Why All the Fuss about Cultural Appropriation?

So a few weeks ago, I wrote about Afronesia and Afrotortion – the acts of erasing Africa and distorting her value. I suggested that the only way to end this toxic relationship between Africa and the rest of the world was for those of us who care to seek truth and speak out.  Damien Hirst then went to look for my trouble that I hid in a far away place. Oshisko! Alaparutu!! Atoole!!! So what did Damien actually do?


On the left is an Ife terracotta head sculpted by artists from Ile-Ife in present day Osun State between the 12th and 14th century. On the right is Hirst’s ‘work’ titled, “Golden Heads (Female)”, displayed at his Venice show “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” at Palazzo Grassi, with no reference to Ife or Nigeria. (May 2017)

On 5th of May 2017, my fellow Nigerian and lawyer, Laolu Sebanjo (a renowned artist in his own right) wrote a blistering letter to Hirst. Please read it. Please. To quote Laolu

‘Who’s past should we believe?  Is it the German Anthropologist (Frobenius) who claims the Yorubas were far too primitive to create such beautiful things or is it we the descendants of the Yoruba people who know our own history and can recognize a counterfeit when we see it.  This body of work, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is an unbelievable pile of cheap knock offs.’

So let us talk about cultural appropriation. What is it and why is it so bad?

“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.” Susan Scafidi

Looking at this definition we see that the sticking point in cultural appropriation is ‘without permission’ or ‘unauthorised use’. Cultural appropriation is not just about the taking, it is about the stealing, it is about the exploitation of other people’s labour, it is about treating the ‘other’ with contempt. It is epistemic violence and actual violence. Two examples:

In 1897 the British, during a punitive military expedition looted an estimated 3,000 bronzes, ivory-works, carved tusks and oak chests from the Kingdom of Benin (present-day Nigeria). These were then sold in the private European art market. Today Benin Bronzes can be found in museums and collections worldwide. And, in 1990, one single Benin head was sold for US$2.3 million by a London-based auction house. None of this money has ever been given to any of the original art-workers or their descendants.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight, is a song written and recorded originally by Solomon Linda in 1939. It is a key piece of music in the beautiful Disney animated movie The Lion King. In 2000 Rian Malan wrote an article titled, In the Jungle: How American music legends made millions off the work of a Zulu tribesman who died a pauper.’ The article chronicles how the copyright of the song was essentially stolen from Linda and commercialised in the West, eventually generating about US$15 million. It was only when Malan’s article was published that Linda’s estate was eventually able to recover a comparably paltry sum in royalties.

And this is why cultural appropriation is bad, why it hurts, why it makes us rage and bleed. Because each act of theft takes us back. Back to slavery again. It reminds us that we are bound. Each appropriation re-appropriates our labour, our blood, our sweat. Cultural appropriation recolonises us. Each time things like this happen we remember the chains that bind us. We remember that our labour remains stolen. Our work of little value to us. Our work enriches those who treat us contemptibly, but not us.

This is why epistemic violence is violent, our culture is violently ripped away like a new born baby ripped from its mother, blood dripping, placenta popping. Our labour is re-purposed to put food in someone else’s mouth and we are bereft, powerless, hungry. Cultural appropriation means that someone’s ease is bought by someone else’s value. A world in which we can be condemned to hunger in this way, a world that so easily dehumanizes and deprives… this is a violent world. Remember we all die slowly. We are all human. But some die slowly and in pain, because some choose to wilfully ignore the fact that we are all human.

This is why we should talk endlessly and tirelessly about decolonisation in the 21st century. Victor Ehikhamenor (another Nigerian artist) said of Hirst’s ‘work’:

‘For the thousands of viewers seeing this for the first time, they won’t think Ife, they won’t think Nigeria. Their young ones will grow up to know this work as Damien Hirst’s. As time passes it will pass for a Damien Hirst, regardless of his small print caption. The narrative will shift and the young Ife or Nigerian contemporary artist will someday be told by a long nose critic, “Your work reminds me of Damien Hirst’s Golden Head.”‘

When SOAS students asked for the decolonisation of their curriculum, their request was treated with derision. But this is why decolonisation of knowledge is important. Putting history and all knowledge in its proper context. Telling both stories of grandeur and stories of greed. We cannot dream of freedom in a world of violent silence.

