My regular readers know that I’m a fan of sumo, and am especially interested in the globalization of the sport. The top three rikishi (wrestlers) in Japanese sumo are from Mongolia, and top ranks of the sport have recently featured competitors from Bulgaria, Georgia, Russia, Estonia and Brazil. On the one hand, this is helping a distinctly Japanese tradition gain global audiences, which is a great thing for the quality of the sport. On the other hand, the globalization is in part due to waning interest in the sport by Japanese youth (few of whom are excited about living the highly-regimented life of the sumo wrestler), and globalization may be contributing to waning interest in Japan, as it has been many years since a Japanese rikishi was the top competitor in the sport. (If this topic is interesting to you, you might enjoy a ten minute talk I gave on the subject to Microsoft Research in January 2013, available as video or as my notes.
This is the first week of the Nagoya basho, one of six two-week tournaments that are the heart of the Japanese sumo season, and much of the big news is about a foreign competitor who has recently joined the sport. Abdelrahman Shalan, who competes in sumo as Osunaarashi (which translates as “the great sandstorm”), is a 138kg, 22-year old Egyptian, who is the first Arab, the first African and the first Muslim to compete at the top level of sumo. Osunaarashi came to Japan in August 2011 to compete, and has moved through the ranks very quickly, competing for less than two years at the lower levels of the sport before joining the highest level of competition (maegashira) this past November.
Osunaarashi defeats Harumafuji!
This week, he’s making headlines not for his origins, but for his performance. Yesterday and today, Osunaarashi scored back to back kinboshi, victories of a lower ranked wrestler over a yokozuna, or grand champion. In other words, yesterday and today, Osunaarashi fought the very best guys in the sport and won. It’s worth mentioning that these two matches were the first time Osunaarashi had ever faced yokozuna, which makes the achievement even more impressive.
Kinboshi are relatively rare in sumo. The term means “gold star”, and it refers to the fact that sumo victories and losses are traditionally tallied with white stars for wins and black stars for losses. A gold star signifies a particularly important win. These victories are so rare because yokozuna don’t lose very often – Hakuho, the most senior yokozuna, finishes most tournaments 13-2, 14-1 or a perfect 15-0… and those few losses are usually to other yokozuna or other high-ranked wrestlers (ozeki, komusubi, sekiwake). For an “ordinary” rikishi (i.e., a guy who’s competing in the top league, but hasn’t yet earned a particular rank) to beat a yokozuna is a significant enough achievement that fans usually respond by grabbing the cushions they are sitting on and throwing them into the air. The rikishi is rewarded with a modest, but significant, raise in pay, and the lists of rikishi who have accomplished kinboshi are relatively short and filled with sumo superstars. (Only 9 active competitors have 2 or more kinboshi.)
If you weren’t impressed by the fact that Osunaarashi beat yokozuna the first two times he faced them, leading the Japanese press to call him a “giant killer”, consider this: the man is fasting for Ramadan. Obviously, eating is an important part of sumo – one of the reasons rikishi live and train in communal houses is so they can follow a regimen of eating, sleeping and training that allows them to gain and maintain weight. But sumo training is demanding martial arts training, and in the summer in Japan, wrestlers gulp down water as they train to stay hydrated and cool. During Ramadan, Osunaarashi neither eats nor drinks during the day – in a Japanese-language interview, the head of his sumo “stable”, Otake Oyakata, explains that he hoses Osunaarashi down during workouts to keep him cool when he cannot drink water. Last year, >commentators were concerned that Osunaarashi would not be able to compete for a full 15 days while fasting – the big man went 10-5, and I’ve yet to see a news story this year that even mentions his observance.
I have enormous respect for Osunaarashi, who not only is showing himself as a magnificent athlete, but is introducing the Japanese public to the dedication, intensity and beauty of the Muslim faith. Sumo wrestlers are not just competitors, but celebrities and cultural figures. Osunaarashi is emerging as an ambassador for the Muslim world, appearing as a guest lecturer in university classes and on TV to talk about differences and similarities between Japan and Egypt, between Islam and Shintoism.
I also have great admiration for Otake Oyakata, who has broken some of the traditions of sumo to make it possible for Osunaarashi to compete. Life in the sumo beya is highly ritualized – simply giving Osunaarashi time to pray five times a day is a break from sumo routines. Rikishi eat a rich, pork-heavy stew called chankonabe to pack on weight – the Otake stable now offers a fish-based chankonabe to Osunaarashi so he can gain weight while eating halal. These sound like minor changes, but they’re a big deal for a sport that is deeply rooted in Japanese tradition and extremely slow to change. (Rikishi appear in public wearing kimono and sandals, never in western street clothes, for example.)
