University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Centre of African Studies Michaelmas Seminars > Writing a history of African popular culture

Writing a history of African popular culture

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How can it be done? There are brilliant histories of individual African popular genres, and even a few studies that extend across regions and culture areas. But a coherent account of the history of popular culture across Africa – or even just sub-Saharan Africa – does not, to my knowledge, exist. There are good reasons for this. There are conceptual problems to do with the constitution of the field “African popular culture” as an object of inquiry. Then there are the daunting methodological problems, to do with the scarcity of really detailed evidence about actual popular performances and texts before the second half of the twentieth century. Popular culture forms are often ephemeral, overlooked, left out of the archive. Oral performances recorded in the 1970s, 80s or 90s may be thought to emerge from and to represent much older traditions: but emerge from them how, represent them in what sense? Many genres could be said to be trans-temporal or multi-temporal, which makes their history hard to grasp. There are problems of chronological dissonance between comparable forms in different parts of the continent. There are problems of interpretation: we still know very little about what popular culture forms mean to their local audiences. And there is the problem of the writing itself. It’s unlikely anyone, least of all myself, will be able to propose a satisfactory solution to any of these problems. But I hope to show, through a number of concrete examples, that confronting such challenges is in itself productive.

This talk is part of the Centre of African Studies Michaelmas Seminars series.

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