Matthias London

Searching Afropolitanism in electronic dance music: Conceptualizing Search festival as an Afropolitan site

Image Credit: Matthias London.

Table of Contents

Searching Afropolitanism in electronic dance music: Conceptualizing Search festival as an Afropolitan site

1. Introduction: Searching Afroplitanism in EDM

Originating as safe spaces from racialized trans- and homophobia (Mejia, 2015), electronic dance music (EDM) venues have become sites that enable the altering of social norms for the duration of the event. With the advent of globalization came the spread of EDM culture around the globe. South Africa’s adaption of EDM gave rise to distinct musical styles and cultures of multi-day festivals. In this essay, I use EDM festivals as sites through which I discuss the particularities of globalization from a global South perspective. I conceptualize the South African Search festival as a small-scale Afropolitan site to assess its reversed relationship to individualist materialist white supremacist Eurocentric capitalist global modernity.

To do so, I will first situate the emergence of EDM culture in South Africa within the history of EDM’s globalization. Then, I will outline the main characteristics of Afropolitanism as framed by Mbembe. A single-case expert interview with Mike – the co-founder of Search festival – will be the qualitative empirical data. A thematic analysis of the interview’s content then conceptualizes Search festival as an Afropolitan site and discusses its implications.

2. Situating EDM in South Africa

Often referred to as the birthplace of EDM culture, queer latinx and brown people in New York of the 1970s merged influences of soul, blues, rock, and funk into a danceable genre that got known as “disco” (Mejia, 2015). Initially, rather than a musical genre, disco was played in private discotheques, spaces in which the crowd’s safety from harassment could be guaranteed. The discotheque became a site in which the sociopolitical norms of the larger society could be re-worked for the duration of a night. With the advent of globalization, people and cultural commodities – such as records, zines, styles, sound systems, etc. – circulated globally and brought EDM to other places, where it took its distinct localized characteristics.

In South Africa, the youth in the 1990s reworked Chicago house records that arrived from the U.S. into unique South African styles of House music. Collin (2018) explored the genesis and development of House music in South Africa, naming “Bacardi House” (p. 187), “melodic tribal [deep] house” (p. 190), “Kwaito” (p. 194), “township tech” (p. 198) and “Gqom” (p. 201, emphasis removed) as genres that have spawned since the 1990s. Initially, much of South African House was produced in the townships. When local producers got a hand on a CD or record from overseas, they tweaked it around, until it had a unique sound that was celebrated in the neighborhood. Collins contended that the end of apartheid was a significant turning point for the celebration of House in South Africa, for it marked the transition from racialized curfew and spatial segregation into street sound system culture and warehouse rave culture. Ever since, South Africa also saw the mushrooming of EDM festivals of different scales and genres, such as the Africa Burn, the H20 (Kruger & Saayman, 2016), or smaller festivals, such as Search festival.

3. Theory: Mbembe’s Afropolitanism – Movement, mobility, & circulation

In this section, I outline Mbembe’s conceptualization of Afropolitanism. Afropolitanism has numerous scholarly conceptualizations that partly differ from each other, none of which I will elaborate here in-depth ( For an overview, see Balakrishnan (2017)). Key characteristics of Afropolitanism that will be discussed here are intra-continental mobility, commodity movement, transnationalism, historicity, multi-racialism, cultural production, and African metropolises.

Responding to the changing circumstances that the global turn in the 1990s brought about in Africa, the Cameroonian scholar Achille Mbembe (2020) introduced “Afropolitanism” (p. 60) as a way of manifesting a “new form of transnational ‘African Modernity’” (Balakrishnan, 2017, p. 2) that situates Africa in the world and the world in Africa. The flow and movement of people, ideas, and commodities facilitated by processes of globalization led to deep-rooted social, political, and cultural alternations on the African continent. Mbembe contends that this led to “a complex reworking of old historical social relations as a response to changed circumstances” (Mbembe, 1998, quoted in Makohaka, 2011, p.13). In other words, this led to a reworking of the very condition of the modern as viewed from a global South angle.

Mbembe defines Afropolitanism “in terms of movement, mobility, [and] circulation” (Mbembe & Balakrishnan, 2016, p. 35). As such, Afropolitanism allows for a critique of territoriality, borders, spatiality, fixity, rigidity, etc., which are ascribed features to Eurocentric global modernity since the end of WWII. Instead, the Afropolitan ethos promotes the “paradigm of itineracy, mobility, and displacement” (Mbembe, 2020, p. 58). Afropolitans can materialize this ethos through the production and circulation of cultural commodities in the arts, aesthetics, and academia that spur African intellectual life (Makohaka, 2011, p. 19; Mbembe, 2020, p. 60). Examples of such cultural commodities can be found in literature (Balakrishnan, 2017) or travel writing (Moynagh, 2015).

