The Real Truth about ‘Wakanda’

What is ‘Black Panther’ Really?

 My family and I went to watch ‘Black Panther’ this past weekend; the ‘marvelous superhero drama’ that the world’s been raving about. The one that “depicts Africans and African culture in a positive light, for once,” or so they say. I think I had mixed feelings about it.

The truth is I couldn’t help but feel pride when I watched ‘my people’ (or at least people that looked like me) appear so powerful and breathtakingly admirable. It was so refreshing to see our Africa depicted as rich and beautiful for once — such a stark contrast to the impoverished and poverty-stricken image of our continent we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in Hollywood films. As my family and I sat in our cinema chairs spewing over the credits at the end of the film, we had this tangible aura of positivity radiating off us. The fantasy world of Wakanda had inspired us.

But that feeling didn’t last though. As we exited the cinema, walked out into the foyer and looked through the tall glass windows of Prestige Plaza, I came to the realization; we are not in ‘Wakanda’. We are in Nairobi. And on that day, my city looked much like it did the day before. Tall buildings, walking ‘wananchi’ amongst the rich people’s cars that float above the pockets of poverty we’ve learned to live with.

I want to feel inspired by Black Panther, I truly do. I hope that children watch that film and carry that sense of pride with them wherever they go — God knows we need it. But at the same time, I have removed my rosy sunglasses and seen that movie for what it actually is.

A marketing power play.

“Why would the same people of the west — the ‘wazungus’ who continue to pillage and impoverish our countries — want to tell our story all of a sudden?”

“Why should they care about us at all when they haven’t in the past?”

This isn’t the western world trying to empower Africans, this is them profiting from the appropriation of our culture. Making Millions of dollars that don’t go into the betterment of African people, but rather into the pockets of the same countries that steal from our nations.

Its quite clever on their part — I’ll credit them for that. They’ve managed to take a people who have been bitterly misrepresented in the past and generate a story that those same people want to believe in (despite how far-fetched it seems from our current reality). And now the world has turned out in droves to see something ‘new’. A new narrative about a ‘new Africa’. And whilst the Africans see a picture of inspiration and empowerment, the west gets the profit and all the credit.

Oh, how it reminds me of a time when we closed our eyes to pray to Jesus, whilst the white man stole all our land from us. It begs the question, who’s really benefiting from this story of Wakanda?

I must admit though; most Africans are loving all this new attention. Even us who live in the cities of this continent are smiling at this “new narrative”. But let’s take off our blinder for a bit. Is this really a new narrative?

We make films in Nairobi. There are films in Uganda, in Tanzania, there is Nollywood in Nigeria — we tell our own stories all the time. So the question we should be asking is why — why is it that only when Marvel brands a story that is not our own, that the world turns out in droves to watch ‘us’Why does it seem that our culture is now in fashion but only cool when someone else ‘wears it’? Why is the African story only selling when someone else tells it? Why did we need the West to tell us a fake story about a magical land named Wakanda, for us to feel empowered and inspired when we have filmmakers of our own telling us real stories?What’s really going on here?

I noticed a few weeks ago that Kendrick Lamar made on of the soundtracks for Black Panther and it plays through the credits. The video is on YouTube and its got over 60 MIllion Views. Watch it and maybe you’ll have the same reaction I did. Like… “wait… Isn’t this guy from Compton, California? How has he suddenly become African? Why’d the pick him to do the soundtrack, we have artists here in Africa too?”

But I suppose when you really think critically about this film, it all makes sense. If I could make 100 million Dollars from pretending to be African, I would do it too (and I wouldn’t be pretending). But we don’t get the same publicity, nor profit that these artists get from being African.

I feel like I need to affirm that I’m not mad. I just want my people to see this film for what it actually is. Go ahead, feel inspired, feel empowered, feel that African is cool now, but at the same time, realize that we always had the ability to empower ourselvesWe don’t need the west to represent us. We can tell our own stories. Being an African isn’t suddenly cool, it’s always been cool, it’s just a shame we needed the west to prove that to us.

“Do People in Kenya Wear Shoes?”

My lessons learned from Ignorance

One afternoon, during my tenure in America, I sat amongst some white Americans at my school cafeteria.

