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  • Positively Popular: African Culture in the Mainstream: Introduction
  • Pim Higginson

African popular culture resists analysis because of the profoundly unsettling histories of these three ideas: “Africa,” the “popular,” and “culture.” In addition, linking terms that are already, in varying ways, mutually constitutive triggers an uneasy terminological feedback that originates in Romanticism and the tension between Herderian cultural nationalism and Rousseauian universalism. This tension is evident in one of anthropology’s founding fathers, Edward B. Tyler. While he posits that culture is “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law custom, and any other capabilities [. . .] as it is acquired by man as a member of society”(1), thereby suggesting that culture is a universal human attribute, he also argues that “a transition from the savage state to our own [sic] would be practically, that very progress of art and knowledge which is one main element in the development of culture” (27). In the latter citation culture is not universal but the sign of progress, a teleological movement towards a clearly European ideal. The concept of culture, and its study in cultural anthropology is haunted by this conceptual distinction and (con)fusion between culture as a human attribute and as an exclusively European achievement.

Like “culture,” the notion of the “popular” does not have unambiguous valence. Its vexed status originates in its appearance with the emerging urban proletariat, in the shift from folk to mass culture that accompanies capitalism’s advance.1 In contrast to folk culture (a static idealization), popular culture, particularly as mass culture, is from the outset—overtly or covertly—a negation—or worse, a regression in which the integrity of nature is lost and the human achievement of (high) culture degraded. As the most developed critical apparatus of capitalist material culture, the Marxist tradition provides two useful and conflicting conceptions: that proposed by the Frankfurt school and that of the Gramscians and subsequent Manchester Cultural Studies School. From the first group’s perspective, popular culture breeds a false consciousness in the proletariat.2 In this context it is synonymous with the fake, the aesthetically barren, and the narcotic. Conversely, while Antonio Gramsci is in many ways ambivalent about it, he is also keenly aware of its importance. Picking up on Gramsci, the Manchester School sees popular cultural practices as sites of struggle and, ultimately, of counterhegemonic potentiality. The Manchester School also challenges anthropology’s monopoly, bringing the field within the purview of politics, philosophy, and criticism. [End Page vii]

Here, then, is why the specific idea of African popular culture represents such a challenge. While the concept of culture is ambivalent, it is largely informed by a (European) history that places Africa at its outer edge, making the continent the border dividing the inside and outside of culture. It is, as Christopher Miller has shown, the West’s constitutive negation. Likewise, while the idea of the popular has been the source of contention, that debate has taken place within an industrialized context. Even the Manchester School focuses on class conflict in a manner that excludes Africa because it is pre-industrial.3 Consequently, a comprehensive look at the idea of popular culture in Africa has come only lately, particularly outside the realm of cultural anthropology.4 New looks at television (Adeleye-Fayemi, Harding), magazines (Lindfors, Nuttall), music (Diawara, Coplan, Graebner), and literature (Newell, Ricard), to name but a few examples, are increasingly showing the richness of the field and the need to continue what has just barely begun. Accordingly, the essays collected here cover important developments in, and new approaches to, the field. Beyond adding to and/or updating earlier material, this collection nevertheless distinguishes itself by exploring a broader range of works than may have been previously considered.

Stephanie Newell, for example, here powerfully challenges the traditional axes of race, class, and place by which we determine African popular culture’s boundaries, by investigating the autobiographical travel narratives of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century working class palm oil traders, or “white ruffians.” According to Newel, these texts are paeans to the colonial project that question it as well; they are defenses of white privilege, and yet uneasy about it; finally, they adhere to notions...


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