Levering Expectations: Young People and Popular Arts Culture in Africa

deadline for submissions: 
September 19, 2016
full name / name of organization: 
Paul Ugor and Esther de Bruijn

Since Karen Barber theorized the notion of “African popular arts” nearly thirty years ago (1987), a rich field of scholarship has developed around the term, exploring forms of local African expression by the people, for the people, and most often, about the people. The concept of African popular culture has been applied to a vast array of cultural forms in Africa ranging from Onitsha pamphlet literature to Kenyan matatu minibus inscriptions, Ghanaian Concert party theatre, Angolan hip-hop, Nollywood video films, Cameroonian detective fiction, Congolese Sapeur fashion, South African cartooning, trans-continental TV shows like Big Brother Africa, and much more.  

Surprisingly, although most of this “unofficial” creative work is produced by young people and for a young audience, very little critical attention has been paid to why it matters that the main participants in these expressive arts are young people. According to the latest African Union Commission report, Africa is “the most youthful continent,” with 65% of the total population below 35 years and 35% between 15 and 35 years of age. In a sense, what we are in the habit of calling “the masses” in the study of African popular culture are the mass of young people in the continent. This book of collected essays seeks to draw attention to the implications of young people’s centrality in producing, circulating and consuming these vibrant arts that resonate so thoroughly with local audiences all across Africa and beyond.

We are particularly interested in exploring how the popular production by and for African young people functions as a cultural lever—how the popular arts wield influence not only as they narrativize the struggle and dreams of the current moment, but also as they interrogate and challenge postcolonial and global institutions and authorities; in short, as they manifest the everyday life politics of young people. How young people’s popular arts may lever or “shift” (Durham 2004) local expectations and understandings may be addressed in response to questions such as these: 

  • How do popular arts contribute to or define how “young people,” “youth,” or “children” are categorized in particular African contexts?
  • What kinds of futures are imagined that are different because the producers and/or consumers are young?
  • What models of youth agency do we find, and in what way might young people’s popular arts make us reconsider or redefine youth agency?
  • In works that imagine the future, what sorts of tensions does one find between the lure of hope and the fear of failure?
  • What new identity politics are evident, and what spawns those identity politics?
  • In what ways is risk productive for young artists and audiences, and to what extent does risk limit their artistic ventures?
  • What social liberties specifically afforded to young people manifest in these popular arts? To what effect?
  • What socio-economic, political and cultural conditions shape young people’s involvement in the production of popular culture in Africa?
  • In what ways do the popular arts reflect the delimitations of a neo-liberal economic order?
  • How does youth artistic expression engage with globally circulating commodities?
  • Since popular artistry involves “poaching” on other forms (Newell 2000), both traditional and modern, what kind of “poaching” do these popular cultural forms exhibit? To what extent do they draw on Western popular culture or popular forms of the Global South?
  • To what extent are the sites of production rural or urban, and what are the ramifications of place?
  • How is playing represented and valued?
  • In what ways does the enjoyment that young people create establish links between generations or other social networks?
  • What forms of interconnectivities, interdependencies, or mutualities (Durham 2008) are represented or encouraged?

We plan to submit the edited book of essays for publication to a reputable academic press such as the University of Indiana Press, Ohio University Press, the Cultural Spaces series of the University of Toronto Press, or the African Articulations series of James Currey press.

Interested scholars are invited to submit a short abstract (between 250 and 400 words) plus a short bio by September 19, 2016 to the following email address: africanyouthcultures@gmail.com.

The deadline for full articles will be December 31, 2016.


Paul Ugor, PhD                              Esther de Bruijn, PhD

Assistant Professor                          Assistant Professor

Illinois State University                    University of Lethbridge

Normal, IL                                    Lethbridge, AB