It’s moments to midnight on Thursday night at Medicine Bar in London. Zak, boy-genius DJ, is spinning a Fela Kuti remix. The little downstairs dancefloor swells with smiling, sweating men and women fusing hip-hop dance moves with a funky sort of djembe. The women show off enormous afros, tiny t-shirts, gaps in teeth; the men those incredible torsos unique to and common on African coastlines. The whole scene speaks of the Cultural Hybrid: kente cloth worn over low-waisted jeans; ‘African Lady’ over Ludacris bass lines; London meets Lagos meets Durban meets Dakar. Even the DJ is an ethnic fusion: Nigerian and Romanian; fair, fearless leader; bobbing his head as the crowd reacts to a sample of ‘Sweet Mother’.
Were you to ask any of these beautiful, brown-skinned people that basic question – ‘where are you from?’ – you’d get no single answer from a single smiling dancer. This one lives in London but was raised in Toronto and born in Accra; that one works in Lagos but grew up in Houston, Texas. ‘Home’ for this lot is many things: where their parents are from; where they go for vacation; where they went to school; where they see old friends; where they live (or live this year). Like so many African young people working and living in cities around the globe, they belong to no single geography, but feel at home in many.
They (read: we) are Afropolitans – the newest generation of African emigrants, coming soon or collected already at a law firm/chem lab/jazz lounge near you. You’ll know us by our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes. Some of us are ethnic mixes, e.g. Ghanaian and Canadian, Nigerian and Swiss; others merely cultural mutts: American accent, European affect, African ethos. Most of us are multilingual: in addition to English and a Romantic or two, we understand some indigenous tongue and speak a few urban vernaculars. There is at least one place on The African Continent to which we tie our sense of self: be it a nation-state (Ethiopia), a city (Ibadan), or an auntie’s kitchen. Then there’s the G8 city or two (or three) that we know like the backs of our hands, and the various institutions that know us for our famed focus. We are Afropolitans: not citizens, but Africans of the world.
It isn’t hard to trace our genealogy. Starting in the 60’s, the young, gifted and broke left Africa in pursuit of higher education and happiness abroad. A study conducted in 1999 estimated that between 1960 and 1975 around 27,000 highly skilled Africans left the Continent for the West. Between 1975 and 1984, the number shot to 40,000 and then doubled again by 1987, representing about 30% of Africa’s highly skilled manpower. Unsurprisingly, the most popular destinations for these emigrants included Canada, Britain, and the United States; but Cold War politics produced unlikely scholarship opportunities in Eastern Bloc countries like Poland, as well.
Some three decades later this scattered tribe of pharmacists, physicists, physicians (and the odd polygamist) has set up camp around the globe. The caricatures are familiar. The Nigerian physics professor with faux-Coogi sweater; the Kenyan marathonist with long legs and rolled r’s; the heavyset Gambian braiding hair in a house that smells of burnt Kanekalon. Even those unacquainted with synthetic extensions can conjure an image of the African immigrant with only the slightest of pop culture promptings: Eddie Murphy’s ‘Hello, Babar.’ But somewhere between the 1988 release of Coming to America and the 2001 crowning of a Nigerian Miss World, the general image of young Africans in the West transmorphed from goofy to gorgeous. Leaving off the painful question of cultural condescenscion in that beloved film, one wonders what happened in the years between Prince Akeem and Queen Agbani?
One answer is: adolescence. The Africans that left Africa between 1960 and 1975 had children, and most overseas. Some of us were bred on African shores then shipped to the West for higher education; others born in much colder climates and sent home for cultural re-indoctrination. Either way, we spent the 80’s chasing after accolades, eating fufu at family parties, and listening to adults argue politics. By the turn of the century (the recent one), we were matching our parents in number of degrees, and/or achieving things our ‘people’ in the grand sense only dreamed of. This new demographic – dispersed across Brixton, Bethesda, Boston, Berlin – has come of age in the 21st century, redefining what it means to be African. Where our parents sought safety in traditional professions like doctoring, lawyering, banking, engineering, we are branching into fields like media, politics, music, venture capital, design. Nor are we shy about expressing our African influences (such as they are) in our work. Artists such as Keziah Jones, Trace founder and editor Claude Gruzintsky, architect David Adjaye, novelist Chimamanda Achidie – all exemplify what Gruzintsky calls the ‘21st century African.’
