Divergent Perspectives on Afropolitanism

The concept of citizenship has been challenged by scholars of diaspora and transnational studies. The broad definition states that a citizen is a member of a political community who enjoys the rights and assumes the duties of membership. Within the sphere of international law the term is sometimes understood as denoting a person’s membership of a nation.  In the contemporary world especially with the advent of globalization people’s lives have been molded and shaped by different factors. Today, these individuals lay claim to more space and possess multiple citizenship, their lives are structured, oriented and determined by relations and connections to one or several other places. Thus, signifying that physical location and formal legal citizenship is not the most forms of social, political or economic affiliation. Some of these ‘places’ are other nation states, such as an ancestral country of origin.

Several citizens of the contemporary world, however, now see themselves as cosmopolitans or Afropolitans. Among people of African descent, the end of the Cold War and the demise of apartheid in South Africa triggered intense, robust and sustained discourse about African identity. Based on wide consensus that the conventional concept of African identity that was conceived in opposition to the West is anachronistic and obsolete. Afropolitanism thus was born out of this conceptional assertion and believe from scholars of African culture.

By description, Afropolitanism is a term constructed from the name Africa and the ancient Greek word πολίτης (‘politis’), meaning ‘citizen’ (itself from polis, ‘city’). Afropolitanism is used to describe the diverse and multifarious ways that Africa is entangled in the world, today ‘Afropolitanism’ connects Africa’s global metropolises, transnational cultures and mobile populations under a single analytic term, signifying the radical diversity that Africa possesses now and has throughout history. Scholars have also described Afropolitanism as a subculture, a movement, a fad, and even a call to action. It is an attempt at redefining African phenomena by placing emphasis on ordinary citizens’ experiences in Africa.

Therese Assie-Lumumba therefore, identified in her essay that there was growing interest in the concept of Afropolitanism – a school of thought loosely embedded in elements of geography, territoriality and location. Sarah Balakrishnan further elucidates that the term Afropolitanism was invented twice in the mid-2000s. She revealed that scholarship inside South African circles saw the term circulating earlier. In a conversation between scholar Sarah Nuttall and anthropologist Mark Gevisser in 2004. Afropolitanism has potential benefits for the continent and its peoples when envisioning and actualising national and continental projects for social progress,” says Assie-Lumumba in a theoretical analysis of the concept in the Journal of African Transformation, a joint publication of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa – CODESRIA – and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

Furthermore, some scholars described Afropolitanism as a contemporary response to ‘Afro-pessimism’ – a response led primarily by young people with a Western education, upper-middle class upbringing, accent-free English, and easy access to high-speed Internet. The relevance of Panafricanism in the face of the fact of the fast-paced world was brought to the fore by Tobi Idowu. Idowu in his essay Afropolitanism and Nigerian literature: Beyond the sceptical shrugs, which he said was a political movement that was tied to the decolonising efforts of the African intellectuals and politicians of the mid-twentieth century. He stated that negating Afropolitanism because of its threat to Pan-Africanism in the 21st century is outright temporal fallacy. This is because Afropolitan literature addresses the new and emergent issues in Africa and the global sphere.

Wachira Kigotho attempt to differentiate between Panafricanism and Afropolitanism, the distinction is made base on the assertion that there is a crisis of identity emerging among African academics in the diaspora as to whether they are an offshoot of Pan-Africanism or a breed of emigrant elites, the Afropolitans. Kigotho in contrasting Panafricanism and Afropolitanism pointed out that the former is an ideology that has political agenda in its quest for solidarity between Africans globally while the latter (Afropolitanism) is geared towards social progress on the continent. This submission differs a little from the views held by some scholars that Afropolitanism “is similar to the older Panafricanism ideology”.

Enos Nyamor (2019) essay entitled Afropolitanism on Identity as an Unfinished Game attempts to provoke new ways of scrutinizing the promising, but equally elitist, concept of Afropolitanism. Nyamor contend that Afropolitanism as a social reinvention concept is relevant to people of African descent in the diaspora. But no matter how widely traveled or hybrid-cultured a person might be, there is always the origin of experience and identity. Nyamor maintain that among some of the recent postcolonial ideas, the concept of Afropolitanism has grown increasingly problematic. Afropolitanism Nyamor expatiated remains a solution in an ideal world, and as a method of overcoming the limitations of categorization, and which is often emphasized to show the otherness. This otherness, of course, can be relative to a western or Global Northern identity. Afropolitanism is a dimension in the prism of otherness, he said.

