Recently, with Beyonce’s Black is King musical film – which featured African artists and showcased Africa’s rich culture – trending worldwide, I came across a tweet that said; “Can we normalize calling Beyoncé Mama Africa?” and it reminded of a quote by Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first President, and most revered founding father “I am not African because I was born in Africa, but because Africa was born in me.” The idea poses a big question; “Was Africa born in the descendants of African Americans who were transported during the Atlantic slave trade and brought into slavery?” Can these people, who had Western standards and beliefs forced upon them, causing them to do away with their tribal heritage assume their ancestry and watered-down roots?
Through the years, a lot of black celebrities who have achieved stellar heights in spite of the immense racial odds they faced, have pushed back on the European narrative that Africa was a dark continent that reflected savagery and sheer primal behavior in man. This seemingly harmless act especially by African Americans may have come with some incidental superiority that somehow blacks in America have it better and the onus is on them to uplift blacks in Africa. One of these acts of “upliftment” earned Black Entertainment Television (BET) heavy criticism due to the act of continuously giving awards to Africans off-camera before their award ceremony as opposed to during the main show. Yemi Alade, who had been a recipient spoke against this and in 2015, our beloved Starboy, Wizkid, boycotted the show and tweeted his displeasure saying; “I love you all for what you do for black entertainment worldwide. I respect the fact you guys do this every year; I know it’s not easy. I understand but I won’t be attending your pre-show and nominee parties if I’m getting the award at 10 am before the main show.” One may liken this to Netflix’s movie, Hollywood which was released on May 1, 2020, depicting Hollywood in the 1940s and foreshadowing painfully how people of color were presented their Academy Awards backstage because they were considered inferior. The brave Laura Harrier who acted as Camille Washington threatened to cause a scene if she was not let into the auditorium; she won a battle that would benefit blacks in the future. To stretch this, the same can be said for the “tantrums” of Wizkid and other African artists. In 2018, Davido glamorously graced the BET Awards main show stage to receive his Best International Act Award. Also, in 2019, Burna Boy aired his grievance that his name on the Coachella line-up bill was too small as opposed to some renowned artists and urged the organizers of the festival to fix things quickly. He said; “I really appreciate you. But I don’t appreciate the way my name is written so small on your bill, I am an African Giant and will not be reduced to whatever that tiny writing means.”
Nevertheless, It would be foolhardy to ignore the progressive moves by some top tier Black celebrities to associate with Africa. Samuel Jackson, Ludacris, Tiffany Haddish and Idris Elba claimed Gabonese, Eritrean and Sierra Leonean passports as part of their journey of self-discovery and acknowledgment of their origins. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, one of the most influential artists in the world, in her own different way and with the purest of intentions has embarked on her own journey to redefine the African narrative with her recent collaborations with African artists on her Lion King: The Gift album and its accompanying short film, Black is King, a triumphant celebration of Black people and culture. In it, African cultures are romanticized and some critics argue that the relayed narrative is a little out of the continent’s reality which is really more cotton outfits, complex roads, and less animal clothing, less pasture. Nonetheless, Beyoncé’s African dream is hers and what she can hold on to; we cannot deny her the African in her, her roots and her aspirational view of Africa whether pre-colonial or not because one way or the other even we in Africa, have had our cultures watered-down by westernization. However, while we appreciate her, I cannot ignore the fact that she is a capitalist who is also faced with the task of selling good content. Black is King, is in conjunction with Disney, and this might very well be recognized as a genius move for Disney to widen its reach while capitalizing on Beyoncé’s passion. It’s a win-win for both parties. But seeing a tweet from an overly-enthusiastic fan saying; “can we normalize calling Beyoncé ‘Mama Africa?’”begs the question; is it overreaching to acclaim someone who is in the process of African rediscovery a mother of the entire continent?
Africa has been riddled with bad publicity over the years with expressions like “shithole” and “epicenter of corruption” thrown into the mix for effect. It’s safe to say that we can be wary about cultural appropriation even when the person who glorifies it has the best intentions. It’s also okay to recognize this is a normal reaction; almost like a person who has for long been criticized as a no-good wondering what good a prospective love interest sees and wondering if they might be taken advantage of. For further context, I’ll try to flip the narrative. Consider Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who as a world-renowned author in her discovery of America, has said succinctly and in many ways, that America had always been aspirational to her- even when she chafed at its hypocrisies, it somehow always seemed sure, a nation that knew what it was doing. She studied at Undergraduate and Masters level in the states and made a decision both conscious and unconscious to discover American culture. She shared that she plans on becoming an American citizen at some point, even though she is still delaying it. As a writer, she brought to life a world-renowned bestseller about a young Nigerian encountering race in America: Americanah. The book was read widely and was selected by the New York Times as one of the “The 10 Best Books of 2013.” She has been recognized internationally with several awards and has shared in the trauma of being black in America. Her book still remains a revelation for many people encountering race in America. So, can we normalize calling Chimamanda “Mama America?”