It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, but it happened to be the first time I was sitting with this particular group of people. We introduced ourselves to one another and, as usual, they immediately became quite interested in my background. I told them I was from Kenya, “a country in East Africa… have you heard of it?” I asked.

They replied “yes”.

And as if prompted by my what I had said, one of the ladies who was sitting directly opposite me began to tell me a story. She started by stating that “Kenyans are the ones that win all the marathons…”

I smiled to concede my subtle sense of pride — though it was a statement I’d heard way too many times before.

She then went on to tell me a story about one particular Kenyan athlete who ran a marathon barefooted and won. (She was actually referring to Ethiopian Abebe Bikila, who won the 1960 Olympic marathon).

I didn’t correct her though. I just smiled again.

Until then I felt our conversation had gone quite well. It felt good to have someone take a genuine interest in my country. But it was the next question she asked that completely bewildered me beyond words.

After her eloquent speech on Kenyan runners, she asked; “so, do people in Kenya have shoes?”

That insightful documentary about a barefooted Ethiopian runner had somehow led her to deduce that Kenyan’s don’t wear shoes. It was a hasty conclusion to say the least. I wanted to laugh. But the sincerity and pity in her voice removed any hint of sarcasm.

It was an honest question.

After living abroad for several years, I’m not a stranger to ignorance. I’ve been asked all different kinds of questions; “do you live in trees?”, “Do you have computers?”, “Can you speak to lions…?” (that last one was real too).

And often in these circumstances, I would somehow justify the ignorance. My school happened to be in a rural town, “The middle of nowhere”, a “college town” and perhaps that was why these questions seemed so common. I’d think to myself that maybe the ignorance people demonstrated there was not entirely their fault. How would they know anything about Kenya when they’ve probably gone their entire lives without meeting an African? I pitied them.

And that being so, I would often tell myself that it was ok. After all, “if I took an American to my rural home in Kenya, wouldn’t Kenyans act the same? Wouldn’t they want to touch the ‘Whiteman’s’ hair the same way the American’s asked to touch mine? Wouldn’t they ask ‘crazy’ questions? Wouldn’t they appear just as, or even more, ignorant as the Americans?

Of course, they would. What would they know aside from what they hear and see about American culture?

Rural Kenyans would be just as ignorant as rural Americans. That would make sense right?

Well… No. There’s a distinct difference.

The difference between a rural Kenyan and a rural American is almost as distinct as the power they hold in their hands. Whilst rural Americans wield a smartphone or a tablet in their hands, a rural Kenyan is more likely to hold a stick of sugar cane or a cob of maize. In America, ignorance came from college level educated students and in Kenya, it would come from men and women who probably never finished school…

And therein lies the root of real ignorance.

Whilst many Americans have access to infinite amounts of information and knowledge that could rid them of their ignorance, many Kenyans do not. For the ladies that sat with me for lunch that afternoon in school, knowing whether Kenyan’s wore shoes, was as easy as pulling out their phones and asking ‘Google’. And yet somehow, despite that, they were still choosing to be ignorant. To me, that is the distinct difference between ignorant Kenyans and their American counterparts; Americans have a choice… many Kenyans do not.

Ignorance is a Choice

Through my experiences, I’ve come to believe that ignorance is a ‘choice’. There is no-one in this world who can fully soak yourself in all the information available. It’s impossible to know everything about everything. So instead we are forced to choose what really matters to us and remain consciously ignorant to the rest. And it is this choice that really interests me; it is what people choose to stay ignorant about, that I am fascinated with.

Let me use today’s pop culture to explain.

Picture artists like Kanye West, or Jay-z — probably two of Hip-Hop’s biggest stars. Both having come up in a victimized and pillaged black America, their music was largely a reflection of that. But having lifted themselves to fame and stardom, you would think the underlying subject and value of their music would drastically change. You would expect that their music — once representative of lust, vanity, greed, pride, etc. — would now defame those vices. That Jay-z would tell us how ‘money isn’t everything’, or that ‘power is vanity’. Or maybe Kanye would become humble and tell us that “fame is not worth chasing”. Because isn’t that what most successful people say;

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” -Jim Carey

Yet somehow, the likes of Kanye and Jay-z have missed all that. They have all the resources, all the fame, and all the money they could want, yet somehow they lack the enlightenment that they could so easily find. For me, this makes them just as ignorant as the ladies I sat across from at lunch that afternoon. They too have a choice. And even so, they choose, not only to remain in their ignorance but continuously preach that ignorance to us; rapping about promiscuity, pride, and vanity as if they’re bound to them. As if it’s all they know, and all they can know.

