Published December 27, 2002
In November, 1984, prompted by reports of starvation in Africa, the musician Bob Geldof organized American and European recording artists into the group Band Aid to record the modern-day Christmas carol Do They Know It’s Christmas/Feed the World? to raise relief funds.
The following summer, Band Aid grew into Live Aid, a rock concert in which London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia’s JFK stadium were connected by satellite. Phil Collins, thanks to the Concorde, managed to perform at both, while commercials soliciting pledges for charity were interspersed with performances by artists ranging from John Fogerty to Madonna.
These musicians hoped to use their art to help Africans. But now, because of a technology that most Live Aid performers had never heard of at the time, African musicians are learning to help themselves. That technology is the Internet, and the revolution in digital electronics.
The Internet is a wonderful thing. In my hobby as a musician and sound engineer, I use audio-processing software made by a couple of Polish software engineers who sell it over the Internet. For $100, I got a program that makes my music sound as good as if it had been run through tens of thousands of dollars worth of vintage sound equipment. And thanks to the Internet, they’re able to deliver the product and take my money with a few clicks of a mouse: no messing with shipping, customs, insurance, etc. For my purposes, and theirs, Poland is as close as Silicon Valley, or next door.
Other parts of the world have benefitted from the communications revolution, too. Many tech-support and customer service calls are now routed to places like Barbados and Bangalore, India.
In both cases, technology has allowed places with intelligent people to offer something worthwhile to the world, where previously those people’s talent would have gone unused.
But perhaps the world’s greatest reservoir of wasted human talent -- that is, ability that never gets to the world at the level it deserves -- is Africa. And, because of that, it is probably Africa that has the most to gain from the communications revolution.
Africa has been exporting music to the world for centuries, of course. Almost every musical form of the past century -- from gospel, to ragtime, to blues, to jazz, to rock and roll, to reggae, to techno -- has its roots in African musical styles. And African art has influenced Western artists from Picasso to Modigliani to Renee Stout.
The world has gotten a lot from Africa. Africa, however, has gotten much less from the world. But that may change now that Africans are working in media that can make money, and now that the Internet and other communications technologies make it easier to get their work out, and other people’s money in. In fact, it’s already happening.
If you look on Internet music sites like MP3.com, you’ll see a lot of African bands, and many of them are quite good.
Afrigo is a Ugandan band that sells CDs and tapes in Uganda and the surrounding areas by the hundreds of thousands. Now it’s developing a following in America and -- thanks to its Internet presence -- even licensing music commercially. Other bands like Ilay Izy from Madagascar (playing a mixture of tribal vocals and hip-hop), Ras Shaheema from Namibia (reggae) or Co. Operative from Zimbabwe illustrate the diversity of African music today. (My brother and I run a web site and small record company which, for no money, tries to operate as a go-between to help African musicians reach a wider audience).
And it’s not just music. A couple of weeks ago I watched a Nigerian movie called To Rise Again, a sort of mixture of Scarface, Sliding Doors, and It’s a Wonderful Life. (Here is the website of the company that made it). Nigeria’s film industry is booming, and is now a regional threat to India’s third-world film capital of Bollywood. (Here’s a link to a book on the Nigerian film industry.)
To Rise Again was a well-done and interesting picture, with a budget probably in the neighborhood of $20,000. It sells in Africa, and among Nigerian expats and American film buffs in the states. Thanks to DVD and Video CD technology, distributing a movie is nothing like the challenge it was a couple of decades ago. And making a movie -- thanks to digital video cameras and PC-based editing -- is nothing like as expensive as it was even a few years ago.
Given that there are as many Africans with talent and ambition as you’ll find anywhere else, these lowered barriers are likely to mean that African musicians, actors, producers and directors will enter the global market at a growing rate. And given that -- historically -- African culture has been very appealing to the world at large, the growth of inexpensive communications technologies is likely to mean a greater Africanization of world culture in general.
African culture has taken the world by storm even in the face of drastic economic and transportation barriers. Imagine what it may accomplish now that those barriers are falling. While it may be a long time, if ever, before Africa becomes an entertainment center to rival, say, California, its share of the world market seems likely to grow dramatically, while California’s shrinks.
The consequences are likely to be interesting. The rap against American culture from many anti-globalization types has been that it spreads Western ideas that corrupt "traditional" cultures. Yet, if you look at the lists of African songs, you find more religious influence than you find in similar American charts, including many Christian-influenced songs. (The song Virgin, by Kenyan band Born Twice, extols the value of virginity.)
Likewise, the Nigerian film industry, based in Christian southern Nigeria, is heavily Christian-influenced, producing works that make the "Left Behind" films look downright secular by comparison. Its continental rival, the Ghanaian film industry, has a similar orientation, with a heavy inclination toward Pentecostalism.
If these industries grow, the result will likely be a far more Christianized Third World. It will be interesting to hear what the anti-globalization folks say if the growth of Third World entertainment industries leads to a far more conservative media climate around the world.
Regardless, new technologies have produced jobs and prospects for many in Africa that were almost unimaginable back in 1985. Which raises a question: The rock stars who gave of their time to perform at Live Aid received much public praise for their selflessness. But what of the engineers and scientists whose work made these new technologies possible? Will they get similar praise?
I doubt it. But you might pause a moment as you make your Christmas videos to recognize the work of those technologists and engineers who -- far more than rock stars, however selfless -- have by their efforts made the world a better place, with more opportunities for all. They don’t get noticed enough.
Glenn H. Reynolds is professor of law at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville and publishes the InstaPundit.Com Web site.