Art for our sake: creativity and humanity
in the African diaspora
March 10, 2021
Various technologies have brought about the collapse of the previously sharp distinction between ‘high’ art and popular culture, what some have called ‘nobrow’ culture. While clearly the art forms previously categorized as belonging to the upper classes have not dissipated, the adjective ‘high’ and its accompanying hierarchical ordering no longer resonates in a world in which class distinction can easily be obscured and barriers of exclusivity circumvented, even if only temporarily. The ‘fine arts’ have long been a way to delineate what some would like to consider the highest order of the arts. Immediately, this term conjures up ideas of ballet or opera, despite the diminishing social currency and impact of these art forms. These art experiences, historically reserved for the elite and upper classes of Europe, were and remain luxury items, so much so that the notion of art for art’s sake became a popular way to understand the various creative ways artists spoke to the world.
Yet in the Global South and the African diaspora, the arts remain firmly embedded in social life – not as a luxury nor as a tool of refinement or class mobility, but as an essential way to secure a sense of personhood, and in documenting, celebrating, and critiquing social conditions and realities. As visual artist Clinton Hutton reminds us, “performance/drama/theatre was fundamentally important to the normative socio-political struggles of the enslaved, as it was important in engendering, shaping and expressing their agency and their sense of self.”1 Within regimes of oppressive colonial authority, governmental co-optation2 and exploitative industries, the arts have been and continue to be an innovative arena in which artists and societies empower individuals living under conditions of duress to vividly and dynamically imagine and negotiate a sense of humanity and dignity. Here I am purposely including the popular arts into my notion of ‘the arts’ as the exclusivity traditionally attached to ‘the arts’ limits our analytical and theoretical possibilities – the arts, both popular and exclusive, continue to affectively influence populations regardless of class, location or culture.
In Western popular cultures, the artistic innovations by the peoples of the African diaspora are celebrated and proliferate, yet their popularity has not mitigated the dehumanizing social institutions and racial hierarchy which limits the life chances of Afro-diasporic peoples. The troubling irony is that while the artistic and cultural expressions of people of African descent are vociferously consumed by white audiences, these audiences and institutions consistently fail to recognize the humanity of peoples of African descent. It appears as though the act of consuming blackness cannot co-exist with the idea of peoples of African descent as humans; in other words, the commodification of black cultures limits white audiences’ beliefs of who is human and who is deserving of a sense of humanity. Exploring the nuances of various art forms of artists belonging to the African diaspora illuminates how the arts operate both inside and outside of the market, to do something more than generate profits for culture-industry corporate capitalists. In the context of the United Nation’s International Decade for People of African Descent, a deep reflection on the purpose and impact of the arts for peoples of the African diaspora enables us to consider the intimate interconnections between the resilient humanity of diasporic Africans in the West and our multiple art forms – which enrich the social fabric of the globe and line the pockets of corporations and industry actors. Such a reflection necessitates an exploration of the funding and evaluation of these art forms, as well as of the role of the market economy in relation to them, and of formal governmental interactions with the arts and cultural industries in general. Through music, performance and dance, the goal of this reflection paper is to set out an understanding of the arts of the African diaspora as fundamentally essential to the survival of a semblance of humanity often denied to Afro-diasporic peoples.
To move from an idea of art for art’s sake to a notion of art for our sake, we need to keep front and centre both the histories of Afro-diasporic peoples exploited in the cultural industries as well as the specific realities, worldviews and histories that situate the need for a United Nations-mandated decade to recognize, celebrate and honour the lives of people of African descent. Simultaneously, the focus on our sake is an attentive return to the forms of wellness, sociality and politics through the arts that have afforded and continue to afford Afro-diasporic populations a level of human development not offered by their host societies globally.
Afro-diasporic artistic creativity in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade is more than a cultural expression, but also a method and system of knowledge designed to save lives, rehumanize those made chattel, and rearticulate innovative ways in which humanity might exist under the terror and duress of state-sanctioned anti-Blackness.
Art, the market and the commodification of Blackness
In popular dance, from the popularization of the Charleston in the 1920s, to the kinds of movements we currently find embedded in video games like Fortnite, it is undeniable that the creative movements of Africans in the diaspora have enjoyed massive popularity for more than a century. Similarly, musical forms indebted to the experience of Africans in the diaspora remain wildly popular, shaping and reshaping popular music in North America and globally.
