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It’s time for African award shows

Too often, African artists get drowned out at mainstream awards shows. Producer Russell Kenya from blackmedley.tv says enough is enough.

As an African, getting nominated for a BET award should be one of the highlights of your career, right? It strangely translates to a humiliating moment when you have to receive your award off screen in a rather empty room, almost as a by-the-way.

The main show proceeds, and if the viewer blinks during the live broadcast they’ll miss your name — the winner of the international artist award — when it flashes across the screen.

African artists have expressed disappointment with the criteria before, but nobody has been as vocal as Ghanian star Fuse ODG when he appeared on popular Youtube channel 10MinFix.

When asked about the BET awards, Fuse responded “I don’t really care — Africa got a lot of work to do. We can’t always rely on western companies to validate what we are doing. We need to appreciate our own art.” His words transformed into action with his  T.I.N.A (This Is New Africa) movement.

"We can’t always rely on western companies to validate what we are doing," says Ghanian Azonto star Fuse ODG. Photo: MTV
“We can’t always rely on western companies to validate what we are doing,” says Ghanian Azonto star Fuse ODG. Photo: MTV

By then a new wave of African artists and activists had already started commenting on the media’s portrayal of the continent. Back in 2005 K’naan released the hard-hitting Dusty Foot Philosopher. “When they portray us, they say all savage” he spits on Til We Get There.  Lyrics such as “Until the lion learns to speak, the tales of hunting will be weak” are even more pointed.

Kenyan author Binyanvanga Wanaina didn’t mince his words in How To Write About Africa, a satirical piece published in Granta in 2005 that mocked the use of words like ‘Africa’, ‘darkness’ and ‘safari’ in Western writing.

Another Kenyan, activist Ory Okolloh, added her voice to the conversation in a 2007 TED talk, highlighting how the media’s focus on disasters in Africa often ignored the continent’s potential. “We need to get better at telling our stories. It’s not enough to complain, we need to act,” she said.

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‘The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete,” says Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie. Photo credit: AP.

In The Danger of a Single Story, Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie warned that afro-simplistic narratives affected not only Africa but the entire world. ‘The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes recognising our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

In addition to pointing out the problem of narrow stories, she also proposed a solution. “Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity,” she said, echoing similar calls by the great Chinua Achebe.

The recognition of the universality of the human experience allowed Lupita Nyongo — a Kenyan girl born in Mexico — to portray “Patsy”, an African American character sold into slavery, in 12 Years a Slave, for which she received an Oscar in 2014. Our similarities also made it possible for a show like An African City to tap into the template of American Tv series Sex & The City to give an African twist to issues affecting women globally.

The launch of the African Music Magazine Awards music awards earlier this year put the African diaspora at the centre of deciding how we want our narrative shaped.  The organisers combed the continent to put the best African talent under one roof. South African legend Yvonne Chaka summarized the evening in one phrase: “When we join our voices together, our voices become so loud, the world stops to listen”.

An award show for Africans, by Africans, helping shape the African narrative in the diaspora? Like Fuse ODG said — “It’s time we create African award shows”.

Russell Kenya is a producer for BlackMedley.tv

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