Thursday, October 11, 2007

African Americans and Africans

For several years, I have been interested in exploring the relationship between African Americans and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa in the United States. I have read many books and conducted numerous interviews, but I have come to realize that sometimes, a great way to study such subject can be to turn to popular culture. A good example is an artist I recently discovered: R&B and hip-hop artist Akon, a black African Muslim who has managed to make a name in a typically African American genre.

Akon was born Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam in Dakar, Senegal in 1981. His family moved to the United States and settled in New Jersey when he was only seven. His father Mor Thiam is a renowned African jazz percussionist. Akon was raised with strong African traditions and from an early age, he learned to play several percussion instruments. Later, he discovered and embraced hip-hop music and culture. His debut album “Trouble” released in 2004 has been greatly acclaimed in the United States as well as worldwide.

Akon is proud of his African origin. In two of his videos - for the songs “Bananza” and “Ghetto” - he wears tee shirts and sweaters harboring the Senegalese flag. One of his first songs “Senegal” is a celebration of his origins. He stresses people’s ignorance of Africa, starting every sentence of his verses with the words “So what you know about...?” He invites African Americans to go “back home” to Africa, for they are “Africa’s children” as well. He does not try to seduce them into an idealistic description of Africa. He depicts the harsh reality of some African countries, where “kids with automatic machines (are) waiting for the war to get on that side.” However, he also alludes to the pleasures Africa can offer and the importance of moral values (“...everything that we do is for Allah...”). After providing African Americans with a faithful description of Africa, he leaves them free to make their own opinions and reconsider their identities. He tries to raise consciousness within African Americans and, more than anything, bring unity between the two communities.

Whether or not he is conscious of it, Akon plays an important role in building a bridge between the two communities. In most of the interviews he has given to African American journalists, they have asked him about his origins. These interviews are an occasion to perceive African Americans’ approach to their “African” identity. When African American music journalist Marielle V. Turner asks him, “Being from AfricaSenegal, what’s it like to know exactly where you’re from (...)?” she is not only addressing the hip hop artist: she is addressing the man from sub-Saharan Africa, and expressing African Americans’ wound of not knowing their precise origins. Akon deplores the lack of education and the stereotypes conveyed by the media that feed the “gap and misunderstanding between Africans and African-Americans” and tries to reunite the two communities through his music.

1 comment:

*lgs said...

Senegalese of our generation take immense pride in Akon's success. I was there in April and the first time I was asked if I liked Akon, I said I didn't think much of him as an MC. That was the wrong answer. I was asked the same question many times after that and always answered "yes, he's great."
In short, your article's on point.