Some Reflections on Making Popular Culture in Urban Africa

By Simone, AbdouMaliq | African Studies Review, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Some Reflections on Making Popular Culture in Urban Africa


Simone, AbdouMaliq, African Studies Review


Abstract:

In contemporary urban Africa, the turbulence of the city requires incessant innovation that is capable of generating new ways of being. Rather than treating popular culture as some distinctive sector, this article attempts to investigate the popular as methods of bringing together activities and actors that on the surface would not seem compatible, and as experimental forms of generating value in the everyday life of urban residents. This investigation, sited largely in Douala, Cameroon, looks at how youth from varying neighborhoods attempt to get by, and at the unexpected forms of contestation that can ensue.

Introduction: The Long Way Home

Discussions of popular culture too often reduce it to a kind of accessory to what are considered the more important facets of urban life-the policies and development agendas, the structures of wealth generation, and the infrastructure. Parceled out among its supposed constituent elements-music, art, fashion, stylized performances, and codes of interpretation-popular culture risks a kind of commodification that detracts from its capacities to voice the processes of exchange and reciprocity that are a function of the city's social density. Popular culture is too often disaggregated into specific modalities of expression, or it becomes a populist catch-all with no apparent "sectoral home" in the all-encompassing category of "culture." These approaches divert attention from the very processes through which social relations in cities are thickened and the heterogeneous accomplishments of residents are brought into relationship with one another (Gandy 2005).

I want to consider some stories here about Douala-particularly about leaving the city and the often opaque routes through which the city is returned to-as a way of thinking about some of the tensions inherent in urban popular culture. Douala is an important city through which to think about issues of popular culture as it is increasingly fraught with tensions about who has the right to operate there and whom particular resources such as land and economic opportunities belong to (Geschiere & Nyamnjoh 2000; Ndjio 20006). There is a proliferation of fault lines-marked by ethnicity, age, gender, social class, religion, and political affiliation-that affect where individual residents can live and how they can operate. What I want to do in this article, however, is to think about the ways-often barely discernible-in which residents cross these lines and the role that popular culture plays in this crossing.

If urban popular culture is a mirroring process through which residents understand something about their collective life, as well as a vehicle through which implicit forms of social collaboration are put to work, how far does this process go in terms of getting residents to take one another into account, to interact with one another, to get rid of the impediments that may stand in the way of real collaboration? And what is real collaboration, after all? What is concretely possible and what remains a gesture toward some goal that remains always out of reach? Here I want to briefly explore notions of an egalitarian ethos-a way in which residents perceive that they operate on the same playing field and, more important, that they all coexist. This does not mean that all differences of power and struggles over power based on various modalities of social stratification are put aside. Rather, that there exist collective projects that convert differences of power and legitimacy into forms of calculation beyond the conventional notions of status or hierarchy, and in which everyone can participate and benefit without the outcomes being the product of consensus, conciliation, or brokered deals.

Elsewhere I examined one dimension of this egalitarianism in the intense anxieties of the professional class living in the middle-income Douala district of Bonamoussadi (Simone 2008). Here the proliferation of deals that their neighbors were believed to have made with a variety of opaque mystical, religious, political, or business entities made residents feel that their own well-being was significantly threatened. …

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