This has been the case since the Fisk Jubilee Singers first went to Europe in 1871, touring through England, Austria, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Yet, their story demonstrates the deeply exploitative and problematic relationship of the arts in the African diaspora to the capitalist markets in the West. These very young singers were raising funds to bring Fisk University out of debt and build a new hall for students, even while their own personal circumstances were precarious (including the death of some members of the troupe) — in other words, these young people hardly benefited to the same extent as the University.
The ‘success’ of art forms, such as music and dance, rest uncomfortably within the market economy and amongst mass audiences who are not of African ancestry. We need to look no further than the popularity of minstrel shows in the late 1800s to quickly recognize a deeply problematic connection between arts from the African diaspora and the large white audiences that drive their commodification.3 Mass white audiences made the touring of minstrel shows profitable for companies such as the Primrose & West Big Minstrels and W.M.H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee, which toured across the United States, Europe and parts of Canada.
The performances audiences enjoyed were deeply influenced by the largely white audience’s desires to affirm their own racial bias or to uphold the prevailing social hierarchy. The result was a proliferation of dehumanizing and socially-damaging portrayals and enactments of the white racial imagination for more than a century. For some small towns in Canada for example, minstrel performances were fueled by audiences for decades on end, with the Guelph Kiwanis Club Minstrel Show finding success for more than a decade into the 1960s, while more than a century earlier La Rue’s Minstrels and Hamall’s Serenaders toured Quebec during the 1850s.
The success of minstrel shows influenced the award-winning silent film Birth of a Nation (1915) — a big-screen adaptation of the racial stereotypes that featured white men in blackface depicting African-American men as violent predators. The ‘success’ of Birth of a Nation not only sparked violence against African Americans in many U.S. cities, it also provided a rationalization for the Ku Klux Klan to terrorize African Americans, particularly men, for the next 100 years (and counting). The impact of these shows and this highly acclaimed film set up a dynamic still at play today in the presentations and performances of various art forms from theatre to music. Artists of African descent have their image and art interpreted and consumed by largely white audiences, even when the presentation or performance depicts harmful and long-lasting stereotypes. Another way of understanding this dynamic is to say that the commodification of the arts of people of African descent too often creates, sustains or perpetuates damaging relations which are long-lasting because of how Afro-diasporic peoples have been portrayed and popularized as commodities in the market economy, as objects of the white racial imagination. These patterns are replicated across artistic disciplines and the cultural industries as audiences’ desires and expectations are key drivers of audience growth and profitability.
While minstrel shows exploited fabricated aspects of Black life and encouraged a consumption of damaging stereotypes, the ‘success’ of numerous forms of music from artists of African descent in the transatlantic diaspora differs in some instances from the minstrel show. ‘Race records,’ the United States’ record industry’s attempt to sell music made by African Americans by explicitly concealing their phenotype point to another way in which audiences and markets impact the development of art forms in the African diaspora. In the instance of ‘race records’, the music industry erased evidence of the African-American contribution to the popular music being sold. White actors adorned the covers of records and Black singers often suffered financial exploitation in addition to being denied the social prestige and recognition attached to being a recording artist. Moreover, the segregation of the Billboard charts, a ranking system used to denote popularity and economic success, meant African-American recording artists’ careers were significantly limited by America’s pervasive and state-sanctioned racial segregation.
The notion of how ‘success’ is defined in relation to the arts is problematic, and when seen at as such we open our minds to the social, psychological costs and impacts of successful and popularized art forms and performances. Stories of ‘success’ in the mainstream media and an artist’s general popularity often mask the traumas and personal tribulations artists must overcome on an individual level. For people of African descent, the psychological costs of minstrel shows impact personal wellness, as they damage self-confidence, nourish self-hate and lead to the internalization of anti-Blackness manifesting in acts such as the normalization of skin bleaching. For artists such as the Nigerian founder of Afrobeat Fela Kuti, and African-Americans James Brown and Nina Simone, their artistic successes in raising the consciousness of young Black people and challenging the status quo did not always translate into peaceful or non-violent relationships with the law; their success was not easily discernible in mainstream society’s reductive analysis. Record sales and Billboard charts tell a narrow slice of the ‘success’ story, obscuring the levels of multi-generational Black pride and self-confidence these and many other artists instilled in young people and future artists. Success for these artists and many other artists in the African diaspora purposely exceeded and continues to exceed the merely financial.
