The BET Awards do Africa

What are the cultural implications of the success of individual African artists in particularly U.S. mainstream media and award shows?

Image: Wiki Commons.

In 2011, US TV network BET (originally Black Entertainment Television) introduced a category into their annual awards show called “Best International Act: Africa.” I wasn’t that surprised. We’ve been heading down the road towards a mainstream acknowledgement of #InternationalBlack-ness for a while.

I chalk it up to the purchasing power and cultural influence that African immigrants in America and England have been able to amass in recent years. Apparently in Houston, the city with America’s largest Nigerian population, they play D’Banj on the local Hip Hop station, and we all know how “Afrobeats” have taken over London. Since BET is based in Washington D.C., a city with the second largest African-born population in the U.S., their inclusion of a permanent Africa category only makes sense.

BET’s history of courting an international black audience began with the creation of BET International, a network aimed at the British market, and aired in Africa and the Middle East. When I was visiting London a few years ago, it felt a little strange to sit with my cousins and watch the music video show “106th and Park” with all its American cultural references, just as if we were in some U.S. city. But my cousins seemed to love it, and perhaps it helped them to feel connected to the real-time “cool” going on in The States, boosting their notions of participation in a global society.

The first visible acknowledgement of explicitly African contemporary popular culture I can remember on BET is the inclusion of Tanzanian MC Gsan into their cypher segment during the 2009 BET Awards. In the following years, this segment has grown to include cyphers separated out by country, the first two getting featured being Ghana and Nigeria. But, rather than a renewed interest in a political pan-Africanism on the part of Americans, this new global black consciousness is propelled by commercialism, and the “growing middle-classes” that are so-often cited these days in stories about Africa and its diaspora. I suppose that taking a cue from MTV Base, and such TV franchises as “Big Brother Africa” (which we promise to give the proper AIAC treatment sometime soon), BET is aware of Africa’s economic shifts, and the potential the network has to take a central role in shaping the cultural consciousness of a global black consumer class.

Having invested in the market of non-U.S. black entertainment, I understand how BET would try and buffer their empire by doing a little cross-oceanic promotion, and adding a few “international” categories into their mainly U.S. focused award show. And perhaps it has worked because artists like Estelle and Tiny Tempah have since been able to find some success in the mainstream Black-American market. Time will only tell if African artists, like last year’s nominees D’Banj and 2face who have both signed with American management companies this past year, will follow suit.

But what are the cultural implications of the success of these individual artists? It’s true that the inclusion of African artists in an awards show is a positive “first step” to open the doors to Africa for American pop-consumers. Too often mainstream media in general tends to obscure black complexity and ignore the different global socio-economic forces that give people of similar skin-tone diverse life experiences. Yet, during the rest of the year (save for a few Caribbean video shows I’ve seen) BET is a company that seems more invested in projecting its U.S.-centric brand outwards rather than investing in a non-American outlook on its networks. So these inclusionary attempts tend to look like a case of an acknowledgement of those that can most “act like us,” than a desire to connect with a diverse international idea of blackness. It’s a daunting task to represent a continent with a billion people and a thousand languages and cultures — trust us, we know. As a mainstream media source that has to sell ads and cater to most common cultural denominators, the network doesn’t seem totally equipped to do that. And, that’s perhaps exactly where this new permanent ‘Africa’ category fails.

To me, the nominees for “Best International Act: Africa” kind of feel like a random drawing of names out of a hat. (Full disclosure: this year I’ve been chosen to vote.) This year the nominees come from across a smattering of different regions and languages: Kenyan rap group Camp Mulla (above), Nigerian rappers Ice Prince and Wizkid, South African songstress Lira, French-Malian rapper Mokobe, and Ghanaian Azonto-rapper Sarkodie. The Nigerians Ice Prince and Wizkid could easily sit alongside Sarkodie, but who’s to say that a fan of Mokobe will know who Camp Mulla is or vice versa. There is no real acknowledgement of difference in audience due to genre, language, region, or even the industry they belong to (and obviously Anglophones have an unfair advantage). But even with their differences all these artists approximate to global notions of blackness that have been forged by the American entertainment industry. They all kind of fit (especially via access to resources as evidenced by their music videos) into American definitions of normal-ness.

Perhaps then, this award functions more as an awareness campaign than any judgement of who is “the best.” But, that somehow just leaves us with more questions as to the cultural meaning of the category. In the wake of the success of Dancehall artists like Sean Paul, why is there still no Caribbean international category? (And why is Rihanna not in it?) And, what if, as This is Africa suggests, African artists were included in their proper categories alongside American artists? Why couldn’t we pit Mokobe against Drake, or P Square against Usher? And while we’re at it, let’s add some Afro-Latino artists in the mix. Then we might start to see more of the kind of collaborations that got Usher jumping on a Bachata song. In the United States, Latinos will very soon dominate in everything from the economy to politics to culture to sport. In this future, it will be interesting to see how networks like BET deal with Latino-ness (as well as how a Latino-oriented network like Univision will deal with American Black-ness). Maybe by keeping their award categories separate BET is able to deflect the latent fear Americans have about immigrants stealing jobs.

The BET Awards air on July 1st, tune in to find out who the winners are.

Further Reading

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At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.