According to Mbembe, traveling is the key to Afropolitanism, with the migrant as the metaphorical figure that questions the integrity of boundedness and settlement in Africa of the 21st century. Consequently, he identifies people of African descent who are traveling intra-continentally and temporarily residing in other African countries as Afropolitan (Mbembe, 2020, p. 60; Moynagh, 2015, p. 283). This intra-continental mobility produces the transnational African culture which he frames Afropolitan culture. Because these individuals have experienced various worlds and cultures within Africa, they can produce the cultural artifacts that undergird Afropolitanism: “The term ‘Afropolitan’, then, embraces individuals with a certain way of ‘being in the world’” (Moynagh, 2015, p. 283).

African metropolises, such as Johannesburg, Lagos, or Nairobi, are the central geographical hubs where Afropolitanism resides (Mbembe, 2020, p. 61; Moynagh, 2015, p. 284). They are the nodes for both the connection between Africa and the global North as well as connections between African countries. Cultures flow through these cities and bring innovation in fashion, music, writing, art with them, making the African metropolis sites for cultural assemblage.

Other crucial aspects of Mbembe are the notions of temporality and historicity, because they justify Afropolitanism’s multi-racial endeavor. Following Mbembe’s (2020) emphasis on “worlds in movement” (p. 58), cultural entanglements and exchange on the African continent are age-old, dating back far into pre-colonial African history (Makohaka, 2011, p. 19; Mbembe & Balakrishnan, 2016, p. 30). That implies that Afropolitanism is multi-racial. African cultural integrity is not essential and fix but rather the construct of centuries of transnational and intercultural interconnection and co-dependency. That makes racial solidarity – and therefore nativism – redundant because it imagines belonging to African descent beyond racial or biological matters (Mbembe & Balakrishnan, 2016, p. 30).

In sum, Afropolitanism is a way of situating Africa in the world as an integrated part of it. By emphasizing plurality over singularity, flow over fix, entanglements over centers, mobility over rigidity, amongst others, it is an epistemology that reworks the idea of the modern from a global South perspective. The Afropolitan is someone who identifies as an African descendant who travels on the continent. Their experience and cultural production that result from intercultural exchanges represent an Afropolitan ontology of being in the world. The circulation of these people, their ideas, and their cultural commodities represents “the interweaving of the here and there, the presence of the elsewhere in the here, and vice versa, […] that underlies the term Afropolitanism” (Mbembe, 2020, pp. 59–60, original emphasis).

Excavating the results from the thematic content analysis of the single-case expert interview with Mike, in this section, I conceptualize Search festival as an Afropolitan site. The identifying parameters used here derive from Mbembe’s theorization of Afropolitanism laid out in the previous chapter. Search festival is an Afropolitan space if it brings together people of African descent, encourages intercultural exchanges, and circulates the ideas and cultural commodities resulting from these encounters transnationally. I discuss the potentials and limitations of Search festival and bigger EDM festivals to rework the Eurocentric notion of global modernity by presenting their dilemma of growing in scale.

First and beyond EDM festivals, music in general, and EDM in particular, are an additional resource to literature and travel writing of Afropolitanism’s cultural toolbox that can spawn and circulate cultural commodities within the continent to further the Afropolitan ethos. Being the very product of a transnational intercultural assemblage, South African House music’s history demonstrates that it is multi-cultural, multi-racial, and global by definition. Despite the initial arrival of EDM from the global North through commodities such as CDs, vinyl, tapes, zines, etc., South African musicians have reworked the sound particularities and created very distinct styles that blend their cultural roots into the music. South African producers changed the speed, broke the rhythm, loaded them with lyrics in local tongues, etc., and thereby gave House music a particular South African identity (Collin, 2018). Circulating these within the African continent means accelerating the never-ceasing process of African identity construction through the production of cultural commodities. Circulating novel African musical styles globally means bringing Africa as an interconnected part to the world, while the history of EDM’s genesis in South Africa shows that the world is and always has been in Africa.