My friend Hiromi Onishi, a senior executive with Asahi Shinbum, and I have been bonding over our fondness for Osunaarashi and trading links about him. Hiromi theorizes that Osunaarashi’s popularity in Japan tracks the nation’s engagement with different parts of the world. In the 1980s, Hawaiian sumo wrestlers came to dominate the sport, just as Japanese tourists were beginning to travel to those destinations. As Mongolians came into the sport in the early 2000s and eastern Europeans in the later 2000s, Japan has been increasingly globalized and engaging in trade and travel to these parts of the world. Now, as Japanese hotels learn to provide halal options for Muslim travelers and show other signs of connection to the Muslim world, Osunaarashi emerges as an ambassador.
For those of you meaning to start watching sumo, it’s great to have someone to support. If you’re an African, an Arab, a Muslim, or any other kind of human being, please join me in supporting Osunaarashi. With two kinboshi, he’s likely to win the Outstanding Performance prize in this tournament, and if he keeps his winning ways up, perhaps he can defeat Hakuho as well and take down all three yokozuna. Inshallah!
Thoughtful Quora post from Sed Chapman on the history of foreign rikishi and Japan’s reactions to Osunaarashi.
Kintamayama posts footage of bashos with English title cards – an amazing resource for the sumo fan outside Japan.
Much of my summer reading centers on the idea of civics outside of the conventional bounds of the state. I’m interested in understanding reasons why individuals and groups grow frustrated with traditional state-bound politics, and what forms of civics they explore when they opt out of engagement with the state. I’m fond of extreme cases as a way of understanding the limits of a position, so I’ve been reading about seasteading, the “dark enlightenment” movement, and prepper culture, all of which appear to me to be responses to the perception that existing states are inexorably failing.
These three forms of exit all involve a conscious renunciation of states and their accompanying services and protections. In the case of seasteading and the DE folks, this renunciation is made on an ideological basis, the belief that freedom from state tyranny (defined various ways, but usually through taxation and regulation) requires exit from political systems rather than the use of voice to influence these systems. Preppers see a collapse of existing states, either through political or natural disaster, as inevitable, and preparation to survive the collapse as prudent.
In reading about these movements, I was intrigued to see the phrase “zombie apocalypse” recur as an example of the sorts of disasters that might bring existing states to their demise. Nick Land, one of the central thinkers of the Dark Enlightenment movement, titles a section of his manifesto, “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards zombie apocalypse”, a particularly dark way of stating his reactionary historical thesis. In the prepper community, “zombie apocalypse” is a common enough shorthand for “unspecified disaster” that the US Centers for Disease Control has used Zombie Preparedness as a way to get Americans to talk about more conventional disasters they should prepare for, like tornados or floods.
But zombies are not just another natural disaster, and our anxieties about zombies are more complicated and multilayered than our fears of the implications of global warming. As John Feffer notes, our fear of zombies is a manifestation of our broader fears about globalization and pandemic, and about immigration and “the enemy within”, the post-9/11 anxiety about sleeper cells and the fears that our neighbors will turn out to be homicidally “other”. Accompanying the fears is a set of fantasies. The dream of the well-prepared survivor protecting his or her family from mindless hordes is remarkably similar whether the hordes are composed of fellow citizens less prepared for the disaster, hungry for carefully stockpiled resources, or the undead hungry for brains. The zombie apocalypse is caused when people who look like us, but are not as resourceful/prepared/strong/worthy as us, become the enemy. It’s John Galt’s nightmare, where unproductive moochers rise up to demand food, education, healthcare and eventually the very lives of the more productive and worthy citizens.
The “what’s mine is mine” stance isn’t the only possible reaction to societal collapse, including zombie apocalypse. Jeriah Bowser, who self-identifies as a prepper, has a beautiful response to this selfish view of the comping collapse. His thoughtful piece on teaching wilderness survival to preppers concludes:
I very strongly believe that, in the coming collapse, those who are able to build communities and work together – abandoning their childish, apocalyptic fantasies – will have a much better chance of survival than any Prepper I have come across. Besides, what is “survival” even worth if you are encased in a concrete bunker for years, eating MRE’s and drinking recycled piss water, living in a constant state of paranoia that someone will “take what’s yours?” Not me, I would much rather live my last days actively doing meaningful work with people I love, creating a more beautiful world than the one we left behind; a world that is based on egalitarianism for all species and types of humans, a world built on cooperation, sustainability, simplicity, and freedom. You can keep your bunkers.”)
