Popular Culture

Popular culture includes all forms of social and personal expression that are widely available and highly visible. Related to the world of ordinary middle-class, working-class, and poor people, this “mass culture” differs significantly from the more formal “high” culture of  privileged and well-educated people. Often mass produced and current, popular culture includes forms of music, theater, and the other arts. It incorporates elements of everyday life such as hair and clothing styles, jokes, advertising images and slogans. Even “sidewalk radio”—an African practice of passing along rumors, gossip, and news in conversation, usually after reading the pages spread out on sidewalks by newspaper vendors—belongs to popular culture.

African popular culture is an ever-shifting mix of indigenous and foreign elements. Some Western influences, such as European languages and clothing styles, stem from the colonial period. Other international elements, such as kung fu movies, reflect the development of a global popular culture communicated through magazines, television shows, films, CDs, and videos from abroad.

African popular culture reflects local or regional traditions as well. It may carry meanings related to current events, politics, or the sense of identity of those who produce and consume it. An example is the chiluba, a jacket made from secondhand imported Western clothing that was worn in Zambia in the 1990s. The name of the garment came from Frederick Chiluba, Zambia’s first democratically elected president, who wore such jackets. The name and the jacket together symbolize a new freedom, a new style of government, and Zambia’s entry into the international marketplace.

South Africa

The history of popular culture in SOUTH AFRICA reveals the creative energy of black peoples who continually found new ways to respond to apartheid, poverty, and oppressive social conditions. Between the 1920s and the 1950s, urban black popular culture in the region produced local jazz clubs, dance competitions, and gospel churches. That culture was nearly destroyed in the 1960s, when government apartheid policies forced blacks to move from cities and suburbs to distant townships consisting of rows of cheap, similar brick houses. Despite limited resources, residents of the black townships created new forms of popular culture that helped their homes and communities bloom amid the barren surroundings.

Drawing upon African American popular music and culture for inspiration, black South Africans asserted their identity in their popular culture. During the 1950s, a handful of magazines published political articles. By 1963 the government had banned these magazines. Some writers fled the country; others fell silent. During the 1970s, however, writers found a new outlet—poetry that encouraged black pride and identity. After a time, the government outlawed the publication of new collections of black poetry, but in the 1980s artists turned to oral poetry and drama to express themselves. Performed without written texts and presented in a mixture of English and African languages, these works challenged apartheid and supported the struggles of workers and the poor. Out of this tradition came South African musicals such as Sarafina!, which addressed serious social problems yet offered song, dance, and the appeal of popular entertainment.

By the 1990s, black South Africans had achieved some of their political goals, and the energy of their struggle for liberation found a new focus in a youth popular culture oriented toward performance and the media. “Culture clubs” and youth clubs sprang up in black urban communities throughout the country, offering entertainment as well as educational programs and job training to the young people of the townships.

Central and Eastern Africa

In eastern and central Africa, popular music reflects the ability of African popular culture to blend and reshape elements borrowed from many sources. Pop music in the region includes an Arab style of singing called taarab, reggae sounds from the Caribbean, rhythms called benga from rural KENYA, and other influences. Many songwriters focus on love, marriage, betrayal, life, and death, but their words often incorporate political and social commentary as well.

The blend of foreign sources in the region’s popular culture can be seen in the American, Indian, British, and Chinese movies, videos, CDs, books, and television shows available in all major cities. The influence of Western culture is particularly strong, especially in film. This has led to an interest in developing a local film industry. Images from Western popular culture also appear almost everywhere within the region.

African authorities have recognized that popular culture can be an effective means of communicating a message. In TANZANIA, UGANDA, Kenya, and ZIMBABWE, the ruling parties have used popular theater performances as a way to promote economic and social policies. Private groups in Uganda have also turned to popular culture to spread health information. However, authorities have sometimes interfered. In 1977 the government of Kenya disbanded a theater group that had been working with laborers and peasants to revive an adult education center.

The government saw this project as a threat to established authority, which led to the arrest and exile of one of the group’s members, NGUGI WA THIONG’O.