If we turn our attention to smaller-scale and more local community arts efforts, the definition of success involves different measures beyond sales and the size of a fan base. At the community level, art forms such as dub poetry and spoken word are highly successful at inducing racial pride and raising the consciousness of its community members, both audiences and artists. Spoken word performances amply demonstrate a mastery of traditional literary devices, combined with a performative flair, and often reflect deep and sharp social analysis. From one perspective, successful spoken word performances do more than check the boxes of positive measures such as revenue, audience numbers or media coverage. The intangible elements of mentorship and positive, caring adults combined with provocative public intellectual work create the kinds of opportunities for personal development, such as public speaking and performance or learning buried Black history, that can enhance the quality of life for members of the African diaspora. Subjective definitions of success, particularly outside the realm of popular culture, can be made to speak directly to the ways the arts can cultivate healthy Afro-diasporic identities and heritage. A key measure of the quality of life for some countries is the health of one’s relationships, when relationships are not rife with antiblack sentiments and racial microaggressions, I wonder how another notion of success might be imagined. Extending metrics of success beyond a solely economic or market-driven analysis allows us to inquire into the intangible impacts the arts have had on the preservation of African personhood.
Scholars of popular music have suggested the integration of Black and white teenagers partying together to rock & roll music was one cultural impact of the popular musical craze that started in the 1950s. Yet for many popular assessments of this music genre, the integration of youth rarely measures up against any economic analysis – the well-being of African-American audiences of rock & roll music remains outside of the considerations of most cultural power brokers, especially industry-focused individuals. For many observers, the diminishing recognition of the earliest innovators in the genre, such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard, demonstrates some of the ways in which wider social recognition and appreciation for Afro-diasporic artists are still to come. For Berry and Richard, their ‘success,’ when described by mainstream media, is often overshadowed by the ways in which the mass fan base of someone like Elvis Presley commodified and fetishized his short life and ensured his music dominated the Billboard charts and the historical record.
Unlike many of Presley’s contemporaries and musical foremothers and forefathers, his career did not have to contend with the social restrictions of segregation and the publicly-supported climate of anti-Blackness. Minstrel shows and race records illuminate just two of the many ways in which artists of African descent experience their art and culture in direct relation to markets and the prevailing powers of white power brokers within the culture industries. The dehumanizing mockery of the minstrel show and the total erasure of Black artistry by race records are not dissimilar to the violent and repressive ways in which British, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and French colonial forces sought the eradication of cultural and artistic practices. Ordinances to ban arts-based activities, such as music-making or dancing, regularly led to state-sanctioned harassment, over-policing, arrests and in some cases imprisonment of African populations.
Governing Blackness, limiting the arts
Various British ordinances demonstrate the resilience of drumming practices, which, we are told, were forms of communication that might incite rebellion. In Trinidad, British colonial authorities through the 1884 Peace Preservation Ordinance outlawed African skin-headed drums after the 1881 Canboulay Riots. This was one of many ordinances which consistently sought to eliminate the threat of inciting rebellion or to manage those deemed of the ‘lower classes.’ Other legal steps were taken to outlaw singing, dancing and other music-making by “rogues and vagabonds” in Trinidad in 1883, while drumming had already been outlawed almost 100 years earlier in Jamaica in 1792.4 We should take the colonial authorities’ fear of drumming as inciting rebellions with a grain of salt; their limited understanding of drumming practices were firmly wedged between the logics of white supremacy and a limited racial imagination.
Similarly, the blowing of the abeng, a cow horn, by Maroons – self-freed populations in Suriname, Colombia, Jamaica and several other countries – is another example of sound communication that was feared by colonial authorities. Maroons fought often and successfully to keep their freedom in several colonies with histories of successful rebellions, achieving treaties as early as 1712 in Colombia and 1739 in Jamaica. However, for these self-freed populations, it is quite possible that the blowing of the abeng may have been for some purpose other than inciting rebellion, namely, as a device to communicate over mountainous terrain.