If we want to move beyond “hide and hoard” approaches, we need to consider the role of large-scale human organization in the face of the zombie threat. While most literature on the undead focuses on individual preparedness and response, it is worth considering the ways in which the zombie apocalypse has consequences for existing states, up to and including, their collapse. Fortunately, political scientist Daniel Drezner has considered the implications of widespread zombie attack and the stresses it would create on states in his seminal “Theories of International Politics and Zombies.” Published in 2011, Drezner’s volume is not only the most comprehensive overview of likely state responses to the rise of flesh-eating formerly dead ghouls, it is also a thoughtful overview of the zombie canon (though clearly an American-centered understanding of the canon that consciously excludes the West African/Haitian view of zombies as living servants enslaved by magic or pharmacology, for example.)
Dresner explores state responses to a zombie pandemic from various philosophical points of view. Political realists, he predicts, will see zombies as a manageable fact of life in a globalized world, more threatening to weak states than to strong ones (much as communicable diseases and famines are.) Liberals will seek cooperation through international institutions and may mitigate and contain the threat of the living dead through regulation, but their insistence on open societies will complicate crisis response by forcing governments to deal with civil society, which may support zombie rights. Neocons will likely incorporate zombies into an Axis of the Evil Dead and turn a disastrous war on zombies into a war on autocrats, likely creating more zombies in the process.
Some of Dresner’s most nuanced analysis comes in the chapter on the social construction of zombies. Referencing thinkers like Alex Wendt, Dresner outlines a constructivist view of zombies based around the core idea that “zombies are what humans make of them”. Under a constructivist theory, zombie and human coexistence is both possible and desirable – the key is to escape existing paradigms that see the rise of zombies as an existential threat to human existence and to seek integration of zombies into human society, much as is accomplished at the end of Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead”.
In exploring the constructivist approach to zombies, Dresner steps up to the edge of a radical idea, then steps back. Dresner’s serious consideration of human/zombie coexistence is a brave move, though one he’s clearly uncomfortable with. In his literature review, Dresner makes clear “this project is explicitly prohuman, while Marxists and feminists would likely sympathize more with the zombies.” (p.17) In his consideration of liberal, multilateralist approaches to the zombie phenomenon, he warns that the rise of activist organizations to protect zombie rights would likely complicate or prevent global zombie eradication. (p.58-9)
Perhaps due to his inherent anthropocentrism, his suspicion of rights-based theories of politics, or the simple fact that the extant zombie literature had yet to articulate this view, Dresner is not able to consider the idea that perhaps zombification is, perhaps, a desirable next state of human existence. This radical idea is articulated by celebrated novelist Colson Whitehead, whose underappreciated contribution to the zombie canon, “Zone One”, follows a “sweeper” nicknamed Mark Spitz, tasked with clearing lower Manhattan of zombies to make the nation’s most valuable real estate inhabitable once more. “Zone One”, Manhattan below Canal Street, is one of the last safe zones in a United States transformed by zombie attacks.
(SPOILER ALERT – Stop reading here if you’re planning on reading the novel.)
While annihilation is a common theme in the zombie canon, most works focus on the transformation of society by the zombie threat. Protagonists die, but humanity survives. There are simple narrative reasons for this: it’s hard to follow a narrative when all narrators have been exterminated. In Whitehead’s apocalypse, it becomes increasingly clear that humanity cannot survive. Lower Manhattan will fall. At the close of the book, we learn that the narrator’s nickname comes from his inability to swim and fear of water, which has near-perilous consequences as he is trapped by zombies with escape possible only by diving into a stream. (As with all of Whitehead’s work, this is a comment on race in America, a reference to stereotypes of African-Americans not learning to swim.) As the novel comes to a close, waves of zombies, held back by a fragile wall, threaten to swamp Zone One and Mark Spitz realizes that it is time to learn to swim, to dive over the wall and embrace his new life as a zombie. This is suicide, the annihilation of the self, but it is also rebirth, the embrace of a new way of being in the world.
