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The ‘Jerusalema’ Phenomenon Shows Africa’s Trendsetting Abilities

Written by South African producer and DJ Master KG with vocalist Nomcebo Zikode, “Jerusalema” started life as a rhythmic South African gospel track, and grew with the addition of the Nigerian Afrobeats star Burna Boy‘s voice. It then raced to every corner of the globe in the form of the #jerusalemadancechallenge. Master KG attributed the moves in the dance to a group of Angolan fans who put together a candid video, which quickly reached Portugal given their colonial connection and spread from there.


READ: South African Artist Master KG’s 2019 Hit Single ‘Jerusalema’ is Going Viral Globally

In my mid-20s, I tried very hard to look like 80’s pop icon Grace Jones – remember her? My height, my colour and my cheekbones helped, but it was really my choice of clothing and of course the distinctive Grace Jones haircut that sealed it.

Back in the good old days, imitation was deemed to be the sincerest form of flattery and I was a fan of the now 72-year-old model, fashionista, actress, singer and all round trendsetter. The very word ‘imitate’ itself implies there are ideas, images, behaviours, music and dance worth imitating in the first place. So when the South African song “Jerusalema clocked up nearly 74 million views on YouTube this month and triggered a global dance craze. It was wonderful to see the tacit acknowledgment of African creativity that quite literally moved the world.

The original “Jerusalema” video portrays authentic aspects of township life in South Africa with an energy, rawness and soundtrack that is unapologetically African. It’s also incredibly catchy – I defy you to listen to it with moving. Social media soon picked up on it and we saw nuns and monks in France; an Italian and German flash mob; healthworkers in South Africa and a grooving bride and groom in Zimbabwe attempting to perfect the steps that have become ubiquitous along with the song. Soon enough, enterprising YouTubers started offering tutorials and a global movement that started in Africa was launched. The continent, which is so often perceived as being a follower – lacking innovation and creativity – suddenly became a global trend setter.

“The continent, which is so often perceived as being a follower – lacking innovation and creativity – suddenly became a global trend setter.”

But the “Jerusalema” phenomenon poses an underlying question for me about why there are so few well-publicised examples of Africans setting trends and leading creative and innovative ideas.

This perception of a lack of creativity and innovation coming out of Africa was confirmed when Africa No Filter conducted some analysis on how global media references the continent. Between 2017 and 2020 the number of mentions of Africa within the context of “creativity” and “innovation” was surprisingly low and has been in decline – especially when compared to references of Africa alongside “corruption” and “conflict”. The data shows that media across the world – including on the continent itself – is simply not finding or writing stories of innovation that feature Africa as the protagonist. Hardly surprising, then, that neither term is synonymous with the continent. The challenge is that the prevailing narratives about Africa have no room to include or celebrate trendsetters.


Master KG – Jerusalema [Feat. Nomcebo] (Official Music Video)

www.youtube.com

Despite its success, for many “Jerusalema” is an anomaly; a fun distraction from the current pandemic. It’s a distraction that feeds the expected and the afro-optimistic narrative of the “singing and dancing African”, the sister narrative to the uninformed “Africa is mostly a place of wildlife and nature” perspective.

Yet, I hope that the song’s global reach will have some deeper impact. It should at the very least challenge the perception that Africa is only ever a beneficiary of global trends, creativity, innovation and hopefully replace it with the realisation that it’s also capable of starting them.

“Don’t forget this is the continent that gave the world many firsts.”

Don’t forget this is the continent that gave the world many firsts: the first numeric system, the earliest calendar, the world’s oldest architectural masterpieces, the heart and the penile transplant, and the most successful mobile money platform to date. The challenge is these facts are not easy to find – especially when no one is looking for them.

Although we don’t really know the perfect storm of ingredients that trigger global trends, “Jerusalema” unexpectedly captured the global zeitgeist. It could be dismissed as merely a social media moment – and this opinion about it overly analytical – but the song and the dance have provided inspiration for this continent and set the bar for what is possible when we unleash our creativity unfiltered. It’s exactly what sparks the desire to imitate.

Moky Makura is the Executive Director of Africa No Filter, an organisation working to shift African narratives by crowding in new, progressive stories about the continent.

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