Second, and more particularly about EDM festivals, they are sites that are characterized by the movement of people, thereby uniting an amalgamation of cultural backgrounds from within the African continent as well as outside of it. Search festival has been happening close to Cape Town for about eight years. Mike said that most of the crowd is Cape Tonian or at least Western-Cape-based, with an influx of people from Johannesburg over the last years. He mentioned the price of intracontinental African travel as a limiting factor for people of African descent visiting the festival. However, Mike noted – very much along the lines of Mbembe situating Afropolitans residing in African metropolises outside of their country of birth – that, “there are internationals from the continent coming over, but it’s people who are already in South Africa” (i1: 265 – 267). He continued: “It’s a really multi-cultural festival in general. I think it’s a really healthy reflection of like racial demographics in the country or in the area. […] It’s not obviously black, it’s not obviously coloured, it’s not obviously white. [inaudible] But there’s like a nice representation overall. It’s very queer, which is great” (i1: 277 – 280).

Third, EDM festivals not only encourage creative exchanges of people of African descent with different cultural backgrounds, but the very site itself is already the product of intercultural cooperation. Mike reported that their “festival is one ongoing creative collaboration that comes from people going there” (i1, 421 – 422). He said that they always wanted Search festival to be a multi-media festival. Due to economic limitations, the construction of the spatial amenities largely happened through volunteer work, undergirding its community ethos. “People [are] doing sculptures, interesting projection mapping, spoken word, poetry, etc.,” Mike (i1: 209 – 210) said, “and then little activations that happen everywhere. Like someone would do a pop-up library somewhere or, like, a treasure hunt that isn’t ever really announced, you just find clues around and then go on a little adventure to find stuff” (i1: 215 – 217). The spontaneous creative encounters between participants indicate that Search festival is a site that encourages people to interact with each other based on a paradigm of creative mutuality rather than transaction-driven.

Moreover, Search festival has generated cultural collaborations beyond the duration of the festival that now circulate their cultural production. Mike said that he and his current creative partner Simon started volunteering for Search festival independent from each other and, four years later, they launched a radio station and record store together where they disseminate niche musical styles. Simmy was another of the volunteers who ended up doing the graphic design and physical artwork of the radio station’s facilities. Those are the only collaborations that Mike knows of. However, considering that spontaneous creative activations have already been happening on the festival site through meaningful human connection, it is fair to assume that Mike’s experience of ongoing creative collaborations does not come in isolation.

Lastly, Search festival is community-driven and envisions human connection as its primary goal, which contradicts the alienated individualist materialistic ethos of Eurocentric global modernity. The initial name of the festival was “The Search for the Himalayan Mountain Man and the Ladder to Cosmic Consciousness” (i1, 38 – 39). Mike said that the festival’s objective was never a trajectory of steady linear growth but rather a search “for like human connection. […] There’s never any point where anything is found. There’s always this constant pilgrimage back to that thing in the hope that you’re finding something. And you eventually do but there’s always something new to find in the next year” (i1, 84). In doing so, Search festival not only contradicts the capitalist growth paradigm and materialistic transactional relationships as the mediator between human interactions, but it also undoes the linearity of time that is characteristic of capitalist progress. Search festival decenters the human experience under global commodified capitalism by changing the social relations in the spatial-temporal arrangement of the festival site into a cyclical time realm where meaningful human connection and pleasure dominate (Brown, 2017).

However, one of the crucial limitations both on the cultural production side and cultural consumption side of EDM festivals to represent transnationality and multi-culturality are the festival’s scale and economic aspects. On the cultural production side, the larger and more commercial a festival, the more likely it is to attract a transnational crowd and encourage crossing national borders for participation. Though, that also comes with significantly higher fixed costs. More renowned performers demand higher royalties, larger venues are more costly, more materials need to be stored, more staff needs to be paid, and so forth. Organizers of EDM festivals face a dilemma between growing in size to enable a more diverse cultural landscape and being integrated into the market logic of a capitalistic growth paradigm with all its undesired side effects. Those side effects are, as Mejia (2015) demonstrated in his analysis of the Ultra festival in Miami, that big profit-oriented music festivals perpetuate white patriarchal cisheterenormative imperialist capitalism instead of reworking it. They use transnationalism and multi-culturalism as marketing strategies to generate profit. Consequently, participation comes at a higher cost, meaning, on the cultural consumption side, only individuals with a certain class privilege have sufficient economic resources to participate.