So Afronesia and Afrotortion only end when we end it. The chains must be broken by us. My people, we cannot and should not beg to be recognized, or to have our labour valued. Make no mistake, legal and legitimate theft only occur in a world that makes it possible. We also make it possible. And we can make it impossible. Learn. Speak out. Mobilise. Persist. Resist. We are the becoming. We are freedom.

What if the Sound of Music was Made in Nollywood?

One day, some of my friends and I, all lovers of the original Sound of Music movie, decided to brainstorm on what the plot of SOM would have looked like if given the Nollywood treatment. The following are some of our ideas for modifications and/or rewrites. What are yours?:

  1. Maria never marries the Captain. She is the strange woman that the Baroness sees as the interloper. The Baroness and her friend do naked fasting till Maria goes mad.
  2. The thunder and lightning on that first night is a sign from the gods that the Captain must not embark on that journey to Berlin to pursue the Baroness.
  3. The Captain agrees to fight alongside the Nazis (or the Nollywood political equivalent, probably party politics) because it means more power for him at the expense of common sense and in spite of his personal conviction. He crosses all the carpets many, many times and becomes immensely rich. Rolfe, the whistle-blower, is a whistle blower.
  4. The plot is essentially redundant as the children live with their ancient but loving grandma in some village and even if Maria is needed, she does not come into actual contact with the Captain. The cast and the audience applaud the captain for remembering to send money for the children’s upkeep.
  5. Related to the above suggestion, the Baroness does some juju to make the captain forget his children and they start suffering in the village. Cue that horrible instrumental they play when the children are fetching firewood and crying because they are starving and asking each other superfluous questions. To make matters worse, because that is how we roll,  a snake bites one of them on the leg on the way from fetching the firewood and then there will be an exaggerated make up depicting the deterioration of the leg. This is no ordinary snake, it is sent by Baroness to kill the children off one by one.
  6. The Baroness will attempt to poison Maria who will be saved because her mother appeared to her in a dream and tells her not to eat the food.
  7. Liesl is pregnant, bringing shame on the family. Maria discovers her vomiting somewhere – the only tried and true Nollywood pregnancy test. Rolfe is the obvious suspect as fetal father. Turns out to be Franz the butler.
  8. When the Nazis pursue the von Trapps to the abbey, the Reverend Mother speaks in tongues, casts and binds until the Nazis are visited by a mysterious fire that lasts long enough for the family to escape.
  9. The Baroness ‘succeeds’ in killing all the children but 1 of them. That one will be paralyzed but prayerful, after interminable prayer sessions the Baroness confesses to wanting the children out of the way so that her own child would inherit the captain’s wealth. The captain weeps and wails in regret. The backing music to his tears is the ghosts of the children singing in mournful harmony. Then To God be the Glory. The end.
  10. Alternative ending:  Maria marries the Captain, but only after visiting babalawo for charms. Captain thinks he married a ‘good girl’ from the ‘Shursh’. One of the eldest children catches Maria in the night using said charms and tells the Captain. The Captain says many proverbs to himself and decides to keep quiet and goes to his own babalawo. In the process, two or three children die in the cross fire and Captain runs mad. The Baroness then comes, supposedly to take care of the children, but sells them as house girls when the Captain does not get better after all her ‘efforts’. At the end, we see random soldiers shooting and a caption that says, “war is fighting” – [This is not a typo]. Just like that. In the midst of random people throwing bangers at each other, the children escape and miraculously find each other. Then all you see is, ‘To God be the glory’…. The end.

