Is there any use for the term “Afropolitan”?


There are moments where I feel totally at home. Living in the UK, with a Kenyan passport and a visa with an expiry date, that doesn't happen all that often. But it happened on Friday night, at the Victoria & Albert Museum no less. The Afropolitans Friday Late saw this world-renowned museum transformed into a celebration of contemporary African art and culture. The content, the ambience and the crowd made for the kind of beautiful, vibrant and uplifting experience that warms the soul as much as being or feeling at home.

As part of the festivities, I shared a panel with four great proponents of the Afri-love spirit: journalist, poet and writer, Tolu Ogunlesi; writer and blogger, Minna Salami, aka MsAfropolitan; journalist and author, Hannah Pool and; record label executive and founder of Afro-Pop Live, Yemi Alade-Lawal. Our topic of discussion – "what is an Afropolitan?" We explored this term, coined by Taiye Selasi in 2005, and all that it has come to embody ever since.

There were some great questions from the audience (similar to these from Asé Fountain), challenging the panel as to:

  1. Whether there is a political dimension to being an Afropolitan or whether it's just simply about style.
  2. Whether Afropolitanism is inclusive or just another way to create divisions within our community (in the Diaspora as well as between Diaspora and the continent of Africa).
  3. Whether the Afropolitan idea is attainable for, and indeed even desirable to, all.

I won't attempt to recapture exactly what our responses were on the night but, I will share my thoughts:

1. Politics starts with you
Politics is not something that is separate from us – something that is solely conducted by designated officials far removed from the experience of our daily lives. As individuals, as citizens, we are constantly making political decisions through what we say and what we do. If subscribing to a certain identity, e.g. identifying as an Afropolitan, gives you the pride and confidence to take a stand for yourself and your rights – that's a political action right there. If seeing yourself in a positive light means that you are less likely to accept being treated without respect – that's politics right there. The so-called Arab Spring was a result of people realising that they didn't have to take what they were dealt and of organising themselves in order to get that assertion acknowledged and acted upon. Identifying with an idea and building an active community around it is inevitably going to be about more than fashion and entertainment.

2. It's what you make it
Labels are contentious. They can be especially destructive when rigid and/or imposed. "Afropolitan" however, by its very nature, is flexible. It's about drawing influence, experience, knowledge and inspiration from several sources. Therefore it's impossible to restrict the conditions that make someone an Afropolitan. What the term means is at once elusive (as panel chair Tolu concluded) and obvious (in one of those I-feel-it-but-can't-quite-put-into-words kind of ways). And perhaps that's it right there: that it's more of a feeling than something to be dissected rationally.

3. Something for everyone?
Which brings me nicely to the third question. I sometimes observe that Africans in the Diaspora can get overly comfortable speaking for Africans on the continent. Yes, we share origins, fore-fathers and mothers, many values and even languages. But one thing we do not share is present experience. Being in the Diaspora does not necessarily make us more privileged, learned, talented etc. and it definitely doesn't make us more superior! Sometimes we have to step back and beware that we do not fall into the thinking of those who don't know better and those who would rather see the continent as a forsaken place in need of enlightenment from outside.

The Afropolitan term originated from Diaspora experiences and as such, it has gained tremendous traction within the Diaspora. That is not to assume that it is viewed as desirable, or even relevant, to Africans everywhere (perhaps readers in Africa can share their thoughts on this?).

Going back to the "meaning" of the word, "African" + "cosmopolitan" = "Afropolitan." Nowhere in that make-up is a specification about just where those cosmopolitan locations are. In this globalised and tech-savvy day and age, Africans on the continent can be as connected as anybody else in terms of knowledge and exposure. As Minna suggested, there are probably more Afropolitans, by this simple definition, on the continent than outside!

What do you think of the Afropolitan idea? Do you identify with it? How or why not?

Check out photos from the event here.

4 thoughts on “Is there any use for the term “Afropolitan”?”

  1. Why are you so amazing! I’m so proud to call you my friend.
    …and you’re absolutely right…Politics does start with me…

  2. Hey BurntAsh, very honest and engaging post. I started to leave you a comment and it was turning into an essay! Instead, I’m going to write a blog post in response. Coming up this week … 🙂

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