A new wave of storytelling in Africa and the Diaspora is reinterpreting and globalizing narrative traditions, using digital tools and the power of the internet.

Being a creator in the African Diaspora means looking back. We look back at the stories we heard from our elders. As a child of the Tiv tribe in Nigeria, I heard a lot of folk-tales- they were about animals, humans and sometimes magic. In that classic Nigerian narrative tradition, people performed these stories during festivals, dressing up in costumes, assuming the identity of the characters, immersing the audience in the narrative. As a member of the Diaspora, looking back at these stories, and holding them tightly.

Those were essential lessons from our childhood. They define who we are, as designers, storytellers, and creators. However, living in 21st century communities in Africa and the West means that many of us struggle to maintain a physical connection to that. Instead, African and Diasporan creators are exploring new, digital ways to experience and interpret that narrative tradition. We are using code, interaction, and online networks to create and distribute new work, ensuring our stories are relevant for a modern, global audience.

Modern Transmission Patterns

An increasingly connected and influential African audience is looking to read and see stories that reflect themselves. For the Diaspora, this often means stories from back home (or at least their ancestors homes). They look for stories that capture the way Africa was, or is, or the way it will be, are an essential way to see themselves on the screen. In this digitally connected age, they look to access things online first, then seeking out other platforms and venues when the content calls for it.  

Credit Chris Saunders

Chris Saunders, a South African photographer and film director, describes that modern shift: the Internet has changed the way people perceive the African continent. We are not just a mysterious land mass in the middle of the map anymore, but an accessible multicultural pool of amazing undiscovered talent and processes. The Internet has also allowed creative people from the continent to showcase their work making it part of the broader creative consciousness.

So how are we adding out stories to the global creative consciousness?

Collapsing the Barrier to Entry

An internet search for storytelling tools returns a wealth of options. Many of them are blogs, website templates, tools to display content. Others are more focused on the act of creation itself, the editing of words, images, animation, and video. In the past, these tools would have been prohibitively expensive for African creators to access, learn, and then publish with (think magazines and newspaper production). Now, it can be as simple as writing a bit of code, buying a domain name, and launching projects. This lowered digital barrier to entry for storytellers has led to a great many African creators taking their tales online.

While traveling for a conference in Nigeria in 2012, I noted some specific technical limitations that storytellers and creators face. The first was in the move to more streaming and cloud-based subscription models for design software. Software makers like Adobe, and learning platforms like Lynda or Youtube, used by a large number of designers, started pushing their paid online access. While this works in areas of broadband and high connectivity, it means quite a bit of hardship for Lagosians I met, fighting with spotty internet connections.

Other innovations on the web have mitigated this issue somewhat. Professional storytellers now carry powerful computers in their pockets- smartphones. Apps and smartphone software now act as creative tools, with short movies, user research, and beautiful photographs all produced quickly and with a minimum of investment.

Reflecting Culture

It’s no secret that audiences love to see themselves reflected in the work they read and watch. African and Diasporan audiences are of course no different. In a rapidly modernizing culture, we see some features of stories that appeal to them, and containing both explicit and subtle clues to their origin and authorship.

In a widely discussed Nigerian version of the classic American show Sesame Street for Nigeria, called Sesame Square, we see some of this explicit origin highlighted. Rather than have the American Cookie Monster, Sesame Street created a Yam Monster named Zobi. Yams are a staple food in Nigeria, and this specific change makes it clear that the show is for West Africans. In an interview on CNN, Zobi the Yam Monster professes his love for yams- when asked about cookies, he pauses for a second, says sure, he likes them, and then goes back to highlighting all the benefits of yams. In more subtle ways, however, this is still an American story, even when changed and modified for Nigerian children. The format is still the American one, along with the visual style of the puppets and messages.

