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Social media: Africa’s new musical frontier

“When people hear about Africans and the internet, they immediately think of 419 scams,” says Ngozi Odita, who runs societyhae.com, a collective of voices that is creating a global network of creativity. The Nigerian-born, Brooklyn-based designer is out to prove there’s so much more to the way the continent uses the internet – by highlighting how artists from Africa are using social media to get their music across the world.

“There are 400-million cellphone subscribers in Africa. They’re logging onto Facebook and Twitter through their phones, says Odita. “Musicians from Africa are engaging with their fans through this. You have artists in Nigeria, who have 20 000 followers and many of them are mostly African. This shows how Africans are really using the tools and engaging with them.”

“They tell people what the artists are doing and they’re sharing what’s going on in their neighbourhood, their Africa,” she adds. “When you think of African musicians, you think of Fela Kuti and Youssou N’Dour, but there are so many artists who are coming up that also deserve attention.”

Like Blitz the Ambassador, a Ghanian musician and filmmaker, who certainly lives up to his name, making sure he is represents his continent, while living in Brooklyn. “I don’t print out flyers anymore, so I can email or Facebook people in Detroit or NYC, even if they can’t come to the show, they still know about it.” But he admits, it takes a bit of time to get comfortable with social media. “Twitter is still a new thing to me. It takes a while for me. Only after I am done with the action, do I think, I should have tweeted that!”

He says it takes a new mindset to get used to using social media, but once it comes, it’s so useful for helping bridge the gap between Ghana and the rest of the world. “If I am at home [in Ghana], making a music video, I know I can tap into the who’s who and spread the word about what I am doing and what I need. Some of the artists there, their followers trump people here because there are not that many vying for the public’s attention so there’s less competition.” But, he adds, it’s a powerful network. “I once went to an awards show in Ghana, where there had been nothing on the radio about it, but the lines were so long we couldn’t get in. That was because people had been using Twitter to spread the word.”

Blitz advocates that social media should be used to empower African artists. “Imagine how Fela had to put out his work. It took working with international artists in some case, but look at [Congolese musician] Baloji. I found his video online, left a message online for him, we met up and he ended up coming here to play Summerstage in Central Park.
It’s a wonderful thing to see Africans empowered and cutting out the middle man.”

Delphine Fawundu-Buford, a photograper and educator who is from Sierra Leone but lives in the US, visited Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa in 2008, and used social media for setting up a photographic project. “I went onto Facebook to arrange interviews with those in the know. Usually with most Western campaigns, the vision they show about Africa is based around Aids, poverty and war.

I wanted to show something different, and create images that people just don’t see. To show the youth’s voice, give some perspective and show that there are artists doing something honourable. It’s important to get these kinds of images about Africa out there via Facebook and Twitter.”

Ben Herson, the founder of independent hip hop label Nomadic Wax, also believes this. He made a documentary called Democracy in Dakar, looking at hip hop’s role in politics there and also took a mobile studio about 8 years ago to Senegal to record rappers, who were engaging with people about what was happening in their country.

“A lot has changed now. You get artists together who would never have had that opportunity before. Now you get a whole lot of file sharing, but not in the illegal sense. Social media allows for digital networking. The same thing happens person to person, but it’s just in the virtual world and this allows artists to collaborate in interesting ways.”

Bloggers, Herson feels, play a role here too because they are aggregators of information or curators of content and can draw people’s attention to new artists, and thereby help aid the process of showing Africa in a different light.

Larry Ossei-Mensah, also from Ghana, is a writer for Arise Magazine, and is always on the look-out for new music. “If I find something I like, I usually send a blind message on Facebook. If I don’t know the person, I usually find them on there and that’s how we get in touch.”

Social media has created new avenues of distribution for and access to African artists, but many agree there is still a need to have a certain level of quality. “Look at the Sudanese artist from Australia, Bangs, who had that viral hit “Take Me to the Movies”, which had million of views since it was posted to YouTube, but it doesn’t mean it’s good music,” says Ossei-Mensah. “Musicians should see themselves as cultural ambassadors. We get insights into what’s going on in their country through their music.”

Blitz agrees. “If we look at [Somali-born rapper] K’naan, he is a portal into what is going on in his country. He’s the kind of artist who is critical and examines where he is from. It’s the same thing as here. When we were growing up in Ghana, we would be listening to Public Enemy and that was our portal into America.”

He is aware though that some artists do a better job than others. “Artists are going to be who they are going to be. I try to represent where I am from in the best possible way. People know I am from Ghana, so I represent that country as best as I can. I got a message on Twitter from Talib Kweli, who was going to Ghana and had a few questions. You find yourself in that position, people are going to want to know about where you are from so you try give objective view.”

Fawundu-Buford agrees that there is an opportunity to give people a visual of a new Africa, but this needs to be a good quality view and at a high production level – whether its in photographs or on video or in recorded music.

Blitz takes it a step forward. “You need to ask, what are you sharing on Twitter and Facebook? As much as we are embracing new formats and really are engaged with people,we really still need the human touch. It still has its power and will never be secondary. I’m concerned when I see kids in Ghana spending the entire day at an internet cafe. How are you living to share? Are you doing something in the real world to share?”

At the end of all the social media activity, people want to come to out shows where they see real people perform and feel real energy.

The human touch from the fans is important too. “Social media has created a whole new avenue for artists who had messed up record deals or don’t have any avenues to get to a deal, says Ossei-Mensah. “But those who follow them on Twitter need to still go out and support them physically and be an active part of the community.”

Herson agrees: “We have the tools to reach all these people, so reach them, engage, support. Very few of these artists are really making a living. We get to benefit when we listen to their music so until there is a new way to monitize all this, we need to support them. It’s a brand new world and we have the tools to make it what we want.”

Author | Nadia Neophytou: In New York

Nadia Neophytou: In New York
Nadia Neophytou is a New York based South African journalist most known for her work as the Entertainment Reporter for Eyewitness News, which is broadcast on Talk Radio 702, 567 Cape Talk, Highveld Stereo 94.7 and Kfm 94.5. She is now based in New York, as their US correspondent.... More