African subcultures – Being different through music, clothes and values

The following is a repost and adaption from Smart Monkey TV Issue No.6 / October 2012

Smart Monkey says:

Looking below the surface, Africa has some interesting subcultures that define themselves through either clothes or music.

I was having breakfast in Cape Town with Vincent Maher, Motribe (a company that build communities with its mobile social tools) a while back and he was describing the success of the company in building communities for sub-cultures globally like Goths and Emos. But in Africa one of his most successful communities was a football platform in Nigeria built for Guinness (just under a million users). Putting these two things alongside each other, the obvious question was where are Africa’s sub-cultures?

Sub-cultures had certainly existed in the past as the existence of Congo-Brazzaville’s and DRC’s dandy movement Les Sapeurs can attest to. (Les Sapeurs is short for La Société des Ambianceurs et Persons Élégants or in English: the Society for the Advancement of People of Elegance). One of the original pioneers in the 1970s was Papa Wemba, soukous musician from DRC (then Zaire) who saw it as a way of resisting the then ruler Mobutu’s banning of western clothes. Dressing in fabulous suits and smoking cigars was a way of resisting the dictator’s strictly enforced national dress.


But a more contemporary version of African sub-culture is the Kenyan cult group Just a Band, who grew up nurtured by Radiohead and Jamiroquai. They started producing music that was out of the mainstream of Kenyan pop music and became famous through a video called Makmende that went viral globally. In an interview recently with Just a Band they talked (only half-jokingly) about the existence of Kenyan Goths.


Once you start looking for them, a number of different sub-cultures come into view. Death Metal Angola is an upcoming documentary directed by Jeremy Xido. The film takes a look at the development of a rock subculture in Angola. The unlikely figures at its core are Sonia Ferreira and Wilker Flores who run and live in the Okutiuka orphanage in Huambo and have a dream. They are going to mount the first ever national rock concert, bringing together for the first time the best and the brightest in Angolan hardcore death metal, thrash metal and melodic death-core. A German heavy metal site name checks Neblina, a metal band based in the capital Luanda.

Deon Maas, Meerkat Productions has also released a documentary called Punk in Africa that looked at the impact of punk music in Southern Africa, particularly Apartheid South Africa. A number of multi-racial bands flourished and the music was a way of stepping away from the repressive politics of the regime. As with all cultural encounters of this kind, local musicians in Zimbabwe bent and shaped the original music to fit their own style. In conversation, Maas said that a number of musicial subcultures still exist in southern and east Africa.

Sitting listening to a presentation on Browser and Social Media Wars at iHub in April, sub-cultures came up in the discussion again. The Kenyan audience confirmed the existence of Kenyan Goths and asked whether tribes counted as sub-cultures? This is a much more contentious topic as middle class Africans are nervous of talking about tribes and prefer less loaded synonyms like ethnicities. But however you label it, the discussion in terms of national politics is about tribes and the jockeying between them for power and influence.

But for me sub-cultures is about asserting difference from the main stream through things like music, clothes and more substantially different values. Perhaps the reasons for the relative lack of sub-cultures in Africa is both social and economic. The social reason is that family ties are paramount and youth is supposed to defer to age. Also there are less economic spaces in which sub-cultures can survive and thrive in the smaller, less urban countries on the continent.

The latest video clip interviews from Smart Monkey TV can be found at the bottom of the original blog post.

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