How about when a children’s story world is created and designed from the ground up in Nigeria? The cues to place and authorship are even more pronounced. Bino and Fino is an animated show set in urban Nigeria. The creator, Adamu Waziri, wanted to show "...a couple of kids in a middle class life, which I know isn't the reality of all the kids in Africa, but let's show that reality -- the reality of people using laptops, phones, going to school, doing their daily business -- no talking ants, no dancing 'jinga jinga' music -- just a cartoon of life." The illustrations in the show are very clearly in a Nigerian city, complete with all the street-side sellers, ramshackle concrete buildings, and scrubby trees.

Each of these approaches uses clear visuals and cultural cues from Nigeria, going about it in different ways. Their audiences are looking for different things too- one may want that Westernized Sesame Street learning experience for their children, while the other might want a truly Nigerian middle class experience. Each is valid, but shows now creators can, and do, modify their material to fit different audiences.

Aya of Yop City

Marguerite Abouet’s popular graphic novel series, Aya de Yopougon (Aya of Yop City), is another modern tale set in Yop City, a neighborhood of Abidjan. The books have been a global hit, with translations into numerous languages and even an animated film release.

Her novel explores some of the challenges that young women face in a modernizing 1970’s Ivory Coast. The main character Aya wants to become a doctor, but her friends are more into clubbing and dating. Indiewire described it as an “unexpected Africa, modern and urban”. The question that immediately arises, however is “Unexpected to who, exactly?”. For African audiences, Aya’s struggles with tradition and modernity are highly relatable and commonplace.

Audience Support and Engagement

In A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, Andrea Phillips says, ‘Allowing your audience to interact with your world can add tremendous depth of engagement.” Adebayo Adegbembo does this at Genii Games, a collection of children’s apps and videos for learning about African cultures. He hosts regular visual workshops with young Nigerians, where they work together to discover more about their culture, design characters for the apps, and even record their voices for story voice-overs. This sort of audience engagement and building of cultural ownership within Genni narratives is a great way of creating and keeping an engaged audience.

We see creators who are outside the Western mainstream using social media to further their reputation and craft. In a recent New York Times Article lamenting the dearth of African photographers documenting African stories, one detail stood out. Andrew Esiebo, a West African freelance photographer, uses Instagram to build and speak to an international audience. He has over 91,000 followers. In his words, “I tell younger photographers that the internet can make you equal with anyone in the world...It has been a great tool to push my work out there.” We see again and again that those collapsing barriers to entry come through the wide reach of the internet.

Marketing and Funding Stories

Another recognizable feature of new African storytelling is the ways in which it gets funded. Traditional avenues for fundraising and publicity are still very much tied to white, male, Western methodologies- back-channels, institutional support, and personal funding. Getting these same types of backers for African and Diasporan creators is still incredibly difficult. They simply don’t have ready access to those well honed channels.

Instead, they are leveraging direct online contact with their audiences to crowdfund projects and build a following. This shift is important in a few ways. First, creators must build and define their audiences very early on, using social media as a marketing tool. Second, the audiences end up participating in aspects of the stories development, commenting on work-in-progress.

Global platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon offer a way to do this. Creators go directly to their audience, offering rewards, updates, and content in return for financial support. It upends that traditional gatekeeper relationship, removing the middleman and substituting a digital interface.

Projects like Gomela, a story and examination of the Black/African culture in New Orleans, and its patterns of displacement and renewal, from Stephanie McKee and Sunni Patterson, was awarded a 2015 New England Foundation of the Arts (NEFA) National Theater Project (NTP) creation and touring grant.

While that was an impressive achievement, McKee and Patterson needed additional support to make their project a reality. They used a c campaign to raise funds for more performances. One of the rewards was tickets to a performance of the backers choice. Gomela accomplished both marketing AND ticket sales goals on a single platform. This collapsing of formerly separate business and outreach functions is a very exciting development in the creative world, and one that Black/Diasporan artists capitalizing on very quickly.