Rebellion was an omnipresent fear held by the minority white planter populations on islands in the Caribbean, a perspective that dominates the historical record. Like the white audiences that fueled the success of minstrel shows, our contemporary knowledge of the arts practices of Africans under colonialism, as is the case with early Black-music scholarship, focuses on the thoughts and voices of the white observer, however misguided or narrowly understood. The hundreds of years of Maroon presence and success in defending their freedoms remind us that the art forms practiced by both free and enslaved Africans were not solely focused on eradicating European colonialism, as our arts continue to document, entertain and express social critique to the present day. The legacy of the Maroons can be found today in their still-vibrant arts scene in places like Suriname and Dominica. While at times their arts and crafts are directed towards tourists, the legacy of the Maroons and the concept of marronage also invigorate contemporary arts activities in places like Montserrat, with their Writers’ Maroon specializing in poetry with a social critique.5
Historically, for Afro-diasporic communities, artistic practices have been held in tight control. Whether entering the public in commodified form, or through outright outlawing, state-sanctioned power and pre-state colonial power have been disproportionately exercised against the artistic practices of Africans in the diaspora. If we turn to the origins of samba music in the city of Salvador in Brazil’s Northeast, and its criminalization following its migration to Rio de Janeiro, or to capoeira, the martial art dance that is today’s highly celebrated cultural export yet which was once outlawed in 1890, it becomes clear that significant power is exercised over these dynamic and emergent art forms. Capoeira, like several art forms stemming from Africans in the diaspora, found ways to evade or mitigate the impact of authorities who sought to eliminate specific art forms prior to their widespread adoption and commodification.
With state-sanctioned repression of music such as samba, or of forms of dance like capoeira, we lose in the historical record any opportunity to grasp the intangible aspects of the art forms that contribute to what national and international policies today call human development. Our understanding of arts in the African diaspora and its relationship to contemporary indexes around belonging, social cohesion and civil engagement remains murky at best, despite much historical and sociological work on Cuban cabildos, Brazilian samba schools and Trinidadian panyards and tents. The many forms of repressive power exercised on emergent art forms obscure and limit our contemporary understandings of the historical relationships between artistic engagement and human development for members of the African diaspora.
Unpacking the multiple uses and impacts of the arts in the African diaspora and exploring how power operates on Black artistic practices also require focusing on the decolonized nations in post-colonial realities. In newly independent nations such as Trinidad and Jamaica or in other countries like Brazil, governments have worked closely with the arts to invent symbols of nationalism and national identity. These relationships between governments and art forms, usually of the marginalized or formerly oppressed, find their way into public exaltation, moving rapidly from lower class “nuisance” to art form of national importance. This was the case with samba music under President Vargas in Brazil, steelpan in Trinidad, and Rastafari-rooted reggae music for a short while in Jamaica during Michael Manley’s leadership of the People’s National Party.
In contrast to the repressive eradication tactics of colonial governments, the nationalist drive of newly independent former colonies created an opportunity to critically reimagine the cultural direction of these countries. In 1962, as Prime Minister Eric Williams led Trinidad out of colonial status, the former ‘nuisance’ of steelpan played by Port of Spain’s marginalized Black male youth in the 1930s became the national instrument under Williams in the 1960s. Like steelpan, Cuba’s rumba music and dance migrated from the lower classes to the celebrated centre of Cuba’s highly respected musical traditions.6
Outside of the musical arena, Jamaica’s National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC), established in 1962, diverted from its island’s former European orientation of ballet to forms of movement developed by Jamaicans. Using dance as a template, the NDTC consciously sought to understand and celebrate the island’s folk traditions and revalue African heritage.7 Under the leadership of the Honourable Rex Nettleford, the focus of this dance organization was to look inward to reflect Jamaican society to itself, a deliberate act of development for a newly independent country.8 Rather than state-led co-optation, the NDTC, operating as an arm’s length organization, became a catalyst for social change – mainly the development of a Jamaican consciousness focused on celebrating dance forms indigenous to Jamaica. In a matter of a couple decades, from the 1950s to the 1970s, dance schools, previously segregated by race and focused on ballet, began offering universally-accessible and locally-inspired dance training on local forms of dance through schools and community programs. These lessons from history tell us there are multiple ways in which the arts can be utilized as a form of human development for Afro-diasporic populations, and some governments have taken the right steps in such a direction.