What distinguishes this lot and its like (in the West and at home) is a willingness to complicate Africa – namely, to engage with, critique, and celebrate the parts of Africa that mean most to them. Perhaps what most typifies the Afropolitan consciousness is the refusal to oversimplify; the effort to understand what is ailing in Africa alongside the desire to honor what is wonderful, unique. Rather than essentialising the geographical entity, we seek to comprehend the cultural complexity; to honor the intellectual and spiritual legacy; and to sustain our parents’ cultures.
For us, being African must mean something. The media’s portrayals (war, hunger) won’t do. Neither will the New World trope of bumbling, blue-black doctor. Most of us grew up aware of ‘being from’ a blighted place, of having last names from to countries which are linked to lack, corruption. Few of us escaped those nasty ‘booty-scratcher’ epithets, and fewer still that sense of shame when visting paternal villages. Whether we were ashamed of ourselves for not knowing more about our parents’ culture, or ashamed of that culture for not being more ‘advanced’ can be unclear. What is manifest is the extent to which the modern adolescent African is tasked to forge a sense of self from wildly disparate sources. You’d never know it looking at those dapper lawyers in global firms, but most were once supremely self-conscious of being so ‘in between’. Brown-skinned without a bedrock sense of ‘blackness,’ on the one hand; and often teased by African family members for ‘acting white’ on the other – the baby-Afropolitan can get what I call ‘lost in transnation’.
Ultimately, the Afropolitan must form an identity along at least three dimensions: national, racial, cultural – with subtle tensions in between. While our parents can claim one country as home, we must define our relationship to the places we live; how British or American we are (or act) is in part a matter of affect. Often unconsciously, and over time, we choose which bits of a national identity (from passport to pronunciation) we internalize as central to our personalities. So, too, the way we see our race – whether black or biracial or none of the above – is a question of politics, rather than pigment; not all of us claim to be black. Often this relates to the way we were raised, whether proximate to other brown people (e.g. black Americans) or removed. Finally, how we conceive of race will accord with where we locate ourselves in the history that produced ‘blackness’ and the political processes that continue to shape it.
Then there is that deep abyss of Culture, ill-defined at best. One must decide what comprises ‘African culture’ beyond pepper soup and filial piety. The project can be utterly baffling – whether one lives in an African country or not. But the process is enriching, in that it expands one’s basic perspective on nation and selfhood. If nothing else, the Afropolitan knows that nothing is neatly black or white; that to ‘be’ anything is a matter of being sure of who you are uniquely. To ‘be’ Nigerian is to belong to a passionate nation; to be Yoruba, to be heir to a spiritual depth; to be American, to ascribe to a cultural breadth; to be British, to pass customs quickly. That is, this is what it means for me – and that is the Afropolitan privilege. The acceptance of complexity common to most African cultures is not lost on her prodigals. Without that intrinsically multi-dimensional thinking, we could not make sense of ourselves.
And if it all sounds a little self-congratulatory, a little ‘aren’t-we-the-coolest-damn-people-on-earth?’ – I say: yes it is, necessarily. It is high time the African stood up. There is nothing perfect in this formulation; for all our Adjayes and Achidies, there is a brain drain back home. Most Afropolitans could serve Africa better in Africa than at Medicine Bar on Thursdays. To be fair, a fair number of African professionals are returning; and there is consciousness among the ones who remain, an acute awareness among this brood of too-cool-for-schools that there’s work to be done. There are those among us who wonder to the point of weeping: where next, Africa? When will the scattered tribes return? When will the talent repatriate? What lifestyles await young professionals at home? How to invest in Africa’s future? The prospects can seem grim at times. The answers aren’t forthcoming. But if there was ever a group who could figure it out, it is this one, unafraid of the questions.