It’s like Kanye and Jay-z have always had the power to discover that Kenyan’s do in fact wear shoes, yet they continually tell the world that we don’t. This is my definition of real ignorance. To have the power and resources available to gain wisdom, and yet choose inherently not to. It proves to me something about the human condition.

That just like Kanye, and Jay-z, and ladies at that lunch table that day, it feels much better to live in the dark — in one’s own ignorance — than to find a light that threatens all that we know, and who we believe ourselves to be.

“Ignorance is bliss.”

It’s finally cool to be an ‘African’

Up until the 1980’s, it wasn’t cool to be black in America. Years of racial oppression and subjugation had ostracized black culture. And even though the late 1900’s was far removed from the days of slavery; black America was still reminiscent of a very dark time in their past; ‘White’ was still ‘right’ and ‘black’ was still ‘wrong’.

But around the late seventies, things began to change. You could say that there was some form of ‘black revolution’.

Riding on the wings of Hip-hop and rap culture, black Americans began to change their narrative. What was previously a strong DJing culture had made way for the birth of an entirely new genre of music called ‘Hip-hop’. And suddenly everything changed.

Black people were telling stories. Stories that had never been told through music before. They had a voice and all they needed was a microphone to share. Through rhythm and poetry, Black American’s created a movement. It was bigger than rap and a testament to black pride. Through Hip-hop, Black America was restoring the dignity that was once pillaged from them.

By the early 90’s, the Hip-hop and black culture revolution had transcended itself. Black Rap artists such as Tupac and Notorious BIG were some of the famed bearers of the torch that ignited a global phenomenon. Suddenly, even kids—like me—growing up in Kenya were dressing and acting like black Americans. We’d wear baggy pants and basketball jerseys of teams we’d never even seen play.

For the first time, black America was cool and everybody wanted to be like them. Somehow being “from the hood” or “hustling” or being a “nigga” was really, really cool.

Today, I see the same trend happening… but much closer to home.

African history is dark with stories of oppression and subjugation from the days of European imperialism. And though many African countries consider themselves independent nations, the remnants of colonialism are still heavily ingrained in our cultures.

Kenya, for example, got independence from the British in 1963. Yet over 50 years later, I believe that our minds are still very much colonialized.

When the Europeans came to Kenya in the late 19th century, they exploited us and pillaged our culture. Though what I believe was worse, is that they crippled our minds. They removed our sense of dignity and self-pride. Which is one of the most effective ways to enslave an entire people?

They made us believe that their ways were right and ours were backward and we, as Africans, still struggle to overcome that.

Today, we still see the western world as the ‘first World’; a place and people that we should aspire to be like. We continue to conform to their culture because we believe they are ‘better’. The ‘West’ is right and ‘African’ is wrong. But things are changing…

Welcome to the Revolution!

Times are changing. Africa is beginning to reinvent herself. A new narrative is being told that we, as Africans, can take pride in. We are much like the Black America of the 1970’s.

African Artists like Davido and Wizkid are making Afrobeat songs with American and British artists.

Artists like Sarkodie of Ghana is now internationally acclaimed—and he doesn’t even rap in English.

The likes of Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé are using strong African themes in their music.

The world of fashion is being revolutionized by African culture.

Even black Americans are appropriating African culture; wearing Dashikis and kanga-like garments like they grew up in our continent.

It feels like the world is beginning to celebrate Africa, even before we have learned to celebrate ourselves.

For the first time, it’s beginning to feel ‘OK’ to be African. No longer must we conform to the western world. We can take pride in ourselves, our art, our people. It is our time to be celebrated and appreciated. The chains on our minds that once kept us in such deep self-loathing, and envy for the ‘white’ world are finally breaking, and now we have a chance to tell them a different story.

Welcome to the African Revolution!