Take also the story of Kariba, a fantasy-adventure graphic novel from Daniel Clarke. An illustrator of Zimbabwean descent, he used crowdfunding to tell the story of the construction of one of the largest dams ever built in southern Africa, along with the mythology and history surrounding it. His project was wildly popular, eventually becoming over 200% funded. His audience loved the narrative of haphazard economic development, family folklore, fantastical look at life in modern southern africa. These kinds of stories are being conceived, funded, and marketed online, with creators taking their work directly to those who want to see it.

Defining a Black Screen Aesthetic

In 2016, Beyoncé, the American singer and actress, released Lemonade. It is a conceptual visual album and movie, calling on a wide variety of Black American and African culture and music. The critically acclaimed project inspired dozens of articles on the Osun (pronounced Oshun) deity, a Yoruba water goddess of female sensuality, love and fertility. In multiple scenes, Beyoncé appears as the orisha, or goddess, underwater, or with water rushing past her. This created interest in the Yoruba religion, one that spans West Africa and Latin America. She took a uniquely African mythology and represented it beautifully on screen.

The global storytelling juggernaut that is Nollywood comes with its own particular visual aesthetic. Professor Onookome Okome, an expert on the Nollywood film industry in Nigeria, said that although Nollywood films have a hybrid character that we see in many forms of African art, the movies heavy focus on local issues and culture gives them “unprecedented acceptability” globally. The “playful narratives of the social and cultural life of the Nigerian postcolony” are nuanced, while still opposing the dominant capitalist themes of global cinema. With the use of often poorly crafted special effects and digital post-production effects, Nigerian filmmakers appropriate these digital media techniques and still succeed in focusing on hyperlocal stories and visual culture.

In the past, Nollywood directors and media houses were hurt by illegal dubbing and sales of bootleg tapes, because of the wide global demand for their cultural product. Professor Kaia Niambi Shivers noted that Nollywood films were “being purchased by Caribbean migrants, African-Americans, European immigrants, white Americans, Chinese-migrants, along with African migrant groups, yet the local market in Nigeria does not acknowledge these audiences as producers of power or knowledge in shaping the film’s content or influencing the  operations of the industry.” That meant the essential two-way street of creation and consumption was broken down.

Now, however, we see changes in this attitude. Iroko TV became one of the first streaming video companies in Africa, sending Nollywood films and shows to audiences in the West who loved the narratives and aesthetic. Iroko and its competitors have since become a multi-million dollar business, proving the allure of the movies and the ways that technology can build engaged audiences.

Martine Syms is an artist based in California. In a recent essay, she explores the depiction and definition of blackness on the web. Can “blackness” as an aesthetic quality be expressed on screen? ... Blackness can be read from a number of positions, whether collective as in Nicole Miller’s “The Alphabet” or contextual as in The Hip Hop Word Count. Yet this proliferation of meanings doesn’t render the concept meaningless. Multivalence is a blueprint for building the web and other large networks.

It is that multivalence, the ability to see and live in multiple spheres, that signifies African and Diasporan digital storytelling. It is the hybrid character that Okome talks about. It is the cultural remixes of Western and traditional, the modes of viewing and being viewed, always with a thread of “blackness” running through them.

So what do those multiple threads look like?

Transmedia Stories

Transmedia is the use of multiple media channels, both on and offline, to tell stories. With the power of the internet, this means it is becoming a crucial new form of distributed storytelling, with different pieces and perspectives of the narrative on the web, radio, video, and in print.  

Love Radio is a beautiful example of a transmedia experience that tells a truly African story. The program is about reconciliation and love in a post-genocide Rwanda. It revolves around Musekeweya, ‘New Dawn’, a popular radio soap created to stop fresh outbursts of violence.

Created by Anoek Steketee & Eefje Blankevoort, the project runs on a dual track- the radio soap's fictional story ‘On Air’ is the audio, while the ‘Off Air’ is digital reading that allows you  to learn about the complex reality of today’s Rwanda.