Whitehead’s radical suggestion is that we entertain the idea that it might be okay to become a zombie. That Whitehead continually confronts the idea of otherness by examining what it means to be black in a white world, may invite us to consider this idea purely as metaphor. But read literally, it’s an intriguing concept, though impossible to evaluate as the zombie is constructed as so radically other than we cannot imagine our zombified existence in anything other than cartoonish terms. (Consider how few narratives are offered from the zombie’s eye view – Jonathan Coulton’s “re: Your Brains” is one fine example, but is a reminder that the zombie perspective is so uncomfortable, it must be played for laughs, not serious consideration.)
If we read the zombie as the fear of the immigrant as other, Whitehead’s possible future merits close consideration. Some of the anxiety over the zombie invasion maps to fear of a “majority minority” nation, one where the current “default” white, Anglo-Saxon identity is merely one of many origins and backgrounds that make up a heterogenous whole. Perhaps Dresner needs to offer an update, informed by Whitehead’s addition to the canon, that considers a cosmopolitan framing of the states and zombies question. If cosmopolitanism involves recognizing the validity of other ways of living life and accepting that we may have obligations to those who live differently, perhaps it offers a framework for human/zombie coexistence, and perhaps, a richer, more varied society that recognizes the contributions and perspectives of the differently animated.
More likely, this cosmopolitan framework would rapidly lead to annihilation of human life as we know it. “As we know it” is the key phrase. The radical version of the cosmopolitan stance demands we consider the possibility that a world transformed by zombies is an optimistic future, or perhaps simply a less bleak future than one in which the main form of human existence is self-centered conflict to avoid the zombie onslaught. This is a subtext in virtually all of the zombie canon: the seven occupants of the farmhouse in Romero’s foundational Night of the Living Dead cannot cooperate or compromise, while the zombie horde at their door is remarkably coherent and peaceful, united by their desire for tasty human flesh. If we cannot unite to tackle an existential threat, perhaps we deserve our extinction. Perhaps our unity with the horde is a higher state.
This is why the zombie apocalypse analogy is such a dangerous one. If we cannot imagine a future in which we survive our encounter with the other, our likely response is to hide and hoard, to hunker down, as Robert Putnam describes, in the most extreme (and heavily armed) ways possible. Drezner does us a service in positing a world where we manage a zombie invasion much as we manage any other pandemic, and life is transformed, but still recognizable. But as soon as we posit an other – zombies, terrorists, (welfare recipients and liberals for the DE folks) – whose desire for our extinction is innate, coexistence is impossible, cooperation towards extinction of the threat fraught, and our annihilation inevitable. “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”
TweetThis past December, I gave a talk at the Oxford Internet Institute about possible relationships between “new media” and new approaches to participatory civics – I blogged my notes for the talk at the time.
The fine folks at OII asked whether I would be willing to publish the notes of the lecture in the journal Policy & Internet, edited by Vili Lehdonvirta, who had invited me to lecture at Oxford, and by Helen Margetts and Sandra Gonzalez Bailon. I agreed, and worked with the editors to polish my handwavings into something more permanent.
What I had not realized was that the editors had solicited a set of responses to the lecture from some of the smartest people in the new media, political theory and social activism space. The latest issue of P&I features my essay, as well as responses from Zeynep Tufekci, Jennifer Earl, Henry Farrell, Phil Howard, Deen Freelon and Chris Wells, who do a great job individually and collectively of challenging and expanding my thinking.
P&I, unfortunately, is protected by paywall, but I and others involved are archiving pre-press versions of our papers. Mine will be up on MIT’s DSpace repository in the near future and is here in the meantime. Other participants have been making their pieces available online as well. If you’ve got access through your university or a library, please check out the whole issue!
I would be sad to return to the pre-internet days of music fandom. I think back to the days of paper fanzines with hazy nostalgia, but in truth, it was pretty wretched to hear about a band you might or might not like, order a 7″, wait weeks and discover that just because some dude with an exacto knife, glue stick and access to a xerox machine loved a band, it didn’t mean they were any good. I try to remember to be thankful every time I look up an unfamiliar band on AllMusic.com, when I surf a band’s back catalog on YouTube and buy CDs I would never have found without online retailers who stock the long tail of musical tastes.
That said, one casualty of the digital age is the demise of the local record store. I am blessed with an excellent local record store, Toonerville Trolley Records in Williamstown, MA, and I was thrilled to see a line of patrons waiting to get in to celebrate Record Store Day a few months back. (I took Drew to buy his first LP. Four and a half seems like the right age to start building a record collection.) But despite how fortunate I am in terms of local record shopping (both in Williamstown and in Cambridge, which has great stores like Weirdo and Armageddon), I feel the loss of the institution of the record store when I travel to different cities.