Authored by:

Tayo Akanmode

Tolulope Majebi

Chidinma Ogbonnaya

Kofoworola Ogunnaike

Tsema Okoye

and Yours Truly

But there is only one original Sound of Music!



Ending Afronesia and Afrotortion

A few weeks ago I wrote about Afronesia and Afrotortion – the interrelated acts of forgetting Africa and distorting the ideological remnants of her image. In the weeks following that post, I have tried to direct my mind to how these two epistemically violent acts can be ended. For seekers, epistemic violence is the violence of knowledge production, the discourse involved in the practice of ‘othering’, using language to differentiate, demarcate, demean and ultimately dehumanise, thus inevitably creating the conditions for physical violence. When we think about it in this way, we see that Africa’s symbolisation as other, as less than human, as incompetent, has always framed African interaction with the rest of the world, whether it be on the continent or the diaspora. The practice of slavery is thus linked to colonialism and inexorably linked to social-engineering that masquerades as developmental measures. Thus we see that the goal of speaking of a new Africa is a serious, necessary and collective work. It is work directed to freedom; it is work for ending violence. How do we do this work?

Seek truth, read, listen, think, ask: I have lamented over and over again about the fact that African education systems seems designed to distort knowledge and not produce it. I make bold to say that no education system in the world is designed to seek the truth about Africa. NONE IN THE WORLD. So the imperative about learning African history and philosophy and science and reality is one which we have to take up as an individual responsibility. It has taken me a while to come to grips with political blackness and how it affects Africa and I am still learning everyday. Read books, articles, form discussion groups, go to conferences, network… piercing the darkness takes persistence and sacrifice.

Insist, resist, dismantle: The purpose of educating ourselves is to unveil the system of epistemic violence. The social construction of the world does not make this easy. Our schools do not teach the existence of anti-blackness as a global reality. By the time we graduate/start job hunting, we have been inculcated into the anti-Black system, such that we try to conform in a way that negatives our African consciousness. Anti-Blackness is a system which can be evidenced in many forms including Afrotortion and Afronesia, also individual acts of racism or misogynoir. But like most systems of negative socialisation and repression, it is insidious and unseen; it also requires the complicity of its victims. Basically, we uphold this system because we do not see it. We need to unveil the system to we can dismantle it, because we cannot dismantle what we cannot see. So that is the first task – unveiling anti-Blackness in what we do, what we read, being able to recognise it. Only then can we dream of dismantling it. Dismantling Afrotortion and Afronesia requires persistence, speaking up when no-one else does. Ignoring the eye-rolls from those who think we are being oversensitive. As Sara Ahmed says, refusing to be over, what we are not yet over. Pointing to the brick walls again and again and again saying ‘there they stand, those walls of oppression.’ And someday someone else will see and join. And then, and only then are we able to dismantle together, brick by brick, the walls that have caged us in.

Reach out, connect, pass on the flame: A lot of people can recognise anti-Blackness, but no one can dismantle it alone. Think of Obama, as president of a whole USA, he was unable to dismantle anti-Blackness. Kofi Annan as Secretary-General of the UN could not dismantle anti-Blackness. Furthermore, many times we argue different parts of the movement as if they are in opposition to each other – race and gender; empire and race; class and race; gender and class etc. We fail to realise that our arguments exist in the anti-Blackness movement but in different parts of its house. Dismantling Anti-Blackness is the job of a persistent and passionate, connected and concerted movement. The problem with the creation of a neoliberal, capitalist post-structural world is that we have become increasingly individualistic. We do not realise that we have been pushed off into silos. But we should be lighthouses. A silo operates in isolation from others; a lighthouse shines a light into the darkness of Anti-Blackness, illuminating the unseen, providing a powerful light that continuously signals to others the possibility of freedom. Which is why I speak Pan-Africanism. It is OUR collective and together work that will end Anti-Blackness. Pan-Africanism is now. Freedom is now.