But what happens when technology finally catches up to the original vision of the creator? In the interactive documentary from Submarine Channel, Lagos Wide & Close gives us an in-depth look at the huge African Metropolis. You follow a bus driver, Olawole Busayo, as he moves and works though the hectic and occasionally dangerous city. The site offers two views- “a more removed (‘wide’) perspective of Lagos, and an intimate encounter with the city and its people (‘close’)” interspersed with audio tracks and commentary from the architect Rem Koolhaus. The site is an engaging collection of a variety of media and perspectives, offering another example of immersive transmedia storytelling.

The Role of Technology

In a 2015 interview, the South African writer and curator Lindokuhle Nkosi speaks about the role of technology in knowledge production and innovation. “Central to future projection is technology ... How our current structures, like race, in themselves are technologies that were created to justify colonialism and slavery. So in interrogating the intersection of black culture and imagination, I’m looking at how we use technology as the language of that meeting point.“

Nkosi asks what we mean when we talk about “access” to technology- are we simply reusing design and storytelling tools created elsewhere, or are we deconstructing them and owning them? In African digital storytelling, I see both happening. Some creators take a strong lead in using and perfecting these existing technologies, while others are “re-engineering” things in new ways.

Existing, app-based social platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are plug and play, requiring little set-up effort of technical knowledge. The obvious and dangerous downside is that they are completely controlled by large corporations, along with all your gathered data. They are a different form of colonization, and their guided nature limits the expressiveness of digital stories on those platforms. On the other hand, simple HTML and CSS allow creators to make wildly original stories online, and retain control of them, for the price of a domain and time.

Pixel Fable is one such project. Over the past 6 years, I have illustrated, coded, and built a number of digital stories, all based around African and Afrofuturist themes. With html, css, and javascript, I am able to make each story come to life, adding interactivity and malleability to the web pages. One story used augmented reality to project animations via webcams, while another one allowed the audience to switch story locales to their preferred location.  The language of code becomes the language of my stories, creating a small archive of interactive narrative. It’s my hope that these small experiments can be at that intersection of Black culture and imagination.

Collaborations and Cross-functional Digital Stories

Local Johannesburg tailor sewing pleats on the Dr.Pachanga collaboration. Photo by Chris Saunders.

As the internet deepens it reach over the world, digital tools that 15 years ago may have seemed like science fiction are now being used to collaborate and develop new art and stories. A 2014 experimental fashion and photography project between New York fashion designer Jenny Lai and Johannesburg photographer Chris Saunders shows how this cross-cultural collaboration can work. Lai worked with a number of South African designers and artists, while Saunders documented the process. When asked about what developments were affecting the creative world most, Lai noted that, The Internet has flattened the world, in the way that I can discover a South African photographer’s work while sitting at my desk in New York... Instagram has made cult heroes out of young and savvy kids, who in turn have become important commodities for big brands looking for an insider. … However, obviously, access to the Internet and these technologies determines how much it actually affects the creatives of a particular city.”

This project created a number or works of art, collaborative projects with South African artists. But perhaps it was the narrative around that collaboration, the story of how it came to be, that is classic form of storytelling. We see the artists coming together, first over Skype, and online, then in person in South Africa, working through ideas and creations. Saunders photographs of the collaboration exist largely online, on blogs and fundraising campaigns; they are alluring precisely because of the global reach, and the creators story that runs though each shot. Sometimes the story is the process.

African digital natives are using African tales as the basis for new forms of narrative. Designers and storytellers are looking for new, digital ways to experience and interpret them. Using code, interaction, and online networks, we are able to create new interactive work based on those African narrative traditions, while ensuring the stories are relevant for a modern, distributed audience We are collaborating with developers, performance artists, and illustrators to create dense new digital traditions. Stories from African culture, transformed by the web, are being brought to a new global audience. The interaction and accessibility of digital tools can reinterpret and preserve African storytelling.

(originally written in January 2016)