Minstrels from Africa

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In my experience, there has always been some tension regarding the way that folks of African heritage are seen by people who have roots in other cultures. Somehow, people who been brought up in families with values that come from anywhere in Africa are expected to subscribe to a “one size fits all” worldview, when in actual truth, there are a wide variety of cultural practices and traditions in a multiplicity of ethnic groups on the continent.

Folks of direct African descent are also expected to be the custodians of the history of Black people from other parts of the world. These perceptions are convenient for observers from outside of the continent, but they are hugely restricting and a source of frustration to many folks who happen to be of African descent.

My experience of the limitations of going along with the preconceived notions of what it means to be an “authentic African” was most acute in the record business, especially around the time when the “World Music” genre was introduced by some entrepreneurs who aimed to get a clearly defined space in record shops for their products, about three decades ago. Some Africans bought into the idea of the World Music enthusiasts. They found obscure African instruments that were only used and heard by folks in small rural communities, dressed themselves up in turbans and played up to the stereotypical notions of the entrepreneurs from other cultures.

I do not begrudge those musicians the right to earn a living and support their families, but I would like to ask a question: How is their career choice any different from that of an African American performer playing to White stereotypes about Black culture by putting on a minstrel show?

I’m not a fan of Spike Lee’s output, but his film “Bamboozled” was an important statement about the dilemma that faces many artists of Black African descent. The late, great Miles Davis was also very clear in expressing his views- that we should aim to express truthfulness in our lives as artists. Perhaps history might be kind to those World Music minstrels, but the jury is still out, in this regard.