The light peering through the door from the adjacent room was dim. It was hard for me to read the notes I was trying to take. But I was not there to read; I was there to listen and learn. That was the summer of 2014 and like many other ethnographers I was a guest in a world I was documenting. I was seated in a recording studio in Nairobi South B, a middle-income neighborhood, outside Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi. For over two years I had been working on a manuscript on Juliani, a Christian hip hop artist. His creative play on words and a focus on social change attracted me to his music. On this day I had the rare opportunity to accompany Juliani to Saint P’s studio as he put final touches on his song “Morio na Juliet.” The song’s title, like many of his other songs, is a play on a well-known cultural entity. This one is a local rendition of Shakespeare’s popular play Romeo and Juliet, complete with a message about a relationship between two young lovers. The “studio” was previously a room in a residential apartment that had been converted to provide a place for artists like Juliani to record his music. On one corner was a desk on which sat a MacBook, speakers, and a keyboard, and a chair and a mike on another. The room arrangement itself was not permanent; it could always be changed around to fit other needs.
Juliani’s song title, Saint P’s studio, and hip hop as a musical genre, all provide a glimpse into the innovative capabilities of African youth. Youth, who comprise the majority of the continent’s population, have no option but to be creative to survive. They possess higher levels of formal education than their parents’ generation but fewer corresponding job opportunities to provide them with a decent livelihood. To make ends meet, these youth often have to hustle. As the old adage goes “necessity is the mother of invention.” Lack of opportunities makes producers like Saint P creative. Today popular culture is providing youth with meaningful sources of livelihood even as they use it to shape social action and political conversations.
All across Africa young people are changing the conversation about the continent. They are introducing new strategies to bring about social change especially in very difficult circumstances. Some are creating mobile phone apps that improve pregnant women’s health, while others are changing conventional schooling styles by introducing student-centered interactive learning that builds critical thinking skills. These creative interventions allow for new ways of understanding and engaging with Africa. In her book The Bright Continent, journalist Dayo Olopade captures this new way of understanding when she argues that Africans are bringing about positive change in their economic lives by breaking conventional economic rules. They turn hardships into opportunities mostly in the informal sector, an arena that is often elusive to economists who insist on measuring African’s economic growth by using formal indices. I would say that an all-rounded analysis—a staple in anthropology—would reveal these realities of Africa’s unrecognized economic growth.
Later this year a number of us will learn a little more about innovation in Africa at the American Anthropological Association and African Studies Association joint conference in Dakar, Senegal, on the theme “Innovation, Transformation and Sustainable Futures in Africa.” The meeting, which runs from 1–4, June 2016, will have its own creativity, featuring roundtables, workshops, and flash presentations. I cannot think of a better city to have this inaugural conference than Dakar given the hip hop culture that most recently played a key role in Senegal’s political life. The group “Y’en a Marre” (we are fed up) comprised of hip hop artists and journalists, for instance, rallied Senegalese citizens to register to vote and later challenged, then President, Abdoulaye Wade’s attempt to change the constitution to allow him run for a third term in office. Clearly Dakar, like Nairobi, has its Julianis and Saint Ps, busy in their hustle not only to provide hip hop tunes that play with words but content to bring about social change.
Authored by: Mwenda Ntarangwi, the Vice-President, Advancement and Communications for the Theological Book Network in Grand Rapids, MI. He holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology from the University of Illinois and MA and B.Ed. from Kenyatta University in Kenya. He is the author of a number of books including, “The Street is My Pulpit: Hip Hop and Christianity in Kenya” (Illinois, 2016).