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One Diaspora Under a Groove

Mark Reynolds

At an African concert set in Philadelphia, Reynolds experienced the rare feeling of being a distinct minority in a virtually all-black setting in America. He considers the divide between Africans in America, and African-Americans.

My cousin and I got to the Blue Horizon right around midnight, too late for the opening act but just in time for the main event. The venue, a legendary boxing club on Broad Street in north Philadelphia, was transformed for this Saturday evening into a concert hall -- but not just any concert hall, and not just any concert. Seeing dozens of concertgoers decked out in African finery was the first clue. A ramp leading from the audience floor to the stage was the second.

The headliner was King Sunny Ade, one of Nigeria's most famous musical exports. Ade has been at it since the mid-'60s, starting out as a guitarist in a Nigerian samba band. He put his first band together in 1967, and then proceeded to revolutionize juju music. That style, unique to Nigeria's Yoruba culture, was more percussion-driven than the popular, horn-dominated highlife bands of the era. Ade added multiple guitars (including a pedal steel guitar, an instrument more often heard in American country music), more talking drums, and electronic keyboards. At the same time, he stripped down the song structure, allowing more room for extended percussion breaks, and added dancing and style to the live performances. He became such a huge star that audiences added the "King" to his name.

His career really took off in 1982, when Island Records signed him to an international contract. His first Island album, Juju Music , was the first modern album by an African pop star released by a major American label; prior to that, most African music releases in America were ethnographic recordings of tribal rituals on smaller specialty labels. Juju Music, a compilation of his Nigerian hits, amazed stateside critics and listeners with its sophistication, intricate musicianship, and steady grooves. Ade sung in his native tongue, but the music had no trouble crossing any language barriers.

Juju Music paved the way for not only additional American releases of contemporary African music but also the entire "world music" boom of the '80s, as major labels went looking for the next foreign sound that could be tweaked for international appeal. Ade rode the wave for two more Island albums, then proceeded to tour the world and see various releases of new and older material.

But this concert at the Blue Horizon, as with several other dates on his recently completed American tour, would be a little different from his previous shows on this side of the water. This would be an adventure in praise singing, a custom with no obvious parallel in American music. In African music, praise singing happens at special events, and is aptly named. The singer performs, in addition to songs from the regular repertoire, special tunes extolling the virtues of the event's guest of honor or key figures and moments in the community's life. Many of the lyrics in praise songs are improvised (goosed a bit with some advance intelligence about who's going to be at the performance).

In turn, the audience expresses its appreciation by "spraying" the singer with money, which in turn inspires especially gifted praise singers to keep the praise going for a while. Spraying is not just throwing money up on the stage: audience members often get their own few moments up close and personal to the performer, and show their love by affixing the cash directly onto the singer's person. The more talented and clever the praise singer, the more spraying happens. Not surprisingly, once these mutual-appreciation loops get going, the party can last well into the wee hours.

And so it was at the Blue Horizon. We found our way to the edge of the stage, surrounded by brothas and sistas from Philly's growing African community. This was no mere Saturday night out for them: they were dressed to the African nines, and snapping pictures of themselves and the band on camera phones. No doubt, I'm in the background of some pictures that made their way from Philly to Nigeria or wherever and back; so much for that aspect of the digital divide.

Ade and his 12-piece ensemble (about half the size of his regular unit, downsized probably to facilitate touring) whipped through a half-dozen of his most popular tunes. Ade and his two backup singers defied the gray in their hair with some nimble footwork, and the band percolated throughout. One number featured some female dancers shaking what their mamas had given them, with all of the dexterity and pleasure — but none of the porn star-wannabe vibe — of your average hip-hop video. Then they moved the singers' mic stands out of the way, and Ade announced that it was time for the real show to begin.

First, wadded-up paper currency and coins came floating down from the balcony, as Ade and band lit into a hard-driving, multi-layered groove. Then, as if responding to a cue in the music (which they probably were, but I don't speak Yoruban well enough to know what it might have been), audience members began making pilgrimages up the ramp, eventually surrounding Ade in a throng four- and five-deep at times. He kept on singing and playing, and the throng sprayed him with Nigerian and American currency, everybody getting their own moment to bask in the glow. One guy made a point of peeling off about a dozen or so bills directly onto Ade's forehead; I suspect that such a move was more showing-off for everyone else than props for Ade. The rest of the band kept working, making subtle shifts in the groove but never letting the beat fall off. Even some Americans in the house got caught up in the spirit; I can only imagine what special lyrics Ade had in store for them. There was still a pack of folks waiting to spray him when they finally turned the house lights on around 2am.

For me, a longtime fan of pop music from the African diaspora dating back to Bob Marley and '70s roots reggae, this was a special event, certainly not one I would be likely to see again anytime soon on these shores. For starters, international pop stars don't often mount tours in America, especially after post-9/11 paranoia has restricted the free exchange of artists and performers coming here. Further, it would be impossible to imagine any American music star allowing fans to get that close on stage, not without some big, beefy bodyguards checking them out first. Second, after shelling out the coin that it takes to see a big-name star on tour nowadays, the idea of giving additional money to the singer just to bask all up in his/her grill on stage is an extension I doubt many Americans have ever really contemplated (unless you count those fans who would throw panties on the stage before their favorite heartthrobs -- I always wondered what happened to those undergarments).

