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Connected states of Africa – Creatives look beyond national lockdowns

The Covid-19 pandemic interrupted dynamic Pan-African movements and efforts but artists are regrouping to pursue new opportunities enabled by the internet. Digitally and financially inclusive models are the next step to empower citizens and creatives, circumventing various existing restrictions.

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Globalisation has made the world smaller, stimulating and strengthening the growth of many industries including the global creative economy. Over the past decade, many African countries have recorded impressive gains in various economic sectors including tourism, thanks to innovative initiatives and campaigns. Successful initiatives included Ghana’s Year of Return, the Afro Nation concert in Portugal and established gatherings such as the Ake Festival in Nigeria, which all showed the necessary connections between culture and travel as well as tourism. But Covid-19 has locked the borders and now African creatives have turned to the internet to collaborate regionally and engage a growing online audience.

Covid-19 struck on the back of a great year in the African music and arts industries. In 2019, Afrobeats and African speculative fiction were coming full circle as two of Africa’s dynamic movements. Although Western tastemakers and labels are belatedly accepting African music as global pop, the markets and the agency at home made it happen. Regional coordination in the form of dedicated awards, magazines, book publishers and an organisation has also spurred African speculative fiction and spawned global stars. There was so much to harvest when Covid-19 took everyone off the road.

The Year of Return, Ghana 2019 is an initiative to encourage African diasporans to come to Africa (Ghana) to settle and invest.

Content consumers were forced to change their lifestyles and habits owing to various disruptions. The silver lining has been the spike in online traffic. Globally, lockdown measures enforced  by various countries due to the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in a surge in television consumption and online streaming. Streamed volume went up by 12 percent while internet hits recorded up to 70 percent increase in the initial phase of lockdown, according to Omdia’s global findings. “The new reality has become live streaming or pre-recorded performances. This cannot replace all the lost income and jobs but is one part of the solutions being implemented now,” Jess White of Akum Agency in South Africa said in the preliminary report on The Financial Impact of Covid-19 on the African Music Sector by Music in Africa. In South Africa, the live music industry lost 90 percent income for much of the lockdown and 88 percent of the artists have adopted online music strategies. 

As audiences warm up to the live music on Facebook and Instagram, creatives and label honchos are looking to cash in. Africa has 280 million of online shoppers with an average B2C e-commerce spending of 58 EUR per shopper, according to Statista. “We expect that more than ever advertisers will be looking to engage with artist brands as influencers and endorsers of their products and even start to generate their own content such as podcasts in an effort to engage with audiences,” Wanjiku Koinange of Mdundo in Kenya noted in the Music in Africa survey.

African writers and critics are engaging across borders on Zoom, Instagram and Facebook. On Instagram Live, literary blogger Ayinehi Ehoro chatted up Mukoma waNgugi, Nnedi Okorafor, Kiru Taye, Jeanne-Marie Jackson Awotwi, Chibundu Onuzo and many others in her #WeTurnToBooks series. Khumbulani Bandula Muleya also hosts literary conversations with players in the book sector, interfacing Thomas Mapfumo and his biographer, Banning Eyre, in one of his more recent podcasts. “To keep literature visible, I coordinate a literary initiative made up of poets whom we publish using various platforms on television, radio and newspapers.” Poems in several languages are peer-reviewed in Muleya’s WhatsApp groups and sent to online and traditional media.


Artists eye opportunities for Pan African collaboration

Mokoomba, a Zimbabwean Afro-fusion band has managed to maintain a wide Pan-African reach during the country’s lockdown. “Our last trip was to Ivory Coast. After Covid-19 lockdowns we have only taken part in virtual festival concerts that have produced in some African countries,” Mokoomba manager Marcus Gora told This Is Africa. “It does help us keep in touch with our audience and do more collaborative work with other African artists and players. But we are still in the process of coming up with new models that can work for the continent while hoping that soon there will be possibilities to work both online and offline.

However, the manager of Zimbabwe’s biggest touring band, noted that artists are still down because alternative sources of connectivity and income remain restricted or banned outright. “People have not been pushed to look at a lot of things differently. Our band has been affected by local restrictions on performances and crowds as well as restrictions on travel because in a normal year we would tour 15 countries at least to perform,” Gora said.

Zimbabwean arts blogger and creative director Plot Mhako witnessed an eightfold increase of audience engagement on his platforms during lockdown. Mhako co-creates video and other content from his Germany base and has appeared on platforms such as Flensburg based Fratz Radio to discuss the work of African musicians. “When Covid-19 happened, it didn’t catch us unaware,” Mhako told This Is Africa. “We had actually started creating platforms like Earground, so it was plug-and-play, only with a bit of money required to monetise. We managed to capture a lot of content in the past 11 months than we have done for years. We have also partnered, collaborated and exchanged skills with a lot of initiatives, festivals and events,” Mhako added.

Live-streams have been the main game-changer in Zimbabwe’s music space. Perhaps because lockdown favours reflecting over partying, conscious lyricists previously under the radar – Zimdancehall’s Poptain and Nutty O, and Zim hip hop’s Holy Ten and Noble Stylz – became some of the most talked about artists. When I interviewed Poptain in 2018, he was quite the underdog of the new school, despite having perfected his craft with more 100 singles at the time. It took concerts on Facebook pages such as ZimCelebs, Nash TV, Gara Mumba Iwe, Ngoda TV and others during lockdown for him to emerge as the breakout star of lockdown, subsequently topping Trace TV charts with songs premiered on Facebook.


Corporates are catching on with sponsored concerts on those pages and gateway streaming has also been incorporated for monetisation. “One of the big developments has been a gateway stream platform that has been developed by a subsidiary of RTG. Unfortunately, after a good start, a big event that was supposed to feature Winky D and Jah Prayzah…did not happen. This would have been a major highlight because it was going to change the mindset of creatives and consumers,” Mhako told This Is Africa.

2019 sleeper “Jerusalema” popped over the lockdown web, reaching number one is markets as diverse as Belgium, Hungary, Netherlands, Romania, Switzerland and US, and platinum certifications in Belgium, France and Italy.  South African artist Kgaogelo Moagi, known professionally as Master KG enjoyed unparalleled success thanks to the smash hit Jerusalema. The global Jerusalema dance challenge united people in lockdown, and it was used to make different social, corporate and political statements, and it got a nod from other global stars. With more than a million subscriptions spawned by the single on Spotify, Master KG earned an internet foothold for his genre.  Streamed more than 143 million times this year on Spotify  (not counting millions more streams on its remixes) the song set numerous records. Master KG  received numerous nominations and scooped multiple international awards including Best African Act at the MTV Europe Music Awards and the prestigious French NRJ Music Award making history by becoming the first African artist to bag the French award.

The digital divide and lack of financial inclusion, however, continue to disempower citizens and creatives. For example, some reports estimate that a third of African students cannot access the internet even though e-learning has become mandatory during lockdown. In South Africa, the Independent Communications Authority has recommended for data tariffs to be reduced.  Netflix has also announced in April it would cut its bandwidth by 25 percentage to African subscribers. More such initiatives will reenergise the creative economy and democratise the citizen space.

This article is written as part of a collection commissioned in partnership with African Crossroads under the theme “Re-imagining the pan-African dream — reflecting on the past, experiencing the present and imagining the future”. The contents of the series are the sole responsibility of This Is Africa Trust, and cannot be regarded as reflecting the official position of Hivos Foundation.