Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

Amira Ali takes a critical look at the reconstructed identities of East African women along western political imagination. The identities, as expressed in hip-hop lyrics, objectify women from the region as being quite not African, amplifying the myths of western anthropologists of the past

I may be a few months late on this, but it can never be too late to address a recurring theme.

Back in the 90s, I remember the first time I heard The Pharcyde’s “Passing Me By” –a hit track. The opening line of the third verse was non-other than “Now there she goes again the dopest Ethiopian”, a line to be memorized and recited by Ethiopians then and today. I wonder if The Pharcyde’s intention was more than their experience, and perhaps they might not recognize their profound contribution to this new popular framing that would link Ethiopian women to hip-hop. It presented a shift in how we were represented in America and the world, at least to hip-hop lovers. It altered our position; it humanized us, and through the power of lyricists we were allowed, in the western context, to exist outside of the realm of famine, poverty and misfortune.

Prior to, after the notorious 1984 Famine that was uncovered to the world in a rather celebrity-studded way, the world was to be acquainted with Ethiopia and Ethiopians in a bleak subhuman form –the focus of charitable attention, giving more visibility to celebrities. American comedians, journalists, writers, and all-around entertainers took us to their playing field and objectified us to fit their frame. We were to entertain the world with our famous poster-child endless images. The western narrative was nothing short of an Ethiopian child, next to its hopeless looking mother, with a big belly and a death-like aura with uninvited flies veiling its facial features. It became a politically manufactured image that was to represent and haunt us. An unexpected blow, in a different but similar tone, even Bill Cosby joined the choir later on in 2009; in his “Ask the Ethiopian” speech to the urban youth, schooling them on how African-Americans should aim higher than menial jobs because menial jobs are for “Ethiopians”.

So it can be said, The Pharcyde’s line is heaven sent, at the minimum for those of us in the diaspora, we felt resurrected and empowered enough that we wanted to repay them but didn’t know how. And while we were celebrating Pharcyde’s lyrics, shortly after in the late 90s, The Roots from Philly, on their hit track “You Got Me”, give the Ethiopian women a shout: “And peep this Ethiopian queen from Philly takin’ classes abroad…” Yet again, another interlude that offered space to redeem our Ethiopian-ness, even if in the hip-hop listening circles.

A continuum, the fascination with Ethiopians by American MCs, taking more of an “east African” look, goes further than The Roots and Pharcyde. But here I’ll stop praising the representational imaging. With the shift in hip-hop’s consciousness, not surprisingly but regrettably, so has the lyrical usage tied to the east African women subject. More recent, in the context of not just “Ethiopians” but “east African” women, there has been fixations and lyrical framings that authenticates and romanticizes them as “exotic” or “ideal”.

In-between and under the glorification, in a rather unwarranted and exoticized style, lyrics are formed that places identity in an objectified and disempowered position, at least for some of us. With a rather limited vision, we have a slew of MCs supposedly waxing lyrical about the east African women. Drake’s “Young East African Girl, you too busy fucking with your other man, I was trying to put you on game, put you on a plane, Take you and your mama to the motherland…” on Kendrick Lamar’s “Poetic Justice” does not shy from his supposed worthier gaze. And furthering his exotic obsession, Drake again, spits another one on “Where To Now”="> generously extending his worth: “I'm tryna show you life through the tint on these Tom Ford's, Ethiopian girl, Ethiopian girl, with yo' long curly hair and yo' big ass bootay.” But Drake is not the only one, others have been known, on “The Set Up” Nas raps, “we followed them pollyin, he thought the hoes were Somalian”, and on it goes.

Beyond the objectification, this feels like a manufactured idea that perpetuates divisiveness through racializing identities with claims of: “you are out of the ordinary” or “colorism” by the sheer factor of over-referencing a certain group of people. A constructed identity along western political imagination that romanticizes and embodies multiple meanings. Placing these identities in a supposed exceptional place while at the same time reinforcing reductive and stereotypical conceptions with little nuanced and meaningful ideas. In line with Edward Said’s usage of the term Orientalism, it no less “identifies a body of knowledge that shapes how regions and peoples are understood and represented”. Imaginations of an east African identity that follows the racist complexities of white social anthropologists that follow theories of The Origin of Races –Dr. Carleton S. Coon’s origination, hailed by The New York Times as the “last of the great general anthropologists”, known to educate the world that Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, and also Kenya, are majority Arab or white or “Afro-Asiatic” descent”. Which seems, by default, has created the separation of the “east” from the rest of Africa and the Europeanization of it, making modern day MCs psychologically fall for the pseudoscience, obvious in the consistent singling out and over-referencing of east African women. Further ignoring the work of Senegalese Egyptologist, Chiekh Anta Diop, who challenged the common white view of Egyptian and African history, maintaining that Somalis, Nubians, Ethiopians and Egyptians were all part of a related range of African peoples in the Nilotic zone that also included peoples of the Sudan and parts of the Sahara.

Myths that support said sentiments that create categories of “chosen” and “exception”, in my opinion, only to display a try laden with inferiority. Regardless, the consequences and implications for such imaginations are far from fiction. If you were to do a web search on opinions on “Ethiopian” and “Somali” identity, you’ll find sentiments of “anti-black mentality”, “exclusive nature of the groups”, etc. On the other hand, east African women I know, especially in the diaspora, struggle from the “you-are-not-African-enough” or “black-enough” factor. Not being considered really black but more of a mixed-race-girl-from-somewhere concept. This hierarchy of aesthetical value and the limited definition of who we are, as Africans, only opens or facilitates the carving up for the scramble of Africa, creating further mistrust along continental lines. Plus, I have to agree with Esterh Armah, “International blackness is a tribe not just shade; it is cultural capital, political and it has economic and political consequences.”

Perhaps, our one-on-one, human-to-human relationship formed in the diaspora opened up the world to the east African women. So instead, should we be thankful that we have became visible to the western world, even if in a culture that is obsessed with colorism, exoticizing and privileging certain groups? Plus, why should we be troubled about what hip-hop has to say about us? Because undeniably, through its power of mass dissemination, hip-hop is part of a popular culture and the popular imagination. As argued precisely by Carol Magee, “Popular culture is important to consider because throughout the world a vast majority of significant education takes place in this realm. The music that one listens to, the books one reads, the films one sees, can significantly impact and shape one’s politics and worldview as much as, if not more than, one’s formal education.”

This all creates a troublesome predicament, for some of us, as we are poignantly singled out and over-referenced from the rest of the continent. It leaves us having to constantly prove that we are no different than other Africans, having to verify our African identity. With no grasp of how we begin to qualify what defines “African” –is it something that can be defined as a single entity rather a cohesive one? Is it based on the shade of our skin, hair texture, body physique, geographical provenance, place of residence, character, religion, garments we wear, intimate relationships we chose to have? Or, is an African identity something that is carried in spirit, “an identity akin to an act of faith”? And perhaps we ought to open ourselves to appreciate and enjoy the rich variety of Africa. Or may be, what we need is Pharacyde and The Roots to collaborate on an “African Women” titled track, rapping to the natural richness that an Africa women brings in variety.



* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!

* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.