This past week, I was in Nairobi, Kenya, with Media Lab students, staff and faculty, working to build a partnership between the Lab and iHub, the remarkable tech incubator and coworking space built by the founders of Ushahidi. I wanted to make sure my Media Lab friends saw Nairobi for the wonderful, exciting city that it is, and I especially wanted to show Joseph Paradiso, the other lab faculty member on the trip, some different sides of the city. Joe is a celebrated builder of analog synthesizers and a massive prog rock fan, and while I knew finding music to suit his tastes in Nairobi might be a challenge, I figured a visit to a record store was in order.
Johnstone Mukabi and Peter Rugenye perform at the Melodica Music Store in Nairobi.
Visiting Melodica Records in Nairobi is as much pilgrimage as shopping excursion. The proprietor, Abdul Karim, has been managing the store since 1971. Located in Nairobi’s Central Business District, Melodica is part musical instrument shop, part performance space and part archive. It was quiet on the Saturday afternoon we came by, staffed by Karim, his mother and an assistant, and we were the only customers exploring the stacks.
Like many African music stores, Melodica burns CDs for customers rather than selling packaged CDs. (Teju Cole writes movingly in Every Day is For the Thief of finding John Coltrane CDs in a record store in Lagos, then discovering they are astronomically expensive to buy, as they are designed to be kept as the reference copy, parent of the copies for sale.) Joe immediately begins grilling the sales clerk, asking for the weirdest, most experimental music the shop stocks. The first track the clerk plays is Kanda Bongo Man’s “Zing Zong” – not exactly what Joe was looking for, but I recognize it immediately and shout out the title based on the opening notes. That earns me admission to the back room, packed with piles of dusty vinyl, and an invitation from Karim to use his turntable to listen and discover.
Melodica dates from the days when African record stores weren’t just selling a product – they were recording studios, producers, distributors and retailers. Many of the records Karim hands me are ones on the Melodica label, which he produced in the 1970s. As I’m picking through a stack of dusty Luo ballads, looking for Lingala dance music, Karim explains that musicians would travel with reel to reel masters from Kinshasa or Brazzaville to Nairobi to press their work and bring it to audiences throughout central Africa.
The production on the records varies widely. Some were originally recorded badly, and the saturated tape leads to gnarly, distorted records despite Karim’s engineering efforts. Others have the wide-open, echoey sound that’s characteristic of my favorite Congolese music, a sound that somehow evokes both all-night, outdoor dance clubs and distant vistas. Karim and I talk about what types of records I like and he does his best to find records that feature organ and synth crossing into traditional song structure, the local parallels to styles like Afrojuju in Nigeria (my genre of choice.)
I note a promising album propped up on the studio window, the scratched plexiglass producers once sat behind to offer hand signals to the band recording in what’s now the store’s main space. It’s “Mandingo” by Black Blood and Karim explains that he can’t sell me the album as it is his sole remaining copy, but urges me to download tracks from it from the store’s website. Karim’s role is at least as much preservationist as proprietor these days. A search for “Black Blood” on Afro7, a site dedicated to East African vinyl, offers the clue that Black Blood was a group of expatriate Kenyans playing in Brussels, but there’s little else about them online. Karim’s copy is surely not the sole one extant, but it’s one likely to ensure that a funky, ferocious band survives another generation.
Crate-digging, the art and science of searching for rare grooves in record stories, antique shops and yard sales, is a celebrated, if controversial, practice. Classic hiphop was built on the art of the sample, and the more obscure the sample you could find, the better. (Afrika Bambaata had notoriously deep crates, and was legendary for soaking the labels off his hottest breaks and replacing them with other labels to throw rival DJs off.) After a successful lawsuit by George Clinton’s publisher, Bridgeport Music, established a precedent that any sample, identifiable or not, would merit royalty payments, mainstream hiphop moved away from the world of crate-digging… but the best DJs didn’t.