Music before and beyond the market
Possibly the most globally popular art form in which Afro-diasporic peoples have excelled is music. In a global context, the rebellious anti-colonial songs of Bob Marley, such as “No Woman No Cry,” “War” or “Chant Down Babylon,” arguably resonate the most. Yet, dating back to the 1700s and 1800s, the music created by peoples of the African diaspora easily predated the commercial business aspects of the recording industry. Work songs, ring shouts, spirituals and various other musical genres not only existed outside market relations, they exemplified unique aspects of Afro-diasporic creative and artistic expressions.
First, music and song, just like dance and performance, do not rest neatly within an isolated category, neither solely as entertainment, nor solely as sacred acts. For instance, politics, protest and social commentary embedded themselves into Afro-diasporic art forms and expressions. The double meanings embedded in “Roll Jordan Roll” or “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” showed how the sacred and the secular did not remain separate domains of expression; within the same song religious nature exists alongside pragmatic uses or secular expressions. The thriving of an Afro-diasporic musical tradition, especially predating the recording industry, suggests there exist meanings and usages of music that exceed the narrow confines of monetary success. The rigid silos we find within Western European institutions do not prominently figure within art forms from the African diaspora. The multifaceted and multidisciplinary excellence of a figure like Paul Robeson, as lawyer, athlete, activist, singer and actor, best demonstrates such boundary-bending realities. In Robeson’s activism and art against the backdrop of the Great Depression and anti-communist hysteria in his country of birth, the art for art’s sake concept has limited applicability to arts from the African diaspora.
Secondly, as scholar and musician Olly Wilson reminds us, Black music has a utilitarian function whereby aesthetics and function coalesce to serve a specific purpose for Afro-diasporic peoples9. Music that contains satire, social commentary or parody strikes a blow against oppressive displays of power, empowering another perspective from those systematically disempowered. Such music widens the ideological landscape, bringing into focus aspects or ideas not necessarily of value to mainstream thought. Music that involves social commentary holds the potential to enlighten individual perspectives and deepen one’s introspection around issues of personal identity, faith or social justice. A popular song such as James Brown’s “Say it Loud,” whose chorus urges audience members to “say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud,” encourages both Black and non-Black audiences to reconsider the predominance of white beauty standards. Similarly, if we look at the early years of hip-hop music, tracks such as “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five detailed at length the local effects of neoliberalism and the perils of post-industrial life in New York City. The ‘entertainment’ value of this song and many others is subsumed beneath its social and psychological impacts, particularly in raising awareness around urban decay and poverty in the 1980s. If we examine the Civil Rights movement in the United States, various kinds of music that expressed a specific political orientation encouraged direct action.
Still, we cannot generalize that a specific genre of Black music or all Black music has a solely utilitarian function. Quite the contrary, specific songs or moments within a genre of music consistently demonstrate specific functions with respect to social realities and environments. For example, within hip-hop music, addressing police violence and predatory law enforcement has been present within individual songs since at least the late 1980s – consistently attacking the systemic and at times life-threatening lack of regard for Black lives across five decades. Entire songs, such as KRS-One’s “The Sound of da Police” (1993), “Cops Shot the Kid” (2018) by Nas featuring Kanye West or portions of verses in songs such as Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” (2003) or Big Daddy Kane’s underground classic “Warm It Up Kane” (1988), do their part to illuminate social inequities and speak truth to power. Meanwhile, a series of songs such as Papoose’s 2011 seven-part series “Law Library” are designed to educate listeners as to how to best navigate the legal system. In all these scenarios, whether it is an educative function or social commentary, the music’s purpose enhances its utilitarian value – it exceeds its exchange value as a commodity. Yet, in evaluations of Black music, especially popular music, the social function or utility of a song or musical genre often does not get calculated within common understandings of ‘success’. This failure to calculate the social function and utility of an art form for the lived realities of peoples in the African diaspora holds significant ramifications, particularly around the homogenizing effects of globalization.