Return to the Source could more effectively embrace the worldmaking ethos of disidentificatory sites of emergence in the areas of their organizational committee, cultural production side, and cultural consumption side. First, starting with the cultural consumption side, Return to the Source could increase the diverse respectful representation of multiple racial identities at the site by reducing the economic cost of participation. Differential pricing based on the timing of the purchase, reduced pricing for low-income participants, or volunteering opportunities are a few practices that have proven to be successful for other festivals to ensure participation relatively independent of economic affluence. Second, on the cultural production side, Return to the Source could actively try to pursue their alleged “left-of-the-centre artist booking” policy and attempt to more consciously showcase music performances by women, people of color in general, and trans and queers of color in particular. Lastly, the organizational team is constituted mostly of white people. To ensure respectful representation in the most crucial decision-making processes, the administration must be socially inclusive of voices from minoritized identities. These are but some suggestions of how Return to the Source could materialize its normative ideal of the unconditional practice of freedom and human rights instead of just offering the arcadian utopia to those who can afford it, who, in South Africa, happen to be mostly white.

An intersectional lens that views class as racialized further complicates the issue. In the context of South Africa, contemporary social class structure emerged as a consequence of centuries-long unequal capital accumulation between socially constructed racial groups by the apartheid regime (Rehbein, 2018). Notwithstanding isolated exceptions, due to histories of racial exploitation, it is likely that someone who is born into a white family is positioned in a dominant class, while it is likely that someone who is born into a coloured or black family is positioned in a subjugated class. Consequently, the question of an EDM festival’s level of transnational multi-culturalism is automatically a question of class. Though, according to Mbembe’s conceptualization of people of African descent, these racial categories become secondary. Mbembe argues that African identity is not essential and constantly in flux, meaning that Africanity is not linked to racial affiliation or skin color. It follows that white people having resided in South Africa for generations are also people of African descent, hence a purely white musical festival is still constitutive of African identity. Afropessimist, Afrocentrist, or Pan-African scholars would formulate rebuttals against that notion, however, for the sake of remaining within the frames of Mbembe’s theory, I stick to his identification of who is African.

Looking at EDM festivals in South Africa through the restrictions imposed by class affiliation not only holds for large festivals – such as the Ultra festival of which an offspring exists in South Africa – but also illuminates limitations for smaller scale festivals, such as Search festival. Mike said that they, as organizers, are confronting that dilemma by prioritizing the community aspect of the festival over its economic success. They deliberately reduce marketing activities to a minimum and trust word-of-mouth to create awareness of their event. To increase accessibility for those who cannot afford participation otherwise, they offer different ticket prices at different points of time prior to the festival and offer a volunteering program: “If you can’t pay 1000 Rand for your ticket – which is the most expensive one – you have to put in the effort [to book] as soon as you can for like 250 Rand […] And then if people can’t afford it, we have the volunteer program” (i1, 313 – 323).

5. Conclusion: Scaling down Afropolitan EDM festivals

In the face of the globalization of EDM, South Africa has spawned its very distinct musical styles and dance culture. It was my intention in this essay to use EDM festivals in South Africa as sites to investigate the conditions of globalized Eurocentric modernity from a global South perspective. The thematic analysis of a qualitative single-case expert interview with one of the co-founders of Search festival revealed many possibilities of EDM festival sites to rework Eurocentric modernity but also its limitations. Search festival faces an Afropolitan dilemma of scale due to the embedding into the market logics of global commodified capitalism: Afropolitanism aspires transnational flows, circulation, and movement as one of its key features. The larger an EDM festival, the more likely it is to attract an international crowd and fulfill the basic requirements to further the Afropolitan ethos. Because of the economic requirements imposed by market logic, growing EDM festivals are coerced to pursue a profit-oriented motif that perpetuates commodified global capitalism instead of reworking it. Conscious festivals, such as the South African Search festival, deliberately decide to keep the scale smaller for that very reason. Within the limits of that scale, Search festival is indeed an Afropolitan site, as it unites an international crowd of African descent, encourages creative collaborations, and circulates the ideas, connections, and cultural commodities resulting from it throughout the country, continent, and the globe. Perhaps it is exactly this scale that allows for meaningful Afropolitan encounters: Rather than participating in yet another humongous monumental representation of capitalism guised in a large-scale festival where the overall quantity of Afropolitan people may be higher, smaller scale festivals produce high-quality relationships between fewer Afropolitans, hence more meaningful encounters that can produce and circulate Mbembe’s Afropolitan ethos.

References

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Brown, A. M. (2017). Introduction, Principles and Elements of Emergent Strategy. In Emergent Strategy (pp. 1–43). AK Press.

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Moynagh, M. (2015). Afropolitan Travels: ‘Discovering Home’ and the World in Africa. In J. Kuehn & P. Smethurst (Eds.), New Directions in Travel Writing Studies (pp. 281–296).

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