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Manufacturing African Celebrity

Jesse Weaver Shipley* explores the power of celebrity in contemporary African pop culture – with its common themes of seduction, aspiration, and desire for unattainable status – but also how celebrity in both content and form is abstracted, recycled and circulated in a globalised market.

The MTV Africa Music Awards, more popularly known as the MAMAs, were held on 7 June 2014 in Durban, South Africa. Under the rubric “Celebrating Africa’s Finest Talent”, the MAMAs stake the claim of MTV Base – the African channel of the Viacom Media Network – as definitive taste makers in the competitive popular music market. The event has three tasks: packaging African music for North American and European audiences; uniting diverse tastes of African audiences from across the continent; and pleasing a South African crowd and news media.

At a press conference in Durban to promote the MAMAs, the chief executive drops hints that there will be a special guest at the event.  Soon after, Khloe Kardashian and her entourage appear. A reigning icon of global celebrity culture, Khloe is famous for being famous; her family’s celebrity comes not as a by-product of other talents, but as the central, self-generating goal of carefully orchestrated social media and branding work. The excitement around Khloe’s appearance is a sign that the MAMAs is more than a musical event; that celebrity culture in Africa is on the rise, and not only music and fashion, but, moreover, business strategy is all the buzz.

I have plans to attend the MAMAs with Addiel Dzinoreva (aka Dzino), a long-time media strategist, whom I have known since he became a central player in South Africa’s late 1990s pop culture boom. Dzino attends the MAMAs not for the musical experience, but to strategise about potential sponsorship and collaborations for Johannesburg’s first Social Media Week 2014, which he is co-organising.

Savvy media people like Dzino recognise how entrepreneurial capitalism has become a way of life and a personal philosophy that blurs the distinctions between commerce and pleasure. Celebrity culture is the celebration of this business philosophy in Africa and around the world. But I am surprised it is not given more serious attention, considering the proximity of celebrity culture to pressing contemporary issues such as wealth distribution, rising media technologies, transnational mobility, and political, ethnic and religious identity on the continent. Most writings on celebrity life are banal, pithy journalistic accounts or scandalous dirt-digging personal melodramas. Instead I want to understand how celebrity is made; I want to take it seriously as a social phenomenon and a form of labour manufactured through hard work onstage and behind the scenes; I want to explore its implications for how people are re-imagining the future.

Prior to arriving in South Africa, I had been exploring the links between new media, popular culture and business strategy during a visit to Ghana. There I met the Ghanaian hiplife stars Reggie Rockstone and VIP, who had just shot a video for their hit collaboration “Selfie”, a satirical remix of The Chainsmokers’ track celebrating the art of taking pictures of yourself and posting them on social media. While in Accra, I also ran into an MTV video shoot featuring some of the hottest popular music stars from around the continent, including Davido, Sarkodie, Tiwa Savage, Lola Rae, MiCasa and Diamond. Typical of recent attempts by the culture industry to blend national musical tastes to shape a more pan African continental fan and consumer base, these projects exemplify how fame is being remade through social media and how popular music is permeating public life across the continent. Of course, fame and the pleasures of spectacular urban entertainment are not new. In the colonial and early independence eras, musicians such as E.T. Mensah, Fela Kuti and Hugh Masekela were heroes and key social commentators. Today, however, the confluence of popular culture and digital technology with the opening up of continental online markets makes musicians a new celebrity order, recasting collective racial and political struggle as dreams of personal pleasure and branded wealth.

Peter Okoye, half of the Nigerian twin-brother super-duo P Square, recently posted on Instagram several pictures of several of his new cars, including a 2014 Bentley said to cost about US$200,000. P Square’s impeccably produced infectious dance hits, such as “Personally”  and “Chop My Money”, and their huge performance fees and fabulous lifestyle – a private plane was a widely rumoured recent purchase – make them emblematic of Nigeria’s current dominance in the realm of Africa’s popular culture. Such images celebrate both work and leisure, private wealth and public spectacle. Famous musicians are role models who, as one Ghanaian fan of Nigerian music explained to me, “allow you to forget your life and hope for something better”. Celebrity fosters a type of consumption that makes fans hungry for more.

