By Toyin Falola
My life is a long story. People think I am wealthy. They get angry if I don’t give them money when they ask. People think I am powerful. They get angry if I don’t give them the connections they want. Even as I write, I have received requests from people asking me to push them forward for ministerial appointments or “something small” as that of Nigeria’s Ambassador to the Gambia. They want to exploit my little connections with our Jagaban, the Asiwaju of Nigeria, Alhaji Dr Chief Ahmed Bola Tinubu, the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This is the fate of the big man, “My Oga at the top!”
They want more. They want me to release the criminals in prison, bail out the crooks, and give them jobs in the nearest local government area. Falola is now the Area Fada; he can double as a criminal and ask M. C. Oluomo to vacate his office for three days.
TF is also the Don! Angry undergraduate students who want an A grade for little work are angry. Graduate students, the climbers who want to succeed without morality, are angry. The one who imagines himself as a Nobel laureate thinks he is smarter than you. He models his achievements after you, but he hates you.
The Don can be a Baba Isale, the person you want to chair your son’s wedding ceremony, thinking he will donate half your expenses. The Baba Isale can get you land to buy, but he can also take it from you. He is the “head nigga” in charge. Don’t confuse the use of nigga in Nigeria with the prohibited one of “Nigger” in the United States. The “head nigga” is not a racialized figure, but he is the “boss”.
I am talking about the person you must have met at one time or another. The characteristics can be real, but they can also be manufactured. There is always that man or woman who generates concerns, fears, and worries. Today, the most common label is that of the gatekeeper.
Like everyone before them, the 21st-century crop of young people has a peculiar language. A member of that vocabulary is the term “gatekeeping,” which immediately reminds one of the hired hands intended to discourage uninvited elements from wandering through the door. The symbolism does not end at a close relationship with the contemporary diction of youths; it extends to journalism too. Among scholars who study the fourth estate, the term gatekeeping refers to the media’s control of information and its power to determine what is relevant enough to be reported to the public. In digital media circles, it is the ability of software to determine the kind of information it should show users at particular points in time. Applications of the term in both contexts imply that media houses and social interaction apps are viewed as filters or, put aptly, “gates” in the flow of information.
The same applies to conversations among young people. When used, gatekeeping often means that the person, institution or community referred to controls the use of information or the adoption of a particular manner of existence in the social space. The Baba Isale controls your lives by controlling information! Below, we consider the heavier imports of the term.
The Kabiyesi: Maintaining Cultural Ownership
Some individuals and companies control cultures. Cultural promoters have become “our oga at the top!” Outside the seemingly flippant usages that one might stumble upon on social media, gatekeeping carries substantial weight in intercultural or ethnic relationships. It typically comes into play in sectors like the entertainment industry, where certain genres of music are argued to belong to a group and should, as such, not be appropriated. Speaking of one, the emergence of Afrobeats into the global consciousness has sparked concerns that non-Africans may begin to leverage it to obtain a foothold in the African market. International stars and African talents have affected many music features in recent years. Where the subject of gatekeeping might then be relevant in this scenario is the historical tendency of genres to change hands from people in their original birth region to non-members with influence in the music industry.
The contention of black people and other persons of colour is that sounds that stem from a social struggle should not be converted into a profiteering enterprise by those who cannot identify with it or are even guilty of the institution of that struggle. This line of thought is evident in the rap music of black America, where lyrics primarily reflect the singer’s origins. Songs about gang violence, police brutality, materialism, slut shaming and commodification of females are regulars in the musicscape. When non-blacks, therefore, decide to follow the same path, they are mostly regarded as unoriginal and on a path to appropriation. And, validly, it is not unusual for white artists attempting to break into the African American rap scene to incorporate made-up experiences into their tracks to fit in. Yet, while the pushback against such pretensions appears understandable, people from the same black community attempting to gatekeep also imbibe genres viewed as predominantly white.
The difference here is the power dynamic. Unlike the former, who might face comparably minimal resistance in appropriating black musical mores, African Americans tend to have it harder as industry leaders are often white. In black American rapper Lil Nas X’s case, for instance, his song “Old Town Road” was removed by Billboard from the country category of its charts because it supposedly lacked the qualifications for that genre. This was against the popular agreement among analysts that the track did fit. The decision to remove his song has been viewed as coloured by racial sentiments of categories that traditionally should be occupied by white artistes. Consequently, we observe here the bi- or even multilateral dimensions of gatekeeping – black communities gatekeepers their music styles to prevent hijack by white artists and vice versa.
From a Nigerian’s perspective, it seems like a steady pattern of white influence exists in the uptake of African music in the West. Cases in point are Ed Sheeran’s feature on Fireboy’s “Peru,” a song that received reputable acclaim as a single. When a collaboration was arranged with the United Kingdom’s Ed Sheeran, the song ascended to the number two spot on the country’s Top 40 chart. A similar reception of Wizkid and Tems’s “Essence” in the United States was also seen as partly influenced by a remix involving Justin Bieber.