The crisis began – as crises are wont to do – at my best friend's wedding. Jamaica wasn't the obvious choice for what Jess likes to call "the whitest wedding on Earth". But there we sat smiling at the Rose Hall Ritz-Carlton, the hotel's all-brown staff smiling too. The salad had been served, the bread rolls broken and buttered, and now the reception began properly with polite conversation: how do you know the happy couple, where have you flown in from? I'd been placed between Clara, fair fellow alumna of Milton Academy and Yale University, and Percy, the third and presumably final husband of Jess's grandmum. With graceful concision, Clara told our tablemates where she came from: Brookline, prep school, Harvard Law School. Percy turned to me.
"And where are you from?" he asked in that accent I've only heard on Beacon Hill, in films about the Kennedys, and drinking with my agent. Boston Brahmin, baritone. A bit of extra weight on "you", as if the question mark belonged to me (the questionable thing), not "from". I gave the answer I always give, the answer I'd give if you asked me now, refined by years of daily practice, available in multiple languages. "I'm not sure where I'm from! I was born in London. My father's from Ghana but lives in Saudi Arabia. My mother's Nigerian but lives in Ghana. I grew up in Boston." Here I'll pause for reaction – soft chuckles of confusion, some statement along the lines of "You're a citizen of the world!" – then open the floor to any follow-up questions about any of the countries I've mentioned. Until last autumn at my best friend's wedding, I'd never really noticed the shame in this answer – which isn't to say that I'd never considered my angst about the question.
I had thought about it most cogently in 2005, having abandoned a DPhil in international relations to follow my dream, then some 20 years old, of writing for a living. Taking baby steps from footnotes to fiction, I wrote a short and personal essay on Africans who shared my trouble with the question "where are you from?". The piece – "Bye-Bye, Babar: Or, What is an Afropolitan?" – struck a chord with young Africans and people who love us, and by 2011 I was watching in wonder as my personal essay grew wings. It was a writer's dream: to have put into words some single truth of individual experience, to watch those words find a home in the world, that truth a thousand mirrors. "I am not an alien!" my self rejoiced. "I am not alone! There are others!"
There were. But they weren't at the whitest wedding on Earth. And here began the crisis. "How in the world did Jess find you?" asked Percy, chuckling. I bristled. My rattling off of disparate countries, well rehearsed, was meant to speak of international savoir faire, not render me a "find".
Clara kindly intervened. "Taiye went to Milton and Yale with me."
Still, Percy furrowed his bushy brows. "So you didn't grow up with your parents?"
"My mother raised my sister and me in Brookline," I offered.
"Without your father?"
"He's lived in Saudi Arabia for most of my life." I drained my wine and looked for more. Only now did I notice the room's demographics. "He's about to retire to Ghana," I added.
"Retire? Oh my! How old is he?"
"Seventy-five next year. My mum's much younger. She came third."
"Your father had three wives at once?"
A Jamaican waiter arrived with wine. But I couldn't steady my wine glass. I excused myself to go to the restroom and stumbled down the carpeted hallway, kicking off my platform heels and trying not to cry. A waitress, passing me, nodded with meaning and I nodded equally meaningfully back, in that gentle way in which brown people often acknowledge each other's presence. The instant's exchange reminded me of what I often overlook: my minority status. I'd just locked the stall when I started to sob, without quite knowing why.
Thus spoke Ileane Ellsworth, my healer-cum-therapist-cum-psychic-cum-life-coach, attempting to release my solar plexus in her office on East 20th. It was an emergency session: I'd returned from Jamaica in emotional disrepair, unable to sleep or eat or stop crying, all because of one comment. "I wasn't ashamed! I was angry!" I raged. "He's a third bloody husband himself, for chrissake. If I were white, he'd never have thought my dad had three wives at once."
Ileane, beside me, pressed on my chest. "Why does this make you so angry?" she cooed.
"Because he's racist!" I cried. This may well not have been true. The truth came next. "And he's right."
