Claudia Frittelli: Arts and Culture at the center of Africa’s future

Photo credit: Tsui via Creative Commons

Last weekend I heard the transcendent South African jazz vocalist, Simphiwe Dana perform at the Apollo as part of the UBUNTU Music and Arts of South Africa festival, taking place in New York City October 8 through November 5. The festival is sponsored by several major American philanthropic institutions, including Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Ford and Mellon Foundations. Hosted by legendary trumpeter Hugh Masekela, the evening introduced a new generation of musicians who are transforming the South African music scene.

After paying tribute to South Africa’s renowned anti-apartheid singer Mariam “Mama Africa” Makeba with a number of her own renditions, Dana paused and, in a soft-spoken manner, described her involvement in advocacy for the role of arts and culture in Africa’s development.

“In post-colonialism we are not dealing with our identity,” she said. “What arts and culture do, more than bring back your humanity, it shows the next person your humanity and that mirrors their humanity and then they feel that you are familiar instead of a stranger, and once they feel you are familiar, they trust you enough to do business with you.  And that’s what we need in Africa. We need Africa to do business with herself.”

Arts and Culture at the center of Africa's development, Simphiwe Dana at the Apollo, Oct. 11, 2014 from Cfrittelli on Vimeo:

Simphiwe Dana at the Apollo: Arts and Culture at the center of Africa's development. Oct. 11, 2014

Indeed, Dana’s ballads cut across culture, with lyrics alternating between her native Xhosa and English.  One song, “Firebrand,” was inspired by a Malian-derived folk tune, and her powerful voice united the cosmopolitan audience with its beauty and timelessness.

Earlier this summer African Union (AU) Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma tasked Dana with making arts and humanities part of the AU’s “Vision 2063” agenda for the continent. In response, Dana created Africa Re-imagination Creative Huband invited 120 artists from 50 member countries and the diaspora to answer the question, “What will African culture and heritage be in 50 years?” The project aims to incorporate musicians and other artists into plans for the continent’s continued development, especially as Africa’s cultural currency remains high alongside economic growth.

The role of the humanities in Africa’s future will be further highlighted in an upcoming continental African Higher Education Summit hosted by the government of Senegal and organized by eleven stakeholder partners including the African Union to take place in Dakar, Senegal March 10-12, 2015. 

The theme of the summit, “revitalizing higher education for Africa’s future,” will undoubtedly include discussion on the role of humanities.  Would only the “Firebrand,” also an educationalist, grace it with a guest performance!

Watch a clip of Simphiwe Dana performing “Firebrand” at The Apollo in New York City.