Diogenys, Salami, Olaoluwa and Idowu drew a linkage between cosmopolitanism and Afropolitanism. They established that Afropolitanism is a coinage from “African” and “cosmopolitanism.” It implies a form of cosmopolitanism, a kind of global culture that celebrates according to Paul James “sociality of common political engagement among all human beings across the globe”. Olaoluwa (2019) opined that Afropolitanism share some of the conditions of Kantian notion of cosmopolitanism constructed in elitism, wealth, high education, pleasure seeking and voluntarism. Afropoltanism according to Olaoluwa is Africans own way of feeling at home anywhere in the world,” It is a branch of cosmopolitanism like a leg is a part of a body,  Salami. The concept of cosmopolitanism, used by scholars to describe these changes, coalesced a number of interrelated ideas: urbanism, pluralism, globalization and a universalism similar to Immanuel Kant’s use of the term, Balakrishnan (2017). Its lofty ideology, cosmopolitan values, creative aesthetic, and social media infrastructure has appealed to a generation of young people looking for a framework to help orient their transnational lives, and a narrative that is inclusive of their multiple and shifting identities.

Balakrishnan argues in her essay however, that the idea of Afropolitanism has impacted theory on Africa in two ways. First, instead of regarding pluralism as a threat to state stability, Africa’s cosmopolitan cities and zones are now thought to be harbingers of a new post-racial political future; rather than supposing that states will progressively coalesce into defined nations, as per the organic analogy, ethnically heterogeneous states are increasingly upheld as ‘modern’. Second, Afropolitanism marks a radical shift from a longer history of black emancipatory thought.

Conspicuously, the Afropolitan is defined by his/her routes through Africa (be they physical or ideological), more so than roots. The ‘privileges’ (or pre-conditions) that come with being an Afropolitan citizen include the ability to move seamlessly between cultures, places, and allegiances without judgement. Afropolitans align themselves with broader emancipatory political projects such as Black activism and postcolonial critiques. “Afropolitan” first appeared in March 2005 in the Africa Issue of the LIP magazine article by the British-born, American-raised, writer of Nigerian and Ghanaian origin Taiye Selasi. The term was promoted by Selasi’s extensively distributed essay, “Bye-Bye, Babar (Or: What is an Afropolitan?)” Selasi wrote about multilingual Africans with different ethnic blends living around the globe – put in her own words “not citizens but Africans of the world.” Now the term has spread, used not just by New York hipsters and in trendy European capitals but in Africa’s own multicultural megacities. Taiye Selasi’s use of the term, by contrast, was to name a generation of the diaspora whose parents had left Africa in the 1960s–70s and who had consequently grown up between several global metropolises, speaking multiple languages, engaging with both African and non-African cultures Balakrishnan (2017).

The expansion of the term was carefully demonstrated by theorist Achille Mbembe in a 2007 essay ‘Afropolitanism’ in which he described Afropolitanism as ‘the presence of the elsewhere in the here’, the ‘interweaving and entwining of worlds’ caused by the movement of Black and non-Black people in, out and throughout Africa. There could be no such thing, Mbembe argued, as African authenticity in a continent so connected physically and historically to other parts of the world. In this sense, Johannesburg was ‘the centre of Afropolitanism par excellence … a metropolis built on … multiple racial legacies.

Consequently, Afropolitanism since 2005 has moved beyond orotundity and discourse and into social identity and practice, one scholar highlighted. It serves as a popular signature for many people tasked with defining themselves within the character limits set by social media profiles such as Twitter. The scholar explained, that the internet has played host to several blogs, discussion boards, and other online communities, which have brought together people from around the globe who subscribe to Afropolitan values and culture. While much of Afropolitanism plays out ‘virtually’, the online movement has helped to mobilize people in physical places as well and has served as a platform for a number of social, cultural and economic ventures.

The Afropolitan Network which was formerly setup as a blog in 2017 evolved into an online boutique named The Afropolitan Shop. Another blogger named MsAfropolitan in 2011 held a fashion show entitled The Rise of Afropolitan Fashion at the V&A Museum in London. The fashion show was used to advance and promote understanding and meaning of Afropolitan. An online space AfriPOP in February 2015, partnered with the Caribbean Cultural Center (CCCADI) and The Weeksville Heritage Center to produce After Afropolitan: A Multimedia Exhibition Deconstructing Contemporary African Diaspora Experiences, and Probing the Socio-Economic, Cultural, and Aesthetic Equity of the Afropolitan Identity in Brooklyn, New York. A show that was attended by Taiye Selasi, Binyavanga Wainaina and host of others.

Fourteen years after Taiye Selasi invented the term, Afropolitan spaces are sites of change and debates rather than a reflection of a fixed concept or identity. Binyavanga Wainaina, Emma Dabiri, Brian Bwesigye and host of others social critics have taken issues with Selasi and the broader Afropolitan discourse. The critiques of the Afropolitan, as portrayed by Selasi in Bye-Bye, Babar, condemn its elitism and class biased approach. Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina alleged that Selasi’s view was fundamentally classist; she reserved modernity exclusively for a population who was wealthy enough to travel around the world. Susanne Gehrmann states that Selasi’s Afropolitan “is addicted to urban hip life” and “international careers.” These critics argued that it reflects an elitist representation of African diasporas, which depoliticizes social relations and commodifies African cultures.

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