Percy was right. My Saudi-based father, an incredible surgeon trained in Edinburgh, had two wives in Ghana when he proposed to my mother, his student in Lusaka. None the wiser, my mum said yes, and was seven months pregnant, in London, in love, when she learned that her lover was two women's husband and promptly went into labour. My twin sister and I arrived two months early, weighing three-and-a-half and four pounds respectively; our mum, herself an incredible paediatrician, nursed us back to health. Our father beat a swift retreat to King Faisal University in South Arabia to teach trauma surgery. Twelve years later we'd meet him again at Heathrow airport. Here – the year I transferred to Milton, befriending Jess my BFF – is where I first remember ever seeing the second of my parents. My mum had decided that it was time for us to know our progenitor and chose England as a halfway point between Al-Khobar and Brookline. Backstory: single, still living in London, she'd gone on a date with an American professor on sabbatical from MIT, visiting his cousin, the wife of the Senegalese ambassador. It was love at first sight. They married months later and returned to his faculty housing in Boston. A decade on, she'd left the husband but kept the job at Children's Hospital. So it was that I flew from Boston at 12 years old in LL Bean loafers, a British citizen with a suburban American accent, to meet my father.
Of course, all of this was missing from that standard issue answer in which I appeared a browner, younger Carmen Sandiego. "My father's from Ghana but he lives in Saudi Arabia" omitted the fact of his decade-long absence, while implying that I, too, was somehow "from Ghana", a tenuous claim at best. I was 15 years old when I first went to Ghana. I'd spent more time in Switzerland (where my godfather was a diplomat) and Spain (where my half-Scottish grandmum was mastering flamenco) than in Africa. I'd been to the continent only once before: to Nigeria, at seven and without my mum, whose painful adolescence in London and Lagos had left her with no love of home. "My mother's Nigerian but she lives in Ghana" omitted this fact: that she'd starved as a child, abandoned by her mother to fend for herself and her siblings on her grandfather's cocoa farm. It was my great-aunt who took me at seven years old to this family estate in Abeokuta, the famed hometown of Fela Kuti. I absolutely loved it. But my mum never taught me Yoruba – which I'd study, with comical results, at Yale – and I heard not a word of my father's Ewe until I turned 15. When I finally went to Accra that Christmas I discovered among other things: sugarloaf pineapple, hip-life music, and my father's other offspring. One was the child of his first wife Vivian; three of his (late) second wife Juliana; a fifth, of yet a different mum, had died under mysterious circumstances. As much as I adored the city of Accra, preferring it to Malaga and Lausanne by far, my first trip to Ghana was tainted by these fraught familial dynamics.
In the years to come I'd return for Christmases, not with my father but with friends of my mum. When she moved to Ghana in 2001 Accra became our base. My writing about Afropolitans took its texture from this sense of place, the tastes and smells and sounds that still make Ghana feel like home. And yet, hidden in my earnest exultation of Afropolitan-ness was an old and deep unease with being, very simply, African. In giving a name to a demographic, I'd assumed the role of advocate for more accurate portrayals of Africa – but wasn't sure I deserved it. Once, at a dinner for VS Naipaul, I was asked to toast Sir Vidia; I said, very genuinely, how much I admired how little he heeded his critics. Who was he to speak on behalf of the Caribbean, his detractors cried. Mine had a similar axe to grind: how African was I, really? Funny thing is, I'd resolved this particular identity crisis, at least for me. I was Afropolitan, dammit! I spoke for the Body AfroPolitic! It wasn't the identity issue – was I African enough to write about Africa? – that compromised my advocacy. No, the problem was my family.
There I was, heartily lauding Ghana in all of its peace-loving, hard-working glory, only to spiral out at one comment about my Ghanaian father. I was passionate about Africa, yes, but wasn't proud. I couldn't be. My tie to Africa – my African father – was standing in the way. Ileane was right. What I'd felt in Jamaica was shame about my family saga: the poverty, polygamy, one stereotype of African dysfunction after another. It had always seemed a matter of mere politesse to skip these sordid details when describing to a stranger who I was. But my grief at Percy's (spot-on) guess suggested something else at work: a need to obscure both where and who I came from. Intellectually, I perceived myself as a product and champion of modern west Africa. Emotionally, I perceived myself as a west African polygamist's daughter. What I needed was some other way to know myself as African, apart from as heir to my parents' hurts.