For most people “celebrity is escapism. Celebrities live the lives that people want,” argues Selina Ifeanyi M, a media consultant and freelance publicist. For entrepreneurial PR folks like Ifeanyi, as well as for the established and larger media houses, however, celebrity is a strategy. The behind-the-scenes artistry of publicists and managers involves creating fame by association so that audiences and consumers pay attention. Celebrity turns style into potential success; luxury is not a sign of pre-existing material wealth, but a lifestyle and identity, a sign of mobility and possibility, and a marketable value in and of itself. Celebrity-ness is a potent, sometimes contradictory combination of work and leisure, producing present pleasure and erasing past struggle. Social media shapes how this aspirational, highly mobile generation imagines possible futures, allowing stars and fans alike to abstract ideas of self from immediate lived contexts and project them into digital communities online.

Celebrity culture is a microcosm of entrepreneurial capitalism as it dominates economic conversations and strategies around the globe; it is the idealised lifestyle of an aspirational consumer-oriented world view. Celebrities are like tourist sites, IPOs and apps; managers and strategists package these products to create wealth out of the process of self-making. The language of celebrity is optimistic and future-oriented at its core, opening up the possibility that success can appear out of nowhere, that anyone can be a star, and that immanent talent can triumph over conditions of structural and historical inequality. Celebrities are the focal points for struggling peoples and celebrity culture is the business strategy built on hope and desire.

Behind the scenes at the MAMAs 2014: Mafikizolo

Behind the scenes at the MAMAs 2014: Mafikizolo

The MAMAs are part of an explosion of awards shows across Africa over the past decade, mostly sponsored by events promoters, alcohol and mobile telecom companies, and media outlets that celebrate music and film in attempts to expand market share by directing audience tastes. The economics of popular culture oscillate between mass marketing and creating the image of exclusivity, widely publicising music and images of stars while creating scarcity and coolness by excluding fans from the worlds they desire. Numerous large and small awards events compete to be definitive places for discerning excellence. As Selina Ifeanyi M notes, “red carpet events in Nigeria, and other places in Africa, are driving the music industry”.

Smaller events struggle for legitimacy and a piece of the entertainment market, enticing established artists to attend by nominating them for awards, while artists vie for spots at established red carpet galas. Most fans, of course, cannot attend elite shows; the exclusiveness of these events creates public desire for something just out of reach. People follow the proceedings on TV and online, voting via text message for their favourite artists. Elites, executives, bloggers, the media and artists circulate celebratory images of a fabulous life for the masses to scrutinise and admire. In this sense, live events are of secondary importance, acting as flashpoints for simultaneous social media circulation. Facebook pages, Instagram and Vine accounts, and Twitter handles for stars and influential bloggers, artists and publicists direct social media traffic to build anticipation for the awards.

Gearing up for the MAMAs, participants arrive and fill the hotels along the Durban beachfront. The South African entertainment industry relocates from Johannesburg while international participants settle in for the weekend. The activities begin on Friday afternoon with a series of workshops organised by Phiona Okumu, the marketer, writer, social media guru and editor of Afripop!, who has been instrumental both in creating and reporting on numerous Afro-cosmopolitan arts and media projects. She is also working with Dzino as a key organiser of the Social Media Week. Moving between London, Kampala, and Johannesburg, she has helped link African artists to British mainstream tastes by writing on music for The Guardian.

The workshops are held at the downtown Durban Playhouse. Panels of artists answer audience questions about how to be successful in the music industry. In the two afternoon sessions, “DIY Music Marketing” and “Reaching Africa and Beyond”, artists discuss how the internet has created new opportunities for music-making and distribution, allowing artists to be successful without corporate support.

About 50 students from Durban’s Creative Arts College attend the workshops. One first-year student, Calvin Motaung, who is studying sound and music technology, asks the panellists whether they have ever compromised their music to cater to consumers. He wants tips from successful artists on how to balance artistic content and marketing. He tells me his coursework includes the study of the business side of things as a foundation for their artistic work: “Music and production software we already know. We need to learn how to connect to audiences and how to be professional. These workshops give insight into how the industry works… for upcoming artists it is important to stop mimicking. You can’t aspire to be different if you keep doing the same things that the people you look up to are doing.”

