Popular Culture and Public Space in Africa: The Possibilities of Cultural Citizenship

By Dolby, Nadine | African Studies Review, December 2006 | Go to article overview
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Popular Culture and Public Space in Africa: The Possibilities of Cultural Citizenship


Dolby, Nadine, African Studies Review


Abstract:

Popular culture in Africa is increasingly intertwined with the public space of nations. Drawing on contemporary scholarship on popular culture, citizenship, and identity in transnational and global contexts, this article analyzes the phenomenal success of the television show Big Brother Africa in 2003 and argues that people's everyday engagement with popular culture, including television, must be a central component of understanding emergent public spaces and citizenship practices in Africa's present and future.

Résumé: En Afrique, la culture populaire se fond de plus en plus avec l'espace public des états. S'appuyant sur des recherches récentes portant sur la culture populaire, la citoyenneté et l'identité dans un contexte transnational et mondial, cet article analyse le succès phénoménal que l'émission de télévision Big Brother Africa a rencontré en 2003 et démontre que la relation qu'entretiennent au quotidien les citoyens avec la culture populaire y compris la télévision est un élément essentiel pour comprendre les espaces publics et les pratiques citoyennes qui émergent dans l'Afrique d'aujourd'hui et de demain.

Introduction

While research on traditional forms of popular culture has an established history in the field of African studies, there is a growing interest in studying emergent cultural and media forms, such as contemporary music (Hofmeyr, Nyairo, & Ogude 2003; Larkin 2004), movies and films (Diawara 2003), popular magazines (Nuttall 2003), clothing and fashion (Dolby 2001; Hansen 2000; Scheld 2003; Nuttall 2004); television (Barnett 2004; Fair 2003), and urban and rural culture (Barber 1997; Zeleza & Veney 2003). Such intensified research and analysis are timely, as popular culture in Africa-as elsewhere in the world-is increasingly intertwined with the public spaces of nations. For example, in the Kenyan context, Isabel Hofmeyr, Joyce Nyairo, and James Ogude (2003) analyzed the interplay of popular music and politics in the 2002 elections. In Liberia, George Weah, a world renowned football (soccer) star, used his popular celebrity as the basis for his campaign for the presidency of the nation (Rice 2005). Popular culture is also a significant component of transnational imaginaries and spaces (Appadurai 1993, 1996), as demonstrated, for example, by Rob Nixon's (1994) scholarship on the relationship between mediascapes in South Africa and the United States.

In this article, I draw on contemporary scholarship on popular culture, citizenship, and identity in a transnational and global context to analyze the phenomenal success of the television show Big Brother Africa in 2003. I argue that people's everyday engagement with popular culture-including in this case, a television show-must be a central component in understanding emergent public spaces and citizenship practices in Africa's present and future.

Popular Culture and Public Space

Popular culture is a critical component of people's lives and identities in societies throughout the world (Dolby 2003; Grossberg 1989; Hall 1981). Youth are particularly voracious consumers and producers of popular culture (Lipsitz, Maira, & Soep 2004; Willis 1990). Though youths' ability to consume popular culture is largely dictated by their economic means, and is in some cases constrained by religious or cultural norms, the products of a media-obsessed world shape the imaginative landscape of youth's lives.

As Larry Grossberg (1989) argues, popular culture is a central force of affective investment for people: it grips their hearts and minds and strongly influences the possibilities of their imagination. Regardless of their actual access to media, youth around the world are captivated by the images and sounds that flow from screens and boomboxes; being part of popular culture is a key component of modernity and feeling that one is somehow connected to the global flows described by Arjun Appadurai (1996).

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