Recently, DJs like Diplo have built their reputation on finding inspiration in global dance sounds from musical cultures unfamiliar to North America and Europe. (I discuss Diplo’s work at some length in Rewire.) German DJ Frank Gossner has established himself as an “archaeologist” of African vinyl, making multiple trips throughout the region to find rare grooves he can throw into his dance sets. This practice has its critics – DJ Boima Tucker draws parallels between the search for undiscovered African vinyl to the quest by colonial powers for natural resources in Africa, while allowing that these records may simply disappear if someone doesn’t rescue them from obscurity. (A comment by Gossner on Tucker’s post gives you a sense of just how nasty these conversations can get when one DJ accuses another of colonialism…)
Visiting Melodica gives a certain perspective to the crate-digging versus preservation conversation. I didn’t exactly have to fight off an army of European and American DJs desperate to throw some vintage Congolese rumba into their sets. And Karim is hardly a naïf, unaware of the treasures in his store. Instead, he’s acutely aware that the work he’s doing to preserve the music he grew up with requires this music to find new and broader audiences.
Joe and I each buy half a dozen compilation CDs featuring 7″ singles of taraab, rhumba, and afrorock that Karim has digitized. His assistant burns the CDs for us and prints fresh covers for the CDs – it’s hard to believe the roughly $1.20 we pay for each CD pays for more than the disc and the printout. I choose four of the records I most enjoyed and Karim apologizes before charging me $6 for each, explaining that his stocks are slowly dwindling for the old vinyl.
That evening, I had dinner with some of the members of Just a Band, one of Kenya’s most exciting artistic collectives – the group includes filmmakers as well as musicians, and they are at the center of a scene that includes designers and installation artists as well. One of the filmmakers listens to my story about Melodica and says, “I’ve been meaning to do a film about that place.” I hope he will: Kenya’s music scene has a rich past and a promising future. It would be great to see the next generation honoring such a historic treasure.
Kentanzavinyl has a great database of the sorts of artists I found at Melodica, as well as a good blogroll of African record collectors, many of whom post digitized audio from their finds.
Melodica is in the Elimu Co-op House, across the street from KTDA on Tom Mboya Street. Abdul Karim is always happy when fans of east African music visit.
Special bonus tracks:
“A.I.E. A Mwana” by Black Blood
“Africans Must Unite”, by Geraldo Pino, one of the 7″ I bought at Melodica
A Guinness ad featuring a group of splendidly-dressed men from Congo-Brazzaville, called Le Sapeurs, is making a splash online. The men in the ad (below) are members of Le Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, a group of middle class Congolese in both Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo, who collect, assemble and model sharp, colorful suits that evoke Parisian fashions of decades ago. The message of the Guinness ad comes in the opening line of the voiceover: “In life, you cannot always choose what you do, but you can always choose who you are.” You may carry bricks or paint car parts for a living, but you can choose a life where, for some hours of the week, you are a fashion icon and a hero to your neighborhood.
AdWeek featured the ad, and an accompanying documentary, as their ad of the day, noting “When global marketers portray Africa, the goal is usually humor or pity. Rarely do brands treat Africans as cultural equals, much less as inspirational role models.” The BBC, Slate and The Guardian have all commented on the video, most noting that it’s surprising to see an affirmative, inspirational African narratives that actually features Africans as the main subject (as opposed to, say, GoToMeeting’s “Kenya Water Project”, in which hip, wired young people across the world – none in Africa – get together to “save” a distant other.)
This ad follows another striking Guinness ad, in which a spirited game of wheelchair basketball is revealed to include one wheelchair-bound player and five players without disability, who are learning to play wheelchair basketball as a way of spending time with their friend. The video has drawn praise for being heartwarming and compelling, and critique for being patronizing to the disabled and for not correcting a more general problem, the invisibility of the disabled in advertising except as props to demonstrate the moral courage of others. I found the ad more moving than manipulative, but then again, I spend far more time thinking about media portrayals of Africans than I do about media portrayals of the wheelchair-bound, so I’m far less attuned to the critiques the commenters raise.
I’ve been thinking about possible critiques of the Guinness Sapeurs ad and have come up with three thus far. One is that Guinness is pretty late to the game in featuring Les Sapeurs. Spanish photographer Héctor Mediavilla released a striking set of photos of Sapeurs in Brazzaville in 2003 (see also this collection), and Daniele Tamagni published a beautiful photo book of Sapeurs in 2009. Sapeurs came to mainstream attention last year when Solange Knowles featured several Congolese sapeurs in the video for her song “Losing You”. And news outlets including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR and others have examined sape from the perspectives of dandyism, the sapeur disapora in France, the cost of being a sapeur, and the contrast between the flair of the sapeurs and the stark nature of their surroundings.