Finding new metrics: a de-commodifying turn
When arts funders and government bodies measure and evaluate arts from communities in the African diaspora in the same way they do other arts activities, they diminish the opportunity for arts to be understood as having a unique disposition in the context of Afro-diasporic groups, vis-à-vis the mitigation of anti-Blackness. With culture being only recently seen and acted upon at the policy level as a tool for development (see UNESCO’s 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions), the intimate role the arts have played in Afro-diasporic communities has not entered policy debates nor public discourse. Further, for a country like Canada, an efficient and effective cultural diplomacy strategy is still to come, further hampering the potential for public discourse around the arts as tools to mitigate anti-Blackness, particularly in a former slave-holding society. For other Western nations, particularly those that have benefited from free Black labour and continue to be home to generations of Afro-diasporic peoples, there exist no specific actions or metrics focused on the human development of these groups. Equally central to this lack of specific policy or action is the absence of a historical analysis of the role of the arts in the survival and thriving of peoples of African descent.
Metrics designed by arts funders, such as number of performances, commissions and exhibitions, fail to measure the impact of these arts experiences on the continuing efforts of Black communities to develop strategies that expand choices and opportunities to live a respected and valued life. Within numerous historical and contemporary artistic innovations under state-sanctioned non-personhood or within colonial and neocolonial logics, the arts have provided an entry point for Afro-diasporic peoples to evade and escape the domination of white-supremacy logics and the resulting dehumanization of those deemed ‘others.’ Yet, these arts-based efforts, from Cuban cabildos to the co-optation of Brazilian samba by President Vargas, continue to exist precariously under the exercise of power by governments and colonial officials.
Since art forms from the African diaspora are so deeply under-studied by governments, the language of UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage is difficult to apply. As the concept of intangible cultural heritage is designed to capture the knowledge, skills, creativity and peoples’ learned processes that provide intergenerational continuity and a sense of cultural identity, meaningful work cannot ignore how power operates in these scenarios, specifically how white supremacy’s anti-Blackness impacts creative acts and cultural identity. This means that if living heritage is internationally recognized for of its role in the community that created, transmitted and re-created it, the impact of commodification makes murky such moments as the Fisk Jubilee singers’ tour of Europe, or when multinational record labels descended on hip-hop music in the early 1990s to market and disseminate the music to white suburban teenagers. Further, the language of intangible cultural heritage has not yet begun to grasp the skills, knowledge systems and practices by which art forms rehumanize and nurture a continued sense of African selfhood in a diaspora context.
Given the co-optation and commodification of Afro-diasporic art forms, the language of intangible cultural heritage cannot assume that the transmission and re-creation of cultural heritage remains under the control of its creators. Such an assumption simply ignores systemic and structural barriers that limit ownership of cultural property or accelerate exploitation. Just like the touring minstrel shows, the commodification and circulation of Black culture (and its grotesque misrepresentation) has damaging and long-lasting consequences stemming from the commodification process. This despite the protest and petitioning of Afro-diasporic groups in Canada and elsewhere. Even when countries like Denmark begin to think about cultural practices (including the arts) as a way to cooperate with other nations on development goals, the lack of knowledge around the arts as tools of human development specifically for formerly enslaved African populations often means policy efforts look good on paper but have little, if any, impact on the ground.
Similarly, when policy instruments, like a copyright act are designed to protect creators, with ‘protection’ narrowly oriented towards mitigating economic exploitation, we lose the opportunity to support Black creators, whose trademarks, patents and licenses are impacted by more than monetary concerns. The existing imbalances of power in the application of such policy instruments are ignored, so that artists and creators disconnected from infrastructural support or legal assistance cannot be ‘protected.’ Instead, powerful corporations weaponize copyright rules to liberalize, protect or exploit markets, advancing a neoliberal logic not interested in the metrics of human development.