Calvin wants to reach global audiences with his music; it is both a musical and a marketing challenge: “The message I took from the panel was you have to be versatile to cater to listeners. If you have enough drive you can push toward your goal, but you have to be business-minded as well finding your own unique sound… take charge of your career.”

Blinky, of Kenya’s groundbreaking group Just A Band, encourages artists to make music, ignore traditional distribution and marketing routes and get their sound out to the public however they can. Blinky jokes about the infrastructural differences between South Africa and Kenya and the implicit significance of digital and transportation infrastructure for connectivity. The audience laughs as he teases that while South African roads are great and the cities developed, internet access is terrible. The joke points to where public life happens. For a growing cosmopolitan segment of youth, it is less in the streets than online. Panellists talk about a South African musician touring Greece with DJ Black Coffee because he had a hit song, even though it never got on the radio.

“If your song is good, people will play it,” says Blinky. “Find a way to get it out and bring people to listen to it; use YouTube or Soundcloud or whatever. The internet allows you to create your own industry. Radio often picks things up that are already big on the streets through internet. Some African artists are touring the world and earning from their music even if they are not known commercially.”

Dzino and I first met Just A Band in their Nairobi studio not long after their music video for “Ha He”, featuring Makmende, a Kenyan superhero, in a 1970s Blacksploitation style adventure, went viral. They became an alternative voice of Anglophone African music. Just A Band might never have tens of millions of YouTube hits like top Nigerian pop musicians, but their goals are less in line with the mass appeal of most popular artists. As Blinky explains, African music has evolved with room for various sub-genres and small-scale styles as well as massive pop stars. He and his bandmates are part conceptual artists and intellectuals and part pop stars. He is sceptical of the red carpet spectacle: “We play the music we want to play. We can be ourselves and represent the world in our own way. We are not trying to be these red carpet celebrities.” Success requires both artistry and business savvy.

The official MAMA press conference is on Friday evening. Alex Okosi, Senior Vice President and Managing Director for Viacom Media Networks Africa, and Tim Horwood, whose Twitter account lists him as “Creative Director Viacom Africa / Channel Director, MTV Base. Undercover Corporate Ninja”, launch the press conference by unveiling the redesigned award, a gold sculpture of Africa built from abstracted microphones. Okosi is often credited with starting MTV Africa to challenge Channel O as the preeminent South Africa-based music television station. Raised in Nigeria, he studied business in the US, relocating to Johannesburg to head up Viacom’s corporate office. Okosi explains that the MAMAs are a “celebration of the best of African talent… amazing, beautiful, creative vibrant young people; [it is] an opportunity to show [our] amazing youth culture… something we can repackage for global consumption. We are live, bringing the event to the world and using social media to bring the event to the continent.”

Horwood concurs: the MAMAs is “a world class production” on a par with any global event. One of his main passions at MTV has been pushing for African music and video productions that conform to international technical standards so they can compete next to work from North American and European markets. Corporate Africa has worked hard to professionalise the DIY technology revolution that created the current boom in African popular music.

Marketing strategy is built on critical understandings that racist stereotypes continue to shape Euro-American representations of Africa as either radically exotic or endlessly tragic. Okosi explains: “It is key to have a good story about Africa written. People can see awards and young people and glamour better than the same sad story that is always told.”

It takes hard work to create and circulate images of leisure and pleasure. Pop culture is built on a division of labour between artistry and business savvy, front- and backstage. The MAMAs require the work of hundreds of Viacom employees, freelancers, marketers, publicists, brand managers, public relations workers, sponsorship sales people, artists’ managers, stylists, videographers, photographers, DJs, bloggers, Tweeters, print journalists, fans, and aspiring artists and superstars. In some ways, the real artists are not the singers onstage but the people behind the scenes who are planning, writing the scripts, and creating stories of desire through a mix of corporate and personal entrepreneurship, branding tactics and social media orchestration. Stars and wannabe stars are good at providing perfectly crafted, predictable answers to questions and posing just-so for pictures. That is part of the job: be casually, effortlessly perfect. But backstagers and scene-makers so adept at celebrating others baulk at being placed in the public eye themselves. They freeze when asked the most basic questions about their motivations and their work. It is not usually talked about. They prefer to remain anonymous. As one explains to me, “there is a reason I am backstage and not seeking the spotlight like these artists”.

