The tropes about Africa have been the same for decades: poverty, disease, civil war. And if I hadn’t spent 17 years there, I too would believe that life on the “dark continent” unfolds more or less like a World Vision commercial. Of course, I don’t mean to deny the tragedies that afflict the continent every day; to be sure, there is rampant poverty, widespread disease and there are bloody wars. But that’s not all there is. In 53 different countries, Africans go to work and to school; they get married and raise families; they listen to music and create it; they start businesses and build communities. Life goes on.
“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete,” said Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie in her popular TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” And indeed, the stories about Africa are incomplete.
A new league of young African creatives are rounding out those stories and helping to counter the world’s perception of Africa and what it means to be African. Through their work—be it art or fashion or music—members of this globally minded community are offering up a different glimpse of the continent. Here are six super-cool African up-and-comers to keep an eye out for.
Gold Coast Trading
Emeka Alams of the fashion label Gold Coast Trading is the real deal. A Nigerian who has also lived in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, Alams’ graphics and streetwear-oriented designs incorporate a uniquely African aesthetic. But it’s not simply about using African prints (lookin’ at you, Gwen Stefani!); as the Fader put it, Alams is “turning the language of slavery on its head” through his use of imagery like $$$. He’s also been involved with projects like OkayAfrica, and was recently asked by Fela Kuti’s label to design part of the legend’s forthcoming dedication album.
The swimwear line Bantu fuses the bicoastal inspirations of designer Yodit Eklund. Bantu’s bold West African prints come from the Ivory Coast, where she spent time in her youth, and the fashionable one-pieces and bikinis are manufactured in her homeland of Ethiopia. Eklund’s goal is to introduce the rest of the world to the concept of African beach culture, while supporting local economies by using a manufacturing process that is all-African. The continent has traditionally been regarded as simply a place from which to extract raw materials, but Eklund envisions a future where Africa is seen as a destination for finished products as well. Bantu has been featured in Vogue, Vanity Fair and the New York Times, and is available at Barneys, Steve Alan and at Net-a-porter.com
Soweto’s resident genre-definer Spoek Mathambo has been described as both “post-apartheid” and “post-hip hop.” While the likes of M.I.A. and Diplo and Switch are the obvious musical references in his electro-funk-dancehall-hip-hop-afrobeat-new-wave mash-up, his sound is fresh and distinctly South African. Mathambo represents an energized, globally engaged Africa that belongs as much in Nairobi, Dakar and Johannesburg as it does in London, New York and Paris. Despite the strong party vibes on his recent release, Mathambo doesn’t gloss over the political realities of his home country. Mshini Wam, the title of his album and the name of his band, is a reference to the heyday of ANC movement. Mathambo graced the cover of the Fader this summer and is getting mad blog hype.
The Johannesburg-based Blk Jks—pronounced Black Jacks, in a hipster we’re-too-cool-for-vowels kinda way—have released three records on Secretly Canadian, the label that also puts out Antony and the Johnsons, Yeasayer and jj. Blk Jks have been described as an African TV On the Radio, but their highly instrumental steez also has elements of classic ‘70s rock and funk. They performed with Alicia Keys at the opening concert of the World Cup in June, and at Edun for Fashion’s Night Out. Extra points for guitarist Mpumelelo Mcata, who was featured on The Sartorialist a couple of weeks ago.
Esau Mwamwaya of The Very Best
Lilongwe, Malawi-raised Esau Mwamwaya teamed up with British production duo Radioclit to form The Very Best, an electro-Afropop outfit in which he sings in Chichewa, Swahili and English. The trio has collaborated with Ezra Koenig, M.I.A., Santigold, Architecture in Helsinki and the aforementioned Blk Jks, among others. With The Very Best’s debut record Warm Heart of Africa, Mwamwaya has joined the ranks of just a handful of Africans to find musical success in the UK, where West Indian dancehall and reggae have traditionally been more popular than African music. The Very Best have been on tour with Afropop-appropriators Vampire Weekend, and are garnering commercial and critical success along the way.
After years of commercial work as a graphic designer and animator, French-Senegalese multiplatform artist Delphine Diallo turned to photography. Diallo was frustrated by the restrictive ideals of beauty she felt she was helping to disseminate, and wanted to create work that would help to “transcend stereotypes of beauty.” A 2008 series shot in Senegal, “The Renaissance,” earned her much attention. In the series, Diallo superimposed illustrations over powerful photos of Senegalese men, women and children, and directly challenged the common images we see of dejected-looking Africans. Since then, Diallo has worked on several other projects, and is now shooting for Converse.