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The story of success that we dream of in Africa goes something like this: you escape from the village where you grew up, make it to the big town, and from there leave the country to go to London, or Paris, or New York. You work extra hard, overcome a multitude of challenges and attitudes, and finally make it big over there. Only once you’ve made it over there can you truly call yourself an African success story. My question is how can you call that success when you’ve had to leave your home, leave your family, leave your culture and traditions, and change yourself to fit into someone else’s system just in order for you to ‘make it’?
That is not success.
Success is to stay where you are from and build something that people from London, Paris, or New York will travel half way across the world to be a part of. Success is where you can proudly invite people into your country, into your culture, and into your way of life, and they are happy to come and fit into the new world that you expose them to.
That is my vision of the African dream...
Not so long ago I would have stressed the importance of African artistes incorporating the English language into their music if they wanted it to break into international markets. I soon realised the flaw in my logic when I looked at my own taste in music and realised that, as an English and Swahili-speaking Kenyan, I still love kwaito music from South Africa, which is normally sung in Tsotsitaal or Zulu – this despite me having absolutely no idea what was being said! The lack of comprehension doesn’t stop me from listening to kwaito. (Although not strictly kwaito), how many of you have heard ‘Khona’ by Mafikizolo? Now, hand on heart, how many of you (non-Zulu speakers) actually understand what it’s about?
Exactly. And it almost doesn’t matter…
Those with fair skin go further. That’s the troublingly powerful message that my industry transmits. The entertainment industry disproportionately projects and elevates light-skinned women in magazines, films, music and commercials. If there’s a fair girl in it then it’s most likely she’ll be the lead – affluent, attractive, desired, rich and successful. I am not against light-skinned ladies being centre-stage or in the spotlight. I have personally used fair-skinned dancers and backing singers in my videos and live performances, not because of the shade of their skin, but because they had the right talent for the project. In an ideal world, opportunity should always come down to how good you are at what you do, not how light your skin is. Yet this ‘fair girls go far’ belief is so deeply engrained in Africa’s entertainment industries that a generation of impressionable young people are being driven to seek brighter futures by lightening their skin.
If you’ve been plugged in to discussions pertaining to Africa in recent years, you’ve probably heard rhetoric aplenty along the lines of 'Africa is rising', 'Africa is the future', 'This is the new Africa' and other statements of a comparably rosy hue. Similarly, if you’re a lover of all things tech, you’ve probably heard – if you’re not one of the many tweeting it – that this is the digital era, technology is the now and the future (and other statements of a comparably rosy hue). Now pause for a second, if you will, and imagine the barrels of crude optimism pumping through the veins of someone who identifies as both a young African and a technophile. Given all this combined hype, such a person would be half forgiven for donning their dictator’s robes and embarking on a mission to conquer the planet (Google Maps app to hand - how else would we make it 100m down the road?), firm in the belief that the world really is theirs for the taking.