Stephanie Newell & Onookome Okome (eds),
Popular Culture in Africa: The episteme of the everyday
New York & London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis, 2014
ISBN 9280415532921 (hbk) $140
Any book about popular culture in Africa is likely to find some orientation from Karin Barber's seminal essays: ‘Popular Arts in Africa’ (1987) and ‘Views from the Field’ (1997). The editors of Popular Culture in Africahave done more than touch base with these two important essays, they have persuaded her to write a densely argued seven page Foreword in which she revisits and sometimes corrects her earlier ideas. The editors’ Introduction reflects their allegiance to Barber's founding concepts, and almost every one of the fifteen articles in the book cites Barber, usually in reverential mode. The book is a Festschrift in all but name.
Barber's ‘scholarly architecture’, as Newell and Okome describe her work, derives to some extent from Raymond Williams's categorization of British culture into residual, dominant and emergent culture, which in Barber's 1987 essay becomes transmuted into ‘traditional, elite and popular’, although by 2014 she regrets this simplification, preferring to rely on more complex, overlapping categories.
Much of the book is devoted to arguments about the tendency for commentators to apply binary terminology, such as traditional/modern, oral/literate and local/global. The various authors, anxious to deconstruct false antinomies, emphasize simultaneous inclusion and exclusion. Barber herself gives the example of Tanzanian Hip Hop, in which ‘gangsta’ costumes seem to exclude the genre from mainstream society, while the lyrics, for the most part, promote healthy lifestyles.
After the editors’ Introduction Popular Culture in Africais divided into four parts: I Theoretical Overviews; II Gender and Sexuality; III The Place of Humor; and IV Popular Discourses of the Streets.
The editors’ overview is a very useful update of some arguments which emerged from Barber's earlier essays. Newell and Okome try to map the class and ethnic variables which are able to describe the literate, but to a large extent subaltern, groups who are most responsible for the creation of popular arts. These include ‘sub-elites, emergent elites, local intellectuals, urban intellectuals, cultural brokers and local cosmopolitans’. The last term has given rise to a common colloquial construct: ‘Afropolitan’.