On the last Comexposed Speech Bubble we discussed ‘What Makes African Care [about your narrative]’. The idea was to discuss what moves an African audience and causes them to follow or become fans. Many African creatives complain about the lack of support or enthusiasm they get from fellow Africans and the African audience they are trying to sell to. From the Speech Bubble discussion it seems there are many thoughts on the reason for this and to me it seems nearly all of them are true.
The African digital arts industry is fairly young by global standards and the comic book or speculative fiction side is still in its infancy. Regarding comics in specific it is not uncommon to find yourself explaining what a comic is to that new person you just met who asks that loaded question ‘what do you do?’. Invariably you are met with glares of confusion when you explain the industry and the wild notion of African fantasy, to help the point hit home you mention Western stories like Superman, Spider-man or Transformers and suddenly they light up recognizing those as desirable things. The dimness in their eyes when discussing African content is not lost on you though.
We all know that the medium[film, comics, performance etc] matters but a good story is even more important. So what makes Africans care? In Speech Bubble Kuda Sibanda said ‘Every human culture in the world seems to create stories (narratives) as a way of making sense of the world’, he suggested that people care about what relates to them or as Bill Masuku said ‘When the story is about them or reflects themselves’ that is what makes them care. This should mean that Africans would care more about their local stories but that doesn’t seem to be the case, they do not seek them out nearly as much as they do the western or eastern alternatives.
We are all culprits really, I am guilty of watching way more Anime and Cartoon Network than I have searched for African material even if it’s fantasy books. Over time that has changed but for most people they still aren’t compelled to dedicate as much effort in African narratives as they do western. Having published in Zimbabwe and receiving feedback I can certainly support the notion that people respond at a gut level to seeing stories about their own world and people, they do want it, but selling it to them in the first place was quite a mission.
It seems we have to earn the audiences buy-in. Kudakwashe kay said ‘I think trust is hard these days. And the Western stuff has had a lot of time to sort of prove itself to deserve our trust…… But when it comes to us. One of us could have a killer story that has everything, but our fellow Africans won’t easily buy into it because they don’t know if it’s as good as what they know. They may expect poor quality and sometimes because you’re unknown, they think that means you’re worthless…’ For many creative this rings true. To sell our stories we have to pitch it as similar to some other idea they know like saying ‘it’s the African Spider-man’ or we need endorsement in the form of recognition or awards from outside to ‘borrow trust’ from elsewhere, as was pointed out by Jordan when he stated ‘If your are unknown [you need]: Foreign Awards or Recognition, Quality, Continuity, Entertainment value.’ This isn’t really an excuse though, it is true of art all around the world to varying degrees, some trust must be borrowed, though it seems quite acute for the African. A better question for us to ask may be what is trust itself made of?
It seems as though the question of what makes Africans care is two parts. The first is the nature of the content and the second is the delivery of the content. Trust falls into both categories but more so the second. Abdul Hayeshi stated that ‘Western media is so prevalent because they have been the richest nations in recent generations’ so we aspire towards them and they have the advantage in selling their stories in an appealing way thanks to their greater resources. This statement was echoed by Kudzai Ngundu who said ‘we need to insulate ourselves from the West, they are far too ahead of us for people to excuse our subpar-developmental-phase…People by nature want the best’ Continuity and Quality were tied together by Jordan who said ‘One of the most common reasons locals tend to not hold on to something is when the content they are looking at isn’t “Quality” especially in the comic business. We may say we are creating new content with a local flare but how can you contend with the Marvel and DC and Shonen Jumps who are consistent with continuity. Everyone has an idea but not a finished product. Locals aren’t following for only the good Idea you have but the actual product put out.’
Zimbabwean [insert any other African country] quality has gained a stigma as not equal to international counterparts so its no wonder Africans themselves are skeptical towards most things African made however, I wonder if it is not an unfair measure propagated my a media that only shows you the best of other nations and never their worst or work in progress giving us a warped sense of the journey to high quality. Nevertheless, it stands that quality and consistency breed value and recognition leading to consumer trust.
The other side of the coin is the nature of the content which seems to be far deeper and more complex in its application. Harking back to the words of Kuda Sibanda earlier people respond to narratives that help make sense of their world, stories that are relevant to them and their lives. Abdul Hayeshi suggested stories of African Mothers – family squabbles, bewitching others and moral stories. Kuda Sibanda highlighted stories [ngano] like tsuro and Gudo that Africans can relate to and Marsh wrapped it up saying ‘we need a superhero story with roots here in Africa’. The general notion the Comexposed Community voiced was that Africans would best respond to or care about stories that reflected their world both old and new, traditional and revolutionary. They want stories that speak to their fears and hopes.
‘The current Zimbabwe is just too pre-occupied with bond notes/black market/fleeing the country to psychologically embrace such diversity [in African narratives] or should I say psychological self esteem to envision that diversity of self-image’ a stark statement by Abdul Hayeshi that carries some truth. These are realities on not just Zimbabweans but many Africans throughout the continent however you can just as quickly point out that adversity does not prevent people from embracing new ideas. Most of the well known comics began while the West was in a gruesome World War. Depression was everywhere, they didn’t have bond notes but they traded in war bonds and had rationing. Even then they still wanted outlandish yet relevant stories. Africans don’t want to hide from their problems or their world, they want to discuss and experience hope in it even if only vicariously through safer fictional characters.
Resounding themes that were highlighted were Relate-ability, Religion, Politics/Infrastructure, Extended Family, School (Education), Urban Rural Drifts/Disparity, Overcoming the Odds and real life experiences like eating Sadza …..or being bitten by a hyena haha. In essence an ‘African Flavour’ as Bill Masuku put it, is what makes people care about the story over similar stories from around the world. It is why African dramas are popular here and why networks have so many slice of life shows. Tony Mzondiwa captured it well when he said ‘I feel like the story should demand your time and reward you for giving it.’ He continued saying ‘I love stories that invoke in me the different emotions. Stories that can make me laugh or cry or angry. It’s kinda hard to explain how but a story should make you feel the emotions and thus make you not only want to go to the end with it but feel it to be worth it.’ In essence the story should give you value by making you feel an experience that is familiar but maybe beyond you, this creates the other side of trust, a valid expectation of deep value.
In this day and age where the average artist can circumvent traditional media routes using YouTube, Instagram, or WebToons to name a few, there is no reason we are not pushing the boundaries on narrative and quality of delivery. Africa is dying to hear her own story and has so seeded it deep within every child born of this soil. Ours is to simply be bold enough to give our fellow Africans [and the world] what will move them in the unique voice we move with. In Speech Bubble Kogah said ‘I believe stories should tap into a dream/motive we all have. Things we all wish to do but too scared to try. Stories act as a release, a virtual experience of confronting your fear “that’s all it takes Miles, a leap of faith”.’ It’s true of the narratives and its true of us as storytellers.
We talk about this sort of stuff every week on the Comexposed Central Group during our Speech Bubble Thursday event. Feel free to join us with the link below and be part of the conversation as we Redefine African!
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