Famed South African producer and DJ Oskido is one person who bridges the gap between front- and backstage. At the press conference he answers questions with the hot duo Mafikizolo, the big stars for the South African press. Oskido boasts two decades as a foundational producer and DJ who shaped South African House and Kwaito music. His work began with the 1990s revolution in DJing and computer beatmaking/production. Oskido says he appreciates the glamour of the event, but explains that often the best music does not get nominated. Making music “is not about awards but about respect in the community”. He sees the MAMAs as an opportunity to network and gain exposure. “We don’t want to end up in Africa, but to grow internationally. Media can help. We need them to profile us as African artists to put our stories out.”

Social media buzz is already questioning the logic of picking a US host – comedic actor Marlon Wayans – and US headlining performers Trey Songz, Miguel and French Montana for the MAMAs. As Okosi explains, the goal is “to showcase the best of Africa’s talent to the rest of the world and across Africa. We are going to have great African talent and some international celebrities. It’s going to be an incredible showcase of what Africa is all about.” Placing African artists alongside a well-known US host and musicians, the two executives explain, will bring broader international exposure by association.

Celebrity culture is driven by aspiration, which entails hope as well as uncertainty about the future. The MAMAs, like most mainstream Anglophone African popular culture, is haunted by the fear that things are better, more classy / glitzy / glamorous / trendsetting in the North American music industry. As a 30-year-old woman born in Durban, now working as an executive at Deloitte in Johannesburg, explains, “South Africans are insecure about local content. We always have to have international artists to feel legitimate.”

Critics feel that African trendsetters and business strategists too often look “outside” for guidance. For many, fame in one’s home country, or even across the continent, is often not enough; true success entails recognition in North America and Europe. One aspiring rapper I meet is annoyed by the MAMAs. He has “no interest in African awards or acts”. He raps in English and admires K’naan and Akon as African artists who have reached broader audiences. “I don’t want my music to be seen as African music or African hip-hop. It is hip-hop. We should not be in a separate category or awards show… I am not an African rapper but rather I am a rapper.”

selfie-station [african celebs]

The selfie-station.

After the MAMAs press conference, artists, executives and press mingle and network over cocktails courtesy of Absolut Vodka. Musicians and managers from different countries chat about potential future collaborations. Journalists plot out their stories. Camera crews conduct impromptu interviews. An attendant helps artists use an iPad selfie-cam snapping images for instant social media upload. Publicists organise sound bites, images, and social media for easy recirculation. Strategists are already planning for future connections. Dzino talks with colleagues about potential tie-ins for Social Media Week. He jokes about how the language of business has come to dominate the entertainment world.

“You should always use words like outcome and synergy and content development and social entrepreneurship. It is about selling an approach, creating a brand, not the specific product because you believe it is good or useful. . . And of course, you know artists are brands not people!”

Social Media Week will showcase the significance of new media in all facets of business, social life, culture and politics. It takes place in numerous cities around the world twice a year. Last year it was held for the first time in Africa, in Lagos. Dzino and the DigiSense team won the rights to host it in Johannesburg. They are putting together the program of well-known attendees, searching for major sponsors, and looking for ways to connect with civic, educational and corporate institutions.

Dzino’s first corporate experience, as a co-founder of Black Rage Productions in 1996, shows how the relationship between media, business strategy and politics has changed in the 20 years since the end of apartheid. Black Rage was one of the first black-owned and -run production companies to have a major impact on post-apartheid media and entertainment. After attending Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape, three friends, Dzino, Maria McCloy and Thuli Skosana, founded the company. Its business strategy – to rethink popular culture for a rising black African consumer public – was pioneering.

As Dzino recalls, “we had radical ideas about reshaping how the media portrayed Africans and how to reach African consumers. At the time, entertainment was just black people dancing or being violent or stupid… racist imagery dominated the media. We saw a huge market for smart, edgy content for and about African people… In the mid-1990s, mostly white executives were running things; they did not realise there was a huge African market with changing cosmopolitan tastes.”