Solange Knowles, “Losing You”
These last points – the cost of being a sapeur in an extremely poor country – is the core of another critique of the Guinness ad, and of sape more generally. At its heart, sape is a consumerist movement, where the creativity involved is in the hustle to assemble expensive outfits by having them sent from family abroad, or by borrowing clothes from other sapeurs. Stephanie McCrummen’s feature on sape in Kinshasa focuses heavily on an apparent obsession with the authenticity of the clothes and their expense. Is sape just a more elegant obsession with bling, a form of posturing that focuses primarily on the cost and inaccessibility of objects rather than a deeper form of creativity? Is there something perverse about wearing a pair of alligator shoes that cost half the per capita income of a nation?
A third critique would note that Africans often get credit for style and fashion, but rarely for weightier pursuits. It’s not especially radical to acknowledge the color and creativity of African music, art, and fashion, but would be far more exciting to see Guinness celebrating the startup culture of the iHub or the new model of African universities emerging at Ashesi University.
All that said, I think Guinness is trying to do the right thing in trying to offer a surprising and different picture of central Africa to viewers who likely associate the region with conflict, if with anything at all. The opening shot of the Guinness ad shows a field on fire, which immediately made me brace myself for an all-too-typical narrative of Africa in conflict. The ad pivots within the first second, showing us the burning of a sugarcane field as an example of the quotidian labor the sapeurs engage in, a set up for their transformation from laborers to fashion plates. It works – for me, at least – because it acknowledges what we expect to see about Brazzaville, then shows us something unexpected, surprising and inspiring.
Trailer for Michael Power ad, “Critical Assignment”
It’s worth contrasting this ad from Guinness with a previous campaign, which centered on an African superhero, Michael Power. Power – played by a Jamaican who was raised in Britain – was a James Bond figure, always righting wrongs committed by corrupt politicians and their foreign backers, and relaxing at the end of a hard campaign with the damsel he rescued and a bottle of Guinness. The campaign was enormously successful on the continent, but virtually impossible to imagine running in other global markets. By contrast, the Sapeurs ad was intended for the UK market, but could easily run on the continent, and features a form of actual African superheroes, not an imaginary one.
In “Rewire“, I talk about the importance of culture as a pathway towards understanding the history, politics and challenges of unfamiliar people and places. My student, Catherine d’Ignazio, is exploring this idea in her project Terra Incognita, which allows you to monitor where in the world you encounter through your web browser and get introductions to unfamiliar countries. Catherine talks about the importance of “seducing” a reader to pay attention to a topic she’s not already interested in, offering images, video, maps and compelling narrative to capture attention to the unfamiliar.
I found myself seduced by Guinness’s ad into spending a chunk of my day learning about the political and cultural significance of sape, which included a dive into the history of Congo-Brazzaville’s civil war, and into Mobutu Sese Seko’s drive for “Authenticité“, or the Zairianization of the current Democratic Republic of the Congo.
As As Joshua Keating notes in his piece for Slate, sape is, in part, a reaction to Mobutu’s attempts to cleanse Congo of colonial influence. Authenticité involved replacing colonial names with indigenous ones, and banning western suits and ties in favor of the abacost (short for “à bas le costume”, French for “down with the suit”), a local variant of the Mao suit. As Mobutu and his corrupt cronies lost popularity, wearing western fashion became a form of rebellion. Soukous musician Papa Wemba became the leader of this rebel faction, proudly wearing French fashions purchased on his international travels and advertising the labels in interviews and in his songs. The contrast between Mobutu’s ban on western fashion and the embrace of the sapeur movement by the nation’s most popular musician helped expose the dissatisfaction of ordinary Zairians with Mobutu’s one man rule. (I’m thankful to wikipedia Skomorokh, whose contribution to the Sapeur article has somehow not been incorporated to the main article, which is, unfortunately, pretty weak. Skomorokh points to sapeur as a form of rebellion, linking to James Brooke’s 1988 article on sapeurs in the New York Times.)
I’d not expected to spend today thinking about cultural rebellion against autocrats, but then again, I’d also not expected a global beverage company to promote Congolese culture to UK beer drinkers. Perhaps the admen and women at BBDO took their own script seriously: In life, you cannot always choose what you do, but you can always choose who you are. I’m glad Guinness has chosen to be a brand that’s trying to feature what’s unique, wonderful and positive about Africa.