But really, this party wasn't for the benefit of native-born Americans. This was an African night, for the African people here in Philadelphia (and the other "spraying" dates on Ade's spring US tour, all in cities with an African presence). This was a night back home for them, a chance to party with their countrymen and countrywomen, in the presence of one of their most beloved stars. This was a night for them to reconnect with their native pop music, and their native communal experience. The only thing I can compare it to would be if I were living in Senegal or Mali and heard that B.B King was coming to town.

This may have been the first time that I, as a native-born American, was in the distinct minority in a virtually all-black setting in America.

That didn't particularly surprise me. Although Ade is an A-list star among world music aficionados, there are relatively few black Americans in that category. The audience for African music in America consists mainly of two groups: native Africans and culturally curious white folks. Aside from Paul Simon's culture-spanning Graceland (Warner Brothers, 1986), which introduced South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo to the world at the height of the anti-apartheid movement, and various reissues and remixes of Fela Anikulapo Kuti's Afrobeat workouts (another Nigerian, whose music is closer to James Brown's funk than Ade's juju), the main place to hear about African music has been through public and college radio stations that carry specialty shows devoted to it. They're mostly entertaining shows, nicely programmed by knowledgeable folks, but they exist in a corner of the media universe hardly populated by black folks. The relative paucity of blacks in the overall public radio audience is a bigger subject than I can do justice to here, but if you're interested, dig into the flap that arose late last year when black journalist Tavis Smiley announced that he was suspending his National Public Radio-distributed daily news/talk show because NPR hadn't done enough, in his estimation, to develop a black audience for it.

And don't even think about trying to find African music in the 'hood, unless your 'hood has a chunk of Africans in it. If there are any music stores in the 'hood (and by "music stores" I do NOT mean the bootlegger selling mass-dubbed copies of Ludacris' stuff outside the check-cashing joint), they're more likely to have every current rap, R&B and gospel release, and nary a title beyond those genres -- a phenomenon I explored a bit further back in October in this space (see Negritude 2.0: The High and Low of Black Literature). Black pop radio never played African music back when it wasn't dominated by corporate ownership, and isn't about to anytime soon. Similarly, black print media is not usually going to be the place to hear about events like Ade's tour (although I did manage to place a preview article about it in the largest black paper here, the Philadelphia Tribune).

Now, one might think that there would at least be some sort of natural affinity between African culture and black Americans, given the whole motherland thing and all that. One might surmise that there would be some vestige, some barely flaming ember of solidarity dating back from the civil rights and black nationalism eras. One might guess that all that energy that came from black Americans to help end apartheid didn't totally dissipate once Nelson Mandela was freed, that some black American somewhere, aside from those concerned at the think tank or lobbying levels, stayed interested in the continent's fortunes.

Indeed, we share much more than melanin and strands of DNA. We share the still festering after-effects of the slave trade, albeit from two vastly different perspectives. We share an affinity for the communicative and healing power of rhythm. We share styles of worship, and valuation of our ancestors. We also, sadly, share the ravages of AIDS and the lack of majority economic investment in our respective communities. Increasingly, we even share hip-hop, which would probably be a mind-numbing shock to all those who followed the 50 Cent/The Game "who shot ya?" nonsense earlier this year.

But there is much that we do not share. Many Africans in America do not understand, given the poverty gripping their homelands, why native-born black Americans do not take full advantages of the opportunities here, and squander lives away in hopelessness and self-destruction. Many black Americans do not understand how Africans here can know so little about the black American experience. Each side can fall into the tendency to look down its nose at the other. A recent documentary chronicles the tensions between black Americans and Africans at Central State University, a black college in Ohio. The growing African population in America has even caused some to revisit the term "African-American": does it stand for a native-born black person or an immigrant from the continent, or can it truly stand for both?

The reality is that black America exists as a world apart from Africa, and has done so ever since the first slave ship crossed the water. Our idealized vision of Africa as a place where we would be welcomed home with open arms obscures the reality that if one were to actually pull up stakes and relocate, we would have to adjust to a radically different way of living, a totally foreign set of social conditions. By the same token, it should be no surprise that Africans emigrating to America have found community in their own conclaves, not fully part of the extended black American community (just as European immigrants weren't immediately assimilated into the mainstream of white America a century ago).

This chasm is the first and most lasting damage done by slavery, a wound that generations of attempts have yet to completely heal. Each side has much to teach, and learn from, the other, but the lines of communication have never existed beyond various confluences of history and culture, like the putative linkages between the African independence movements and the Civil Rights Movement in the '60s, or in the wake of Alex Haley's Roots a decade later.

Fortunately, there is good news to report on this front. Earlier this year, MTV launched its latest spin-off, MTV Base, broadcasting throughout the continent (one hopes that some of its programming will be accessible over here, at least via the Internet). Later this year, the Africa Channel will be jockeying for space on a cable or satellite system near you. The Africa channel promises to be exactly what the name implies: a place to see what's going on over there, and get a glimpse of how Africans live their daily lives apart from the images of war and famine on the news (that is, when the major American news outlets actually bother to report an African story in the first place). According to the March 28 New York Times, the founders promise a daily news program, plus movies and entertainment programming.

Count me in the audience when the Africa Channel launches. More importantly, let's hope the channel can make inroads in black churches and mosques, barbershops and beauty salons, schools and community centers, so that the next time an African music star comes to town with a slice of home for the émigrés, it won't seem quite so foreign for the other black folks in the house.

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