Black Rage presented a critical, eclectic vision of how young black Africans lived, connecting pan Africanist politics to everyday life through popular arts. As Skosana remembers, “we wanted young artists to be in charge of their destiny”. They worked in radio, print and fashion, with musicians such as H2O and Zubz, and in television, producing the influential lifestyle variety programme “Street Journal” on SABC. Their popular website, – now defunct – was, in the late 1990s, curated by McCloy, who made one of the first attempts to create a comprehensive online entertainment portal with streaming music, reviews of events, venue lists and fashion.

The Black Rage founders were role models for the generation of tech-savvy entrepreneurs that emerged following the 2008 economic crash. The global crisis corresponded with the corporate penetration of many markets across Africa, despite economic hard times. It had the unintended effect of spurring many first-generation Africans working in Europe and the US to seek better opportunities in African capitals. Skosana, now working in Copenhagen, notes, “Young Africans get sick of Europe, tired of racism and of being foreigners. We are highly trained, and now there is so much opportunity in returning to Africa.”

Faith History, for example, is CEO of Faith History Productions. Born in Nigeria and schooled in the US, she is a television presenter and content producer for numerous media outlets. In the mid-2000s, she recognised the potential of rising popular music and film in Nigeria. With a friend she started doing interviews with artists when they toured the US, eventually relocating to South Africa to focus fully on African culture and media. In 2010 she began hosting “Rolling with Faith”, a programme to showcase people from all over the world coming to South Africa for the FIFA World Cup. Faith’s business model is built around her desire to shape her own content and strategy.

“You can either work for an outfit or be independent like me. I want to have control over what I do. My name highlights that I want to celebrate history. Everything we do is important and should be recorded and presented. History shapes how we understand the world.”

DJs Edu and Abrantee are the two London-based pioneering radio personalities responsible for bringing African music to a mainstream British listening public (Edu on BBC Radio 1Xtra and Abrantee on Capital Xtra). They have popularised Afrobeats – a catch-all term for Nigerian and African pop – and Azonto, the West African dance craze that has gone semi-global.

British-Kenyan Edu notes that the two have been part of the journey of “a lot of the artists who have gone mainstream. Now big corporates are investing their time, there is interest. So we have to be a part of it as the BBC has vested interests all over the world.” He acknowledges that African artists continue to struggle to gain recognition: “It is such an unstructured industry that corporates are the best way for artists to make enough money… to push the genre to new audiences.” Celebrity is a business strategy and Twitter is, at the moment, one of its main tools. As Black Rage co-founder Skosana points out, in some markets, such as New York, Twitter may have oversaturated the market, but in South Africa it is still being rolled out. “Most people do not realise that a lot happens before you see a Tweet. Someone is paying many visible people to make social media links.” Brands pay stars to post on social media, while artists and event organisers hire publicists and bloggers to live Tweet.

The MAMAs is well managed and fast-paced, despite pauses to coordinate performances for broadcast and occasional microphone issues. The live audience is exuberant, enjoying the short, frequent musical performances interspersed with the announcements of award nominees and winners. Award nominees seem to come from geographically strategic markets across the continent. And the winners reflect the dominant market share of Nigeria and South Africa. Twitter is abuzz.

Davido in performance.

Davido in performance.

Davido is the big winner of the evening, taking home Best Male Vocalist and Artist of the Year Awards. Only 21 years old, the Nigerian-American singer is at the pinnacle of stardom. He is energetic and expects success. He likes to Tweet pictures of expensive watches and cars. With a string of recent hits like “Skelewo” and “Aye” he has taken over as the leading Nigerian – and thus African – pop musician. D Black is happy for his success but warns of fans’ short memories: “Davido is the hottest thing at the moment. But he needs to work hard to stay there. He should enjoy it now because he will fall off quickly if he doesn’t have another hit. It is not easy to stay at the top in this business.” Davido Tweets pictures of himself from backstage. Ice Prince Tweets a picture of Davido receiving an award from French Montana, taken from the stage looking out into the audience. And so the show goes on.