For this, I had to go home.
That very heavy word, with all the flaws of all ideals, a standard nowhere ever meets, a gold and leaden star. For 15 years I'd gone to Ghana desperately seeking home writ large, ignoring my role in the relationship, the "I" in "I had to go home". For half my life I'd travelled home and left myself, my truth, behind: arriving in Ghana and assuming the role of (illegitimate) Prodigal Daughter. I was disappointed, naturally, in the ways that home-seeking prodigals are, dismayed to find my otherness in tact among my own. But I had never been myself in Ghana. The self I'd become in 30 years: the author, photographer, screenwriter, traveller, designer, thinker. I'd spent months at a time in Oxford, Paris, New York, New Delhi, and always felt at home: for I experienced those cities, experienced myself, as a creator, not a creation. Returning home after Jess's wedding – to Rome, my latest choice of city – I wondered at this: I'd never created an experience in Africa. My father had, my mother had; they'd dreamed and learned and loved, and left. I'd walked in their shadows, but not in my shoes. It was time for a trip.
The summer I finished my first novel Ghana Must Go, I drove across west Africa: from Accra to Lomé to Cotonou to the deliciously named Ouagadougou. This time I took myself along, my writer-traveller-photographer-self, with a project: photographing twentysomethings in 54 African cities. The stated aim was a photography book, a collective portrait of the young adults so conspicuously absent from western media's portrayals of urban Africa. The politically minded observer in me had grown weary of the imagery: the wizened elders, the wide-eyed children hugging volunteers. So I armed myself at B&H Photo and asked two friends to come along: Bliss Holloway the cinematographer and Taneisha Berg the documentarian. Our cheery if cash-strapped crew set off to capture the birth of my photo project – but six weeks in it was suddenly clear that there was a film to be made. We've now resolved to fundraise for a full-length documentary: a lively look at the days and dreams of African twentysomethings.
Of course, my deepest aim was personal: not to "find myself" in Africa but to be myself on African soil. This I did. And how. In Ouaga I danced until 5am at Allapalooza, a western-themed club, watched movies at a feminist film festival, wandered a sculpture park in the desert. Adama, our charming host, was an Afropolitan of the highest order: a Muslim musician with a Viennese wife, studying German at the Goethe Institute, uninterested in living anywhere else apart from Burkina Faso. Togo was a seaside treat: like Malibu with motorini, miles and miles of white-sand beach and perfect rows of palm trees. Thursday at midnight, we stood on that beach with hundreds of super-cool Togolese hipsters, assembled for the weekly late-night car tricks show and drag race. Cotonou was magic, too: I learned to sail in a hidden lagoon, swilled Eku (Afro-Bavarian beer) at Saloon, a riverfront bar. But the hometown – Accra – was the real revelation, what with its International Salsa Congress, midnight swimming at La Villa Hotel, guitarist Serwaa Okudzeto. The city had changed, but not so much; I felt it differently, intimately. I could see myself in these African cities: a designer in the vibrant clothes, a screenwriter in the desert scenes, a poet in the rhythms. I began to say that I wanted an "I ❤ Heart of Darkness" T-shirt, and only half in jest. The journey had cured my Percy Problem at last. This wasn't my parents' Africa, the past, that static site of hurt and home. It was mine: dynamic now. This wasn't some "real" west Africa either. It was my west Africa, my version of home, not just a place, but a way to be in – a way to know – the world.
Leaving Accra to fly back to Rome, I presented my passport at customs. The Ghanaian agent, reading my name, didn't bother with "where are you from?". "Selasi! So you're an Ewe!" He beamed.
"My father's …" I started, then stopped. I smiled. "Yes. I am."
"Safe journey," he said. "Come home soon."