Ghanaian artist, Amaarae’s “Sad Girls Luv Money” and Rema’s “Calm Down” also became more prominent following features of Americans Kali Uchis and Selena Gomez, respectively. However, if like inclusions on tracks by Western acts are any indication, the dependency goes both ways. Sam Smith’s “Oasis” and Beyonce’s album “The Gift” are examples. While non-African musicians can arguably be said to possess respectable audiences on the continent, teaming up with locally recognized acts helps deepen their entry even further.
Regardless of the dynamic, other instances of gatekeeping include sensitivity to expressions like fashion. Appearing in ways that seem to imitate a group’s style of dressing may attract reactions that fall into the bracket of gatekeeping, particularly if the said conduct was derived from a marginalized group. It is not uncommon to witness moments like this in white-black relations where people of the latter identity view cultural appropriation as superficial to acknowledging a longer trajectory of inequity. Thus, Africans may take exception to a fictitious case of the English monarch donning a uniquely African attire when broader outstanding relics of the colonial era are scarcely attended to.
The same exists in the relationship of fans belonging to historically marginalized groups with their foreign idols. While possessing no ties that are immediately similar to that of the slave trade, Korean pop singers may find themselves on the receiving end of negativity if their art trigger the sensitivities of their black audiences. This is the case in many instances. The South Korean Hip Hop culture is largely seen as birthed by African American roots, a fact made glaringly obvious by the choice of some Korean artists to wear dreadlocks or dress in a way they consider reflective of the specific culture.
The offence comes when Korean industry magnates use aloofness as a customary reaction to allegations of poor representation by the black community. What makes this worse and gatekeeping perhaps necessary is the tendency that popularized stereotypes may influence portrayals in environments with a shallow understanding of racial nuances. For instance, a need to depict certain musical acts as rebellious to norms may mean that the severe angles of African American existence, such as drug use and gang violence, are adopted over inspiring values such as those embodied in the civil rights movement.
Therefore, when attempts are made to differentiate appreciation and appropriation, contexts like this hardly leave room for critics to concede. Here, it is not simply taking inspiration from an external tradition but running the gamut of true understanding of the locality and paying due homage to its history.
The Omo Baba Olowo (OBO)
The rich disregards the poor. To be fair, gatekeeping does not exist solely in intercultural transactions. It is present among classes too. The OBO is different from the street guys. Members of the wealthy cadre in society are not opposed to keeping people less resourced people out. The gradations of wealth translate to assessments of which personalities are nouveau riche and the ones belonging to an ‘old boys’ club.’ In both racial and regular contexts, people from the outside who hope to be accepted by the community must evolve to fit their perception of things. Black or white persons seeking to enter the exclusive communities of either will need to acquire a different brand of social intellect to avoid standing out or at least receive less sceptical reactions from hosts. The problem arises when the exclusionary tendencies of cultural and material groups morph into us versus them dynamic, an outcome that is often wont to be the case, and the result is a fairly impossible battle for the upper hand.
Nigerians in the diaspora have become arrogant to a fault. The yeye man in New York is our new Area Fada! We cannot ignore the impacts of globalization in all of these as it is often the vehicle for disseminating formerly isolated cultural elements. Various voices can now include their prints in global conversations through digital platforms. That channel means they might also have to spectate as others refine their values in ways that may not satisfy them. However, within this are opportunities. It is admittedly more of a drawn-out strategy as the internet already erases notions of exclusive control, but people who desire to partake in foreign expressions of their narratives can also influence it through the same media that let them out. Sustained virtual activity against authors, such as those in the Asian context, can help evolve attitudes towards marginalized groups.
And since the internet allows a surplus level of autonomy outside conventional media, the intending watchers of culture usages can successfully evade the whims of media “gatekeepers”. People on the other end who frequently stand charges for appropriation must also be prepared to have open conversations addressing touchy areas. As opposed to simple pivots to defences like colour blindness, conflicts might be easily avoided when respect is given to individual cultures.
I am not your Area Fada! I am not your Don! I live in the valleys as you do, not your Oga at the top. Look elsewhere. Many of you have become Area Fadas, although you don’t know it. Watch out for the signs. The person who boasts about his comfortable house in London to someone in Lagos is our new Area Fada! Then, you should insult him. When you see yourself as an intellectual superior to others, you and thugs should be treated similarly: the thug is using a gun, and you are using the pen. The man who sees himself as the Don may have the beginning of mental illness; the arrogance means they should abuse him until he is treated at Aro. When you torment others after converting your dollar to naira, you are the “Head Nigga,” the Obaluaye of Niger Delta, messaging others that their lives are not good enough and they should attempt suicide. The elephant may be big, and the monkey may be small. Mr. Elephant should be careful not to see the monkey as hungry as it does not beg for food. Mr. Area Fada, we don’t need your food. The Don, your knowledge has not transformed our country—keep your ideas away from us. Mr. Oga, you are not the one feeding my family.
Area Fada, success is not eternal. Where is Winston Churchill?