example, marked the success of the political liberation of the continent. While South Africans marked a new dawn, some countries such as Rwanda were forced to confront enduring colonial legacies of divide and rule and the challenges of transforming the post-colonial state to serve as a provider of public goods and unifier of all those belonging to the nation. The difficult task of African nationalism and Pan-Africanism is to transform the logic of the state that was designed to serve the minority colonial rulers to change it to serve the interests of the African majority.

The OAU fast became irrelevant in the lives of Africans because of its reverence to the principle of non-interference that is central to Westphalian statehood that was adopted by African countries at independence. We welcomed the evolution of the OAU to the AU because it signaled an awareness by a new group of African leaders that Pan-Africanism can only be achieved when Africans are free from war, poverty and inequality in their countries. The time of high-level Pan-Africanism during the leadership of Thabo Mbeki and Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo led to the growth of the continent’s security architecture and a substantive decline of civil wars in Africa and a continental vision of development through projects such as NEPAD.

The disappearance of these figures from the continental scene led to a period of less spectacular displays and laments about a lost African Renaissance. This may be because South Africans were surviving Jacob Zuma, and Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari, who has been ill since taking office in 2015,has been ducking claims that he died and has been replaced by a clone named Jubril from Sudan.

The emergence of new leaders such as Ethiopia’s impressive Abiy Ahmed, and changes of governments in countries such as Algeria and Sudan, may signal a new era of African leadership and new meanings of nationalism and Pan-Africanism.

At a recent symposium on African integration and Pan-Africanism hosted by the African Peer Review Mechanism at the University of Cape Town, I argued that some of the most exciting examples of integration and Pan-Africanism can be found in popular culture.

Less than five years ago, it was unusual that musicians from multiple African countries could be collaborating regularly as they do today. Currently, many of us listen to a genre loosely known as “African hits” that is mostly dominated by Nigerian musicians like Davido, Tekno, Tiwa Savage, Yemi Alade, Niniola, Dbanj, Wizkid, Runtown and Flavour, who collaborate with South Africa musicians such as Busiswa, Mafikizolo, AKA, Nasty C, Cassper Nyovest, and Tanzanian musicians such Diamond Platnumz, Kenyan groups such as Sauti Sol and Zimbabwean musicians such as Jah Prayzah.

The feminist sociologist, Nthabiseng Motsemme, speaks of “popular cultures of survival”. So while there was a political of high-level African collaboration between leaders such as Mbeki and Obasanjo, that era was followed by tensions and silences among Africa’s more powerful countries. It is in the more quiet years of political collaboration that we have seen the rise of this popular culture that has led to frequent collaborations that we now take for granted and assume to have always been possible. What has made these collaborations materially possible? Who are the music producers who connected Mafikizolo to Davido? What is the ideological vision of songs such as “Fela in Versace” that sees AKA proudly wearing a Nigerian flag, features the lyric “Fela Kuti in Versace, Mandela in Harare”, what does this moment of Pan-Africanism in popular culture mean?

When the AU is making promising strides in realising African integration through the adoption of the Continental Free Trade Agreement and the Treaty on Free Movement of Persons,what lessons should be taken from these popular sites of pan-Africanism?

In the aftermath of World War II, Karl Deutsch was theorising about the necessary ingredients that would make European integration possible. Among them was the importance of the free movement of people. He argued that integration would not be possible until Europeans achieved creating a “we feeling” among the people that is based on “trust, and mutual consideration, of partial identification of self-images and interests”. Through the success of Nollywood, these exciting artistic collaborations among Africans, there is a sense that Africans know a little more about each other.

These collaborations are showing us that Africans can work together, we can play together and make bankable profits. Too often African migration is discussed in negative terms where host countries assume that Africans entering their countries are a source of economic and social burden. The Protocol on Free Movement of Persons aspires towards the realisation of an African passport that will make travel and work among AU member states easy. These elite artists are showing us that if Africans in different sectors are able to work together across countries more easily, we stand to benefit in economic, social and creative ways that propel us forward. All of these are aligned with the continental Agenda 2063 of building the Africa that we want.

Dr Siphokazi Magadla is a senior lecturer in the Political and International Studies department at Rhodes University, Makhanda.