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‘Exploring the axe of fracture and creative currency in Anglophone West Africa’s Cities of Cool’

Carina Tenewaa Kanbi, African Centre for Migration and Society, University of Witwatersrand (PhD Candidate)

1. Introduction

Acting as platforms to engage with processes and territories elsewhere, cities are Africa’s future. Highly mobile young Africans are migrating between cities on the continent under conditions in which spatial interconnectedness to other localities – domestic and international –is becoming the norm. These sites of continual transition, described by AbdouMaliq Simone (2004) as the laboratories of change, produce different modes of being that deviate from classic urban sociology. African urbanism research principally focuses on the material objects of cities, with few scholars exploring the performed actions of actors within African cities (Foster and Siegenthaler, 2018). This paper looks to contribute to the lacuna in youth studies research around the lifeworlds of young creatives in African cities, while detailing their dynamic and poorly understood forms of membership within these urban environs and the way that young creatives contribute to processes of social change in the places in which they reside.


The African creative industries comprised of artists, musicians, writers and intellectuals in Accra and Lagos proactively and intentionally manage cultural traffic that shapes informal narratives, identities and a sense of belonging within these cities and beyond (Gikandi, 2011). The cities in turn shape their civic engagement and creative practice. Within the rapidly changing cityscapes, creatives in varying ways domesticate spaces, straddling local and global identities and fostering a culture of conviviality.


This interdisciplinary paper explores the common habitus within and between the West African cities of Lagos and Accra amongst African creative and cultural leaders. Through the voices of West African creatives, it studies the often-subconscious tension within the creative habitus and the interconnection between space and identity. In doing so, it illuminates the tension and struggles between global and local orientations and shows how this juncture in belonging is utilised for selfactualisation and shapes associations and relations within the cities through analysing movement, social tastes and practices. It concludes that a performed sense of ownership and belonging within the city