With the growing popularity of new artists such as Nneka, African Boy, Mpho or Last Year’s Tragedy, it is no surprise that contemporary African music found solid footing at this year’s South by Southwest Music conference in Austin. Ngozi Odita, Founder of Society HAE, moderated the 5 member panel on 21st Century African Music, which took a closer look at the evolution of African music, its presentation in the media, and some of the challenges related to marketing music for a relatively young genre. Contributing to the dialogue were Ben Herson, founder of fair trade record label Nomadic Wax; Esau Mwamwaya, Malawian singer, and member of The Very Best, Toni Blackman, Cultural Ambassador for the US Dept of State and Founder of Freestyle Union/Lyrical Embassy and Yolanda Sangweni, South African singer/songwriter and founder of AfriPOPmag!
Today’s African music scene is largely created and appreciated by self-identified Afripolitans, a rapidly expanding demographic of young Africans in their 20s and 30s who have carved out a cosmopolitan world perspective for themselves. The South African band the Blk Jks, redefined Africa’s image when they appeared in Rolling Stone and Fader, wearing (Converse) All-Stars and skinny jeans. Yolanda Sangweni of Afripop magazine pointed out that Blk Jks rise in New York’s hipster scene had people coming up to her and marveling at the fact that people wore All-Stars in Africa. People in the west are largely unaware of how much African pop culture has evolved. Despite the stereotypical images rotated in the media, Africa is producing its fair share of original content. Artists no longer want their work to exclusively be classified as only African or only as World music. Some artists who would naturally fall into this camp have figured out how to forgo this labeling quagmire by simply promoting their own music via the Internet. Ben Herson of Nomadic wax addressed the implications of this development “-if people are able to connect emotionally to an artist that’s from Africa, and it’s someone who’s hot or being played on the radio or internet radio or whatever way they are connecting with them, they become much more open and much more inclined to actually have some sort of comprehension of what’s happening in that country or in that region, outside of just music itself.” Esau Mwamwaya reinforced Herson’s message of bridging cultural gaps through music, “-if somebody can feel something even if they don’t understand, that alone does the work, it is enough to inspire somebody to do something good.” These powerful sentiments do not only speak to the importance of engaging Africa on its ow terms, but also touch upon the potential impact an open dialogue with African culture could have on society as a whole.