Throughout eastern and central Africa, popular novels offer stories that are easy to read, emotional rather than intellectual, and intended primarily to entertain rather than to educate. Published in English and a variety of African languages, this popular fiction draws on two influences: the Western novel and traditional storytelling. Many of the novels deal with the difficulties of human relationships and the struggle to survive and succeed in a modern urban society. Some African writers have adapted Western fiction genres, such as romance and mystery novels, to African settings and culture. For example, Aubrey Kalitera of MALAWI has written stories of dramatic and often ill-fated romances in Malawian settings, using local names and landscapes rather than exotic foreign ones. Also popular are crime novels dealing with African concerns, such as ivory smuggling. Kenyan popular novelist Meja Mwangi has explored issues such as crime and punishment and ethnic and racial tensions in urban areas.

Western Africa

Some aspects of popular culture draw on traditional forms of expression that have not been greatly affected by Western influence. The masquerade—masked ceremonies or drama—has long been associated with social and religious rituals in western Africa. However, masquerades can also provide entertainment and offer ordinary citizens a way to express their views. At events such as the okumpka masquerades of southern Nigeria, people can make fun of or criticize chiefs, elders, and local politicians through masks, costumes, dancing, and songs.

During the colonial period, new forms of popular culture emerged in the urban areas of western Africa. Some of the most distinctive of these forms were musical. Highlife, a style of music born in Ghana in the 1920s, became popular and spread across much of the region in the decades that followed. Using a wide range of instruments, highlife musicians drew upon Western styles such as jazz and swing music as well as traditional African rhythms and songs. With the introduction of electric amplification in the 1940s, highlife became the dominant form of popular music in the region. Highlife songs often offered the male view of the changing customs and social patterns in the region’s fast-growing cities, especially of the changes in GENDER ROLES of urban men and women.

By the 1970s new regional forms of popular music, such as the juju music of the YORUBA peoples of southwestern Nigeria, began replacing highlife music. Another important development in the 1970s was the introduction of the cassette recorder, which allowed musicians to record and sell their own music and brought them greater recognition. At the same time, many musicians in the region began returning to their African musical roots. Most did not abandon Western instruments and equipment—instead, they combined African and Western traditions. Singers began performing and recording in local languages and dialects. As in other parts of Africa, popular music in western Africa sometimes carried a political message and could get the singer in trouble. In 1984 Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was jailed for 20 months because his Afro-beat songs repeatedly criticized the government.

The 1990s brought a surge of interest in griot artists, who belong to a centuries-old tradition of storytelling and singing. In MALI and SENEGAL, griot music is now strongly associated with national identity. Some of the most successful singers have been women called djely mousso— praise singers who recount the origins and achievements of noble families. In recent years some of these artists have recorded with orchestras and achieved great success, inspiring other women to become musicians.

North Africa

While influenced by Western culture to some extent, popular culture in North Africa is largely shaped by the customs and laws of Islam, the region’s dominant religion. For example, Islamic law bans the creation of images of people or animals, and this has affected the development of painting, poster-making, and other art. North Africa’s popular culture is also deeply influenced by Arab traditions. Pop music in North Africa is generally sung in Arabic and incorporates many elements of traditional Arabic songs. Islam and Arab culture are also strongly reflected in much of the region’s popular literature, filmmaking, and theater.

North Africa has produced its own styles of pop music. One of the best known is Algerian rai, a style of music that uses Western equipment such as drum machines and synthesizers. Portable cassette players helped spread rai, which is associated with urban youth, the celebration of pleasure (including drinking alcohol, which is forbidden to Muslims), and a rebellious attitude toward authority. That rebelliousness is not just a pose. Several music producers and singers have been killed for violating traditional Islamic customs. In North Africa and elsewhere on the continent, popular culture is intended to entertain, but it often makes a powerful personal or social statement as well. (See also Art, Body Adornment and Clothing, Cinema, Dance, Festivals and CarnivalsIslam in Africa, Literature, Masks and Masquerades, Music and Song, Oral Tradition, Photography, Proverbs and RiddlesPublishing, Radio and Television, Sports and Recreation, Theater.)