Nigerian soul singer Tiwa Savage is another big winner, taking home Best Female Artist. Tracks like “Eminado” showcase her vocal and stylistic range and excellent production team. Her fashion sense, relaxed confidence, and energetic stage presence show her to be at the top of her game – smart, sexy and in charge.

While the Nigerian artists celebrate freshness, the South Africans show the power of longevity and reinvention. Mafikizolo, around since the 1990s, is riding the wave of renewed national popularity of Kwaito-House. They receive the loudest cheers, winning two awards for Best Group and Song of the Year for “Khona”, a haunting dance track with jazz piano overtones. During their performance of the song, the crowd shouts and dances as one, waving their mobile phones and iPads in the air.

Sarkodie wins the Best Hip-hop Award. He raps primarily in Akan, though even listeners who cannot understand his poetic wordplay enjoy his rapidfire delivery and melodic vocal precision. Although his announcement as winner is met with relative calm from the audience, who seem unsure who he is, Sarkodie is at the top of the hip-hop scene in Ghana and seeks more international recognition. In the audience, D Black Tweets congratulations for his Ghanaian compatriot. While Nigerians, Ghanaians and other artists from relatively smaller markets come to South Africa to shoot videos and to meet MTV Base and Channel O executives to try to get their music played on television, they still struggle to reach beyond their national audiences.

Award shows are thus an opportunity to seek out collaborations, says the Ghanaian Efya. The MAMAs help artists “to come together as a continent, not just shine within their countries”. Awards also push the African music industry as “they bring out competition and competition is good for any type of business. It is a great way for everyone to step up because if you want to win you have to work hard.”

Many of the performances are collaborations. The logic of collaboration is important in the contemporary music industry. For rising artists, associating with more established musicians gives them wider exposure. For artists from nations with smaller markets, performing with musicians from other countries promises new audiences. For corporations and media outlets they help maximise brand exposure. In recent years, African musicians have sought international collaborations as vehicles for global recognition. Some are improvised, as when Reggie Rockstone and other Ghanaian artists grabbed Jamaican Beenie Man and Haitian Wyclef Jean after their performances in Accra to record impromptu tracks and videos. Others are more organised attempts to bring US attention to African musicians, as when D’Banj featured Snoop Dogg on the remix of “Mr Endowed” in 2011, and when P Square featured Akon on “Chop My Money”.

Mafikizolo, Davido, and Diamond are all aiming to reach audiences outside of their national constituencies. Davido and Diamond perform a live collaboration that synchs with a playful, pre-recorded video of them running through the building. Diamond, who mostly sings in Swahili, is shifting his style and using more English, though he has been criticised for trying to be “too Western” and forgetting his Tanzanian fans.

The award for Best Collaboration goes to South African House DJ collective Uhuru for their Kwaito-House hit “Y-Tjukutja”, featuring DJ Buckz, Oskido, Professor and Uri-Da-Cunha, which they perform to the crowd’s delighted cheers.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s performance also reflects a crossover sensibility. They rehearse and tune their voices as a stage manager makes last-minute adjustments to their movements. They begin again with a mobile Steady-Cam operator in front of them, performing into the camera for the television audiences. They do beautifully arranged a capella versions of D’Banj’s dance anthem “Oliver Twist”, “Y-Tjukutja” and “Xigubu”.

Nigerian Clarence Peter is perhaps the most sought-after African music video director, whose work is credited with bringing a new level of technical and artistic quality to the genre. He is tapped to win the Transform Today Award given by Absolut, whose aim is to promote the sponsor’s goal of making long-term links between their brand and young creatives around the world. Actress Lupita Nyong’o, who got her start in MTV Base series Shuga and has rocketed to success in Hollywood in 12 Years a Slave, wins Personality of the Year. She is on set shooting the new Star Wars film, and her acceptance speech has been pre-recorded and features large on the video screen.

The crowd is quiet as Toofan wins Francophone Artist and Anselmo wins Lusophone Artist. As one journalist jokes, “we treat French and Portuguese artists the way that the BETs treat African artists. Just give them one award and send them on their way.” The Best Alternative Music category nominees are white South African groups; the winner is Gangs of Ballet. Similarly, the audience is polite but uninterested.