The language of cultural expressions utilized at the cultural-policy level rests on an uncomfortable juxtaposition with the dominance of economic rationality and neoliberal thinking at the state level. In both, thinking about intangible cultural heritage and cultural expressions driven by a fear of cultural homogenization is underpinned by the reality of the dominance of market logic. A thorough understanding of market logic need to be factored into the complementary nature of intangible cultural heritage and cultural expressions. Too often, concerns around safeguarding cultural practices, creativity, products and knowledge systems under-theorize the power of market-liberalization logic, at times missing the right and desire of some groups to not commodify their art forms and not enter the global market. The language of cultural expressions attempts to protect minority cultures of the Global South from domination by the media and cultural imperialism of powerful countries in the Global North. Indeed, the persistence of global cultural homogeneity and the risk of losing one’s cultural distinctions for nations in the Global South is a real threat. Even for countries in the North like Canada, with a population only a fraction the size of its southern neighbour, the array of protections and quotas to protect culture signals what is at stake in globalization, as the logic of free trade and market liberalization dominates the perspectives of both powerful states and emerging nations.
The language of cultural expressions – meaning “the various ways in which the creativity of individuals and social groups take shape and manifest itself” – bumps up against the realities of hundreds of years of Afro-diasporic art-making practices and creative activities that do not align with the language of profits, market liberalization and commodities. If the 2005 Convention’s notion of cultural expressions is meant to foster rich diversity as shared and circulated through goods and services, one cannot assume the prioritizing of economic development is a neutral factor in the pursuit of human development opportunities, cultural identity and the development of artistic forms. Stakeholders and power brokers in the arena of cultural expressions, such as record labels and distribution houses, deeply influence aspects of the intangible cultural heritage the 2003 Convention seeks to protect, even in the absence of goods and services.
At the highest levels of government, cultural agencies, and at the level of local arts councils, the arts are not sufficiently recognized as a fundamental element of human development, and with particular importance in the African diaspora. Yet the arts are critical to the mitigation of anti-Black and anti-human structures (such as profit-driven corporations). Perhaps a greater urgency could be induced at a policy level if the lives, not just the livelihoods, of people from the African diaspora are studied seriously as catalysts of a humanity still being wrestled from the clutches of colonial thinking and racial hierarchy. If arts councils and funders recalibrate their understanding of success to better grasp and measure how the arts are utilized by peoples of African descent, we can soon develop methods by which the human development potential of the arts can become discernible to governments and organizations interested in supporting the eradication of anti-Blackness. At the level of policy instruments, such a move means seriously considering how power operates and the unevenness and levels of inequality that plague access by artists from the African diaspora and reduce their arts to commodities. Reductive thinking disconnects the arts from their human development and imagines these forms as central only to the appetite of consumers, and governments’ desires for grassroots relevance and legitimacy.
The paradigm shift encouraged here is one that understands the arts not as a luxury or a tool of social mobility but rather as part of the process of human development for people of African descent. Such a shift sees the countering of anti-Black racism within the arts by refusing to disassociate the arts from their intangible impacts that enhance the lives of peoples of African descent. Such a refusal can manifest itself in a decision by governments and arts councils to understand success in a way that defies the dominance of market logic. For those interested in the eradication of anti-Black racism during the International Decade for Peoples of African Descent, the scholarship that illuminates the arts before and beyond late capitalism and neoliberalism is central to reimagining the arts as an integral part of human development. The common notion of art for art’s sake or art as a “cultural product” mask the multiple ways in which the arts are intimately connected to how peoples of the African diaspora navigate, mitigate and expunge forms of oppression, bias and racism that plague efforts to live a humanity on par with other members of the human family.
We are yet to fully comprehend and support the elaboration of the intangible human development opportunities gained from capoeira, dub poetry, calypso and many more art forms. A de-commodification of Afro-diasporic life and arts begins to move us towards comprehending the arts for our sake – the humanity of peoples of African descent – in terms that enhance our wellness, identities and intergenerational cultural transmission. Our sake in this equation is more than supporting the idea of peoples of African descent as humans—this is not up for debate, rather our sake is also the expansion of an unwavering notion of the human that can deny the exploitative market dominated logics and refuse to commoditize peoples of African descent.
Mark V. Campbell, Ph.D., has been immersed in the Toronto hip hop scene for more than two decades. As an academic and curator, his work focuses on the presentation and conservation of Black histories within the arts, music, and culture.