In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Popular Culture and the Study of Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Popular Cultures

African Studies Popular Culture and the Study of Africa
Augustine Agwuele
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0056


“Indeed the very shape of Africa, a question mark, is sphinx-like in its challenge to all scholars to find the proper key to an understanding of its rich diversity and complexity.” This view expressed by Elliot P. Skinner in 1973 remains as valid today as when it was first proposed. The search for the proper key to understanding and making sense of such a huge and diverse continent as Africa has taken many twists and turns. From generalized monographs, often with Africa in their titles, the content of which, however, betrays a fleeting and shallow observation of a singular practitioner, to disciplinary-based studies, and now interdisciplinary approaches, it has become obvious that a continent that boasts no less than two thousand different languages, and hence at least two thousand peoples—in other words, nations of varying sizes, customs, environments, and experiences—cannot be explicated on the basis of one theoretical prism. According to an Igbo proverb, one cannot stand at a spot to watch roving masquerades dance. Just as the dance of the masquerades is dynamic, reflecting the varying tempo of the drums, the mood of the moment, and the demands of the occasion, the popular traverses studies on Africa and African cultures spanning a wide range of disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, subsuming history, politics, linguistics, religion, economics, science, health, transportation, literature, arts, ecology, sports, and films. These studies have national, regional, and continental foci. They include specialized journals and scholarly associations, and they have evolved into academic subjects such as Africana studies or disciplines qualified by the adjective African (e.g., African linguistics, African literature, Lusophone Africa, Afro-Latin studies, African and African American studies, African and African diaspora studies). The number of Africans whose research focuses on Africa, its peoples, and cultures has grown steadily since the 1970s. In the spirit of Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay “How to Write about Africa” (Granta 92 [2005]), this article foregrounds the extant works on Popular Culture and the study of Africa. In focusing on contemporary scholarship, specifically works that date from the 1970s on, it may be possible to avoid, even if slightly, the unsavory descriptions, images, and representations of Africa, its peoples, and practices that are sometimes found in the so-called seminal, classical, and foundational works on Africa.

General Overviews

In combining popular culture and the study of Africa, this title acknowledges the fundamental importance of studying and understanding Africa in order to make sense of its popular cultures. Given the diversity, size, and complex cultures that, at the very least, constitute an admixture of traditional, modern, Western, and Eastern religious traditions, it is rather difficult, if not impossible, to look to a single comprehensive work through which to study Africa so as to contextualize its popular cultural practices. African popular cultures extrapolate from sociocultural, political, and economic circumstances in concert with global movements and ideologies. Thus, most useful work in these areas, namely, the study of Africa and popular cultures in Africa, centers on anthologies that bring together various experts and scholarships (e.g., Falola 2000–2003, Grinker and Steiner 2010, Barber 1997, the latter cited under Popular Cultures). These contemporary works were preceded by foundational works such as Diop 1974, a volume in which the author first asserted the relevance of Africa as the place for locating extant populations and providing the basis for modern civilization. An influential historical work, Diop 1974 reaffirms and reclaims African civilization, making it a veritable renaissance of African history, and it marks a major step in reinserting African history into the global historical discourse. Mudimbe 1994 looks at the idea of Africa and the origin of associated stereotypes. In further advancing the course of African peoples, their history, and their cultural institutions, Asante 2007, Mazrui 1986, Peterson and Macola 2009, and Derricourt 2011 provide a comprehensive account of the continent, its various peoples and cultures. Afolayan 2005 gives an account of African historiography, and Ake 1981 provides an account of the political economy, tying it to conflicts. The general introductory works cited in this section elucidate Africa in its diversities and its various institutions.

  • Afolayan, Funso. “African Historiography.” In Encyclopedia of African History. Vol. 2. Edited by Kevin Shillington, 626–633. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2005.

    A succinct overview that traces the development of African historiography from the earliest written records to the postmodernist accounts of the present. For general readers as well as undergraduate and graduate students.

  • Ake, Claude. A Political Economy of Africa. Harlow, UK: Longman, 1981.

    This work provides explanatory notes on the political economy of Africa. It makes use of ethnic conflicts, single-party systems, military coups, political repression, and poor economic performance as key features for the discussion.

  • Asante, Molefi K. The History of Africa: The Quest for Eternal Harmony. London: Routledge, 2007.

    An important work in African historiography, it provides an Afrocentric account of African peoples from prehistorical to present times. It emphasizes the lives of Africans, indigenous ideas, and traditional outlooks.

  • Derricourt, Robin M. 2011. Inventing Africa: History, Archaeology and Ideas. London: Pluto Press.

    This is a critical exploration of narratives on Africa’s pasts. It shows how these narratives, a product of their times and stereotypical views, influence contemporary perception and ideas of Africa. It provides a much needed correction to popular misrepresentations of Africa.

  • Diop, Cheikh Anta. The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality. Translated by Mercer Cook. Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 1974.

    This work offers an African perspective on African history. It underscores the African contribution to civilization and human development. With careful historiography, the author argues that the ancient Egyptians, who created an impressive civilization, were blacks. This work thus reintegrates the history of North Africa and its peoples with that of Africa.

  • Falola, Toyin, ed. Africa. 5 vols. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2000–2003.

    Volume 1 introduces African history and institutions, and Volume 2 focuses on cultures and societies before 1885. Volume 3 dwells on Africa and African institutions under colonial forces. Volumes 4 and 5 cover the end of colonialism, nation-building, and the issues facing the contemporary nation-states of Africa. Combining theory and ethnography with a rich bibliography and geared toward undergraduates, these volumes enable the reader to gain a fundamental understanding of the continent.

  • Grinker, Roy R., and Christopher B. Steiner, eds. Perspectives on Africa: A Reader in Culture, History, and Representation. 2d ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    This anthology includes work by an array of influential scholars of Africa. It contains twelve sections that range from representation and discourse, social organization, economic systems, and religion to art, gender, conflicts, government, and globalization, among others. As important as this collected work is, it makes use of pejorative languages of the past, which, unfortunately, promotes negative images of Africa. Originally published in 1996.

  • Mazrui, Ali A. The Africans: A Triple Heritage. Boston: Little, Brown, 1986.

    A survey of Africa, its history, regions, and cultures as well as a careful presentation of the root of those popular practices found across social institutions.

  • Mudimbe, V. Y. The Idea of Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

    This is a rigorous scholarly treatise that explores the origin and development of the negative stereotypes about Africa held by Europeans, thereby reflecting on how the idea of Africa was constructed in the West while yielding insight into the nature of the African past.

  • Peterson, Derek, and Giacomo Macola. Recasting the Past: History Writing and Political Work in Modern Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2009.

    Going beyond written and oral sources for African history, this work focuses on popular cultural sources such as autobiographies, historical writings, fiction, and other literary genres to provide creative contributions to the African political world and to illuminate the past.

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