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Using Popular Media to Narrate the History of Africa

Rabat – In his essay “How to Write about Africa,” Binyavanga Wainaina argues that those who write the history of Africa are seldom African. Wainaina not only satirizes the manner in which the West tells the story of Africa, but also the way in which the West perceives the continent and manipulates stories to fit neatly into a conventional narrative.

With the exposure of each stereotype, Wainaina implores Africans to reclaim their past and subsequently their future. Artists like Emmanuel Jal and K’naan answer Wainaina’s call by complicating the Western-dominated narrative of African history by telling their own stories as well as the history of their continent through popular media. The use of popular media in storytelling provides African artists the opportunity to obtain agency in their method of expression, to express the diversity of African history and personal experience, and to disseminate their narratives to a broad international audience.

Sudanese artist, Emmanuel Jal, and Somali rapper, K’naan, obtain agency in their methods of expression by rooting their oral histories in different forms of delivery and by employing dissimilar manners of lyricism. Emmanuel Jal’s song “Emma,” uses a linear form of storytelling infused with poignant imagery. Jal invites listeners into his story by sharing the history of his relationship with an aid worker, Emma McCune, who rescued him from life in a Sudan People’s Liberation Army camp in Sudan. Jal fantasizes about what his life would be like without Emma, concluding, “You would have seen my face on the tele/pot, hungry belly/…another starving refugee.”

Though K’naan often employs a linear story line in order to organize his music and tell his personal story, in his song “Until the Lion Learns to Speak,” K’naan declares that he receives his manner of storytelling from “the tradition of the old poets, the nation of poets.” Drums throb in the background; each of K’naan’s words align with the birth of a beat, with the reclamation and redefinition of an African’s history. This is not uniquely Somali, Canadian, or American. It is inspired by the poets and artists who shared their stories before K’naan had the opportunity to share his own.

The stylistic differences in the dissemination of history through popular media demonstrate the diversity of the African experience. Wainaina indicates that the mainstream Western narrative of African history often “treat[s] Africa as if it were one country” as it is a continent full of “people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book” (Wainaina, 2005). Jal and K’naan invalidate the mainstream narrative by offering different interpretations of being raised in an atmosphere of war. In his song, “Forced to Sin,” Emmanuel Jal focuses on the difficult decisions he had to make in order to survive as a child of war. Jal describes the temptation to eat the body of one of his dead friends, but he pleads, “Never give up/never give in.”

Alternatively, K’naan amalgamates the memories of his childhood in warring Somalia with those of Somalis still stuck, Somalis who remain static. Jal’s optimistic tone is absent from K’naan’s song “Soobax,” replaced instead with anger and apathy. “We just don’t give a [f] no more,” exclaims K’naan as his lyrics indicate Somalis have lost agency and the right to make choices; “I gotta be a refugee, damn soobax (come on/let’s go).”

By reclaiming the narration of stories, determining the manner and mode of popular delivery, and highlighting the diversity of history within Africa, Emmanuel Jal and K’naan are able to share their personal versions of history with a broad international audience. These stories are sincere, transparent, and constructive. Jal stumbled into international fame when his first hit, a gospel song entitled “Praise the Lord,” hit number one on the Stomp charts in Nairobi. In the epilogue to his memoir, Jal expresses disbelief that “people a world away from mine started listening.”

Similarly, K’naan’s World Cup anthem, “Wavin’ Flag,” has over twenty million views on YouTube. The potential for international acclaim allows Jal and K’naan to “tell [their] stor[ies], to touch lives” (Jal, “Warchild”), in Sudan, Somalia, across Africa, and worldwide. Recognition through popular media gives African artists the opportunity to share their experiences with socioeconomically and culturally diverse audiences; popular mediums also have the potential to teach each person a different lesson, a different piece of African history. It is for these reasons that Emmanuel Jal and K’naan answer Wainaina’s call to narrate Africa responsibly, and to narrate the history of Africa like an African would, absent the stereotypes, judgments, and agendas of the Western-produced narrative.

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