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Pop culture eyes the Orisha

Little by little, I am noticing more mention of Orisha in music, films and books than ever before.



A few easily come to mind. Oya: Rise of the Orisha is “the world’s first African superhero movie”, in which Oya, the Yoruba deity of storms, becomes a superhero who uses her powers to defeat evil and save the world. The film is by Abdul Ndadi, a United States based Ghanaian animator and features a young girl called Orisha encountering mysterious beings drawn from African folklore on an adventure. Then, there is the neo-soul duo that claims to sing in appreciation and admiration of Oshun, the deity of love and fertility and have named themselves after her. Ibeyi, the French Cuban musical twins, also sing in Yoruba about the Orisha. 

This is an interesting time to observe the growth of new work emerging from Africa and the Diaspora. Orisha, deities in Yoruba cosmology who report to the supreme god, seem to keep popping up in pop culture. It looks like they are gaining popularity with creatives all over the world.   

Orisha are a wide pantheon said to number in the hundreds. They are associated with nature and each deity has its own peculiar characteristics and whims. Naturally some deities are more popular and more powerful than others. Oshun is the deity associated with, among other things, fresh water, love and fertility. Sango is, like Thor, associated with thunder. They are venerated in parts of Nigeria and Benin, as well as in the Diaspora particularly in Brazil, Cuba and other Caribbean countries where they find expression in Santeria, Candomble and Vodoun, to name a few.   

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that in the contemporary world, Orishas have become sources of inspiration. And this not before time. Just look at the enduring popularity of Greek, Roman and Viking pantheons. How many times has the story of Hercules been told? There are countless numbers of films and TV series that tell and retell the story of the strongest man in the world. People flock to cinemas to see Thor and Loki as well as other aspects of Viking folklore reimagined as superheroes. 

Oya rise of the Orisha African Superhero. Photo: Okay Africa

Oya rise of the Orisha African Superhero. Photo: Okay Africa

Orisha as inspiration fodder

Despite the widespread association of anything traditional with evil and backwardness in Nigeria, there is a history of Yoruba films that tell the story of Orisha. I remember, as a child, watching the movie Sango and being scared. That reaction was, I believe, a result of the fact that I was in an environment that demonised anything and everything that had to do with our tradition and pre-colonial heritage. There are still Nigerians who today associate objects that are harmless in and of themselves, such as clay pots, with juju. 

What makes this new stuff stand out is that they are being made by people who are not Yoruba and/or do not practice Yoruba spirituality. For example, a few of the comments below this OkayAfrica piece on Oya: Rise of the Orishas are noteworthy. One person criticises the accents in the film, as well as mispronunciation of Oya, while another wonders what turning Orisha into superheroes means for cultural understanding and appreciation. That is one question I considered recently. I think about representation and authenticity but also why it seems only to be the Orisha in particular considering that other African cultures boast just as, or even more, colourful pantheons and myths. One key difference between the Orisha as inspiration and the Vikings, Greeks etc. is that myths from the latter do not have the same relatively modern history of colonisation and demonization that African traditions have dealt with.   

Photo: correio24horas.

Photo: correio24horas.

Should there be accuracy?

To get a clearer image of how other Yoruba people feel about seeing their culture reinterpreted in such ways, I sought the opinion of a couple of friends. One friend was not happy with this visual representation of the Orisha by American graphic designer James C. Lewis. She thought they were not just offensive and inaccurate, but also ugly. When I asked her to elaborate, she pointed to the inaccuracy of the images. Yoruba men do not traditionally wear head wraps and, that aside, most of what the models are wearing has nothing to do with Yoruba culture. As my friend put it, it is “fake ‘tribal’ shit”.

Opinions are diverse, however, as another friend told me that as Yoruba, he loved seeing such reinterpretations regardless of whether credit is given or not. He elaborated that new work inspired by the Orisha allow for different and diverse stories as opposed to the same old regurgitated stuff. He liked that people are using real history and culture to create new works of fiction. 

Some will say that art deserves to be interpreted by whoever is creating it. Should we expect everyone who gets some sort of inspiration from the Orisha to stick to the original stories and myth? It remains to be seen if this interest will have larger implications on the way people living in Nigeria view indigenous traditions and spirituality. In the meantime, I personally would appreciate if people stopped referring to the Orisha as African and instead specify that they are Yoruba. Not only does Yoruba connect the Diaspora, it lets people know exactly where the Orisha originate.