Americans Trey Songz and Miguel both wow the crowd with their stagecraft. The show concludes with French Montana, and then all the artists stream onto the stage waving flags of various African countries.

The after-party is at Boulevard on Florida Road. Servers stagger under the weight of giant trays laden with food. Upstairs Trey Songz dances on the back of a sofa near the DJ booth. With a mischievous smile he surveys the crowd of women dancing seductively, trying desperately to catch his eye. DJ Edu shakes his head and jokes about the playlist upstairs: “We come all this way to hear New York music. At least Trey Songz and Wayans feel at home!” Downstairs there is an eclectic mix. The crowd heats up as the ageless Oskido spins Kwaito-House late into the night.

As the weekend winds down, the South African music industry returns to Johannesburg. Strategists are already planning for future events. Dzino and his team ramp up their Social Media Week plans, working non-stop, strategising on how to use connections to bring well-known celebrities and significant brand sponsors on board and to create buzz. Meanwhile MTV uploads still images, sound bites and video to their website for press to use. Artists and event organisers anxiously monitor the press and social media to assess the outcome and long-term effect of the show.

Social media sparks debates that in themselves constitute a popular cultural sphere. Buddha Blaze, the Kenyan hip-hop impresario, watched the MAMAs from Nairobi. Using the show as a chance to start online conversations about the state of Kenyan music, he posts to Facebook: “The debate now is does Kenya have enough strong pop artists to compete against their Nigerian, South African and global counterparts???” Buddha is critical of Kenyan artists for only thinking about local audiences, and praises Mafikizolo as an example of a group reaching out to broader audiences because they are not confined by a “South African sound”.

Two weeks after the MAMAs, Davido, Sarkodie, Tiwa Savage, and Mafikizolo are all together again at the BET awards in Los Angeles, California, nominated for the Best International Act: Africa category. BET – also part of the Viacom family – is making an effort to give African artists a US platform, experimenting with US interest in international music. Davido wins, but the award is presented the day before the actual show. Performances by the African artists are also held the night before, as a minor side event. Davido re-Tweets comments from fans, corporates and colleagues congratulating his win, including those from the mobile service provider MTN, Sarkodie and many others.

The artists use the opportunity to publicise their growing international appeal. Some are frustrated, however, with the lack of interest or attention coming from the event and from Americans in general. But there is always another awards show. Plans are under way for the All Africa Music Awards, sponsored in part by the African Union along with BET, Channel O and the SABC. The judges meet in August in Lagos to assess more than 2000 entries from across the continent. One of the judges explains to me that this awards show will be different, not just a corporate show but a real celebration of the best of African music.

The rare success of a handful of stars stands in for the potential of each one’s nation and of the continent. Youth across the continent gauge their personal potential through images and tales of their celebrity heroes, while corporations promote these associations for their own ends. Pop stars display leisure and decadence, but also highlight hard work as the moral pathway to success. African superstars are both idealised figures and Everyman archetypes, icons of the fantasy that everyone is potentially a star. Celebrity culture seduces audiences with their own aspirations. The power of celebrity is to create endless desire and convince people to want something they cannot have, or aim to be someone they cannot be. Increasingly, celebrity is not a sign of desire or value but an abstract object of desire itself – in both content and form; something to be manufactured, circulated, and marketed.

Fame is an old idea but it has a particularly virulent and intoxicating power in the era of digital social media. While holding onto the idea of celebrating individual genius and miraculous, God-given talent, celebrity culture values populist tastes and the idea that talent could be anywhere. In some ways social media gets rid of the expert, the connoisseur, the professional assessor of value and talent in favour of the crowd. The logic of fame implies that being known is a product of a set of skills or accomplishments or aesthetic sensibilities that a public values.

Celebrity is a mirror for the self, contrasting who you are with who you could and should be very soon.


Broadsheet cover


Broadsheet cover


This story features in the new Chronic, an edition in which we ask: what if maps were made by Africans for their own use, to understand and make visible their own realities or imaginaries? How does it shift the perception we have of ourselves and how we make life on this continent?

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*A version of this article first appeared on Africa is a Country.

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