On Monday, February 15, 2016, Kendrick Lamar gave an amazing performance on the GRAMMYS, paying homage to Michael Jackson, Trayvon Martin, and Black resistance in America. He’s one of my favorite rappers, and I’ve had the privilege of following his career since my baby brother introduced me to Section.80 in 2011.
At the end of his performance, Kendrick Lamar stood in silhouette in front of an image of the African continent in white (including Madagascar!), with the single word “Compton” in black over it.
I knew immediately what that image meant to me; I grew up in a project right on the South Central Los Angeles and Compton city line. My sisters went to school in Compton, we shopped and did laundry in Compton, my parents worked in Compton, we played on Compton playgrounds. But we were African, and the playgrounds, workplace, laundromat, and classrooms never let us forget it.
I’ve since made peace with the taunts of children; we were all poor and living in very stressful households. We were taught about each other by our parents who were, in turn, taught about each other by their segregated social groups. Where I grew up, Africans and African-Americans were distinctly separated by tightly-held prejudices, and still are today.
Still, that image made me bristle a bit because of the context in which it was displayed and because of my relationships to Africa (the myth), the Africas (the reality), Compton, African-Americans, and the Black diasporas. It reminded me that for all our Blackness, and for all the work we’ve done on the internet to curate our particular blends of Blackness, we still don’t see each other. I mean we don’t really see each other. We haven’t fully seen the connected web of power that creates our political, economical, social, and even climate conditions today. We don’t see how alike we are, how different we are, and how we are each resisting these systemic political machinations in very tangible ways.
Compton, California and Compton, Africa
Compton didn’t see the Africas in ’94, and it certainly didn’t seem to see it last night. Then again, last night wasn’t about Africa, at least not the Africas. It was about the 21st century African-American struggle, which Kendrick Lamar wholly embodies in form and function; it was about being seen in an industry that consistently throws Black art under the bus, while using Black vernacular to promote its interests. It was about the physical, musical, and spiritual resistances that Black American artists perform daily in the studio and on the streets. It was about Trayvon Martin and Black Lives Matter. It was about visibility and representation of Black art in one of the most highly visible platforms of the year. It was a bold statement that used the meme of Africa to center the conversation squarely in Kendrick’s words: “I’m African American; I’m African.” There is no question, no apology, no grey lines for us to consider.
In the same way African Americans demand visibility in these mainstream industries, I demand visibility of the Africas, the many, present Africas. The image didn’t offend me; I understood exactly what Kendrick was doing by situating Compton in Africa like that. Rather, it made me angry. It made me feel invisible and powerless, like the child on the Compton playground wondering why people who looked just like me would not let me play with them. It mattered that African-Americans didn’t see me and didn’t want to see me on my terms; it mattered that I didn’t have the language to express it then; it matters that I have the language to express it now.
The Necessary Myth of Africa
But, like most things, it’s not really about me. It’s about this meme of the myth of Africa represented by the continent of Africa (with no country lines) that gets used over and over again to represent any Black-skinned person in any context. In America, in Black America, in Latin America, in the West Indies, in the UK and Europe–anywhere, really–this myth replicates into a meme that is devoid of context, meaning, and agency of actual Africans living presently on the continent. We put Africa on our jewelry to represent our ‘wokeness’, wear it on shirts, put in our very Afrocentric art, and display it in the background of our worldwide performances to represent something that we have ascribed meaning to, something that is not in conversation with the humanity within itself.
Kendrick Lamar can put up the image of Africa without country lines because to him and to his audience, those countries don’t really matter. Never mind that each of those countries fought for their independence, or that many of those countries are still fighting for democracies on their terms. It doesn’t really matter what everyday people, artists, writers, hustlers, scientists, programmers, doctors, or lawyers are doing to make differences in those African countries, or that the borders of those countries are shifting daily. Kendrick Lamar can put up the word Compton in the Sahara desert not because he’s not connected to the present-day struggles in South Africa, a country where racial tensions are far more similar to those in Compton than say, Mali, Niger, or Chad, but because he understands the power of the single image. It’s enough for him and for those who are consuming his images. He doesn’t have to do the work of marking any of those countries, of seeing any humanity beyond the myth that he’s already created and exploited in his art. He took the easy way, as many African-American and Black Diaspora artists do when engaging the Africas.
The Memeing and Unmemeing Africa
That image will replicate throughout different Black American communities, and, city by city, the word Compton will be switched out. Meanwhile, the Africas, teeming with life and presentness, with their own resistances and their own visions of their own futures, will be erased as the image becomes a meme, and few will question the validity of it. The image of Africa itself is powerful. It represents so many different things for people around the world, but it is silent, as most objects are. It does not speak back, it does not question, and it does not resist. Until its people do.
In response to my very vexed tweets, people wrote that it wasn’t that deep, that I was late, or that my tweets were unnecessary. Let’s put this in context, though. Any time a white artist uses African American art in a watered down fashion, we take to the public sphere to correct the situation, receipts in tow. Historically, Black Americans have demanded to be seen, using whatever tools available to amplify their resistance.
That is precisely what I’m doing here. I’m asking that Black artists across the diasporas, see the Africas as the multiple, complicated, thriving, dying, messy, resistant places that they are. I’m asking that, if Black artists across the diasporas want to use Africa in their art, they deal with the Africas that are living now, not a dead myth of Africa that was constructed to offer descendants of enslaved Africans a sense of home, or to facilitate imperialism’s wealth extraction.
In short, I’m asking Black America to listen to the Africas. Listen to the conversations that Kenyans are having with Nigerians, that South Africa is having with Botswana, that Rwanda is having with Burundi, and so on. And I’m asking you to see. See how students in South Africa have stopped entire universities in protest for months. See how damaging the lingering and ongoing consequences of imperialism have been to the people and to the land. See how we’re dancing today in celebration of our sexualities, and see how we’re pushing back against oppressive regimes in our art.
Question All the Things
Does that mean you should question your Africa-shaped jewelry? Heck yes. Question all the ways Africa comes to you. Ask yourself if you’re dealing with the myth, the meme, or the agency of the Africas. Question who made the materials to manufacture that piece of jewelry. Question what you know to be authentically “African” and question why you may or may not know the names of the last five presidential candidates of any election held in any African country in the past year. Question whether we really were all Kings and Queens, and if we were, who were our subjects?
The myth of Africa isn’t just found in Black American and Black Diasporan art; it also makes its way into international relations, finance, technology, and whole industries founded in propagating the myth. By lumping the entirety of Africa into one mass (again, no country lines!), we remove the many histories and presents of the Africas. We miss their contributions to the world and reduce the incredible diversity of the continent to a meme: a device that spreads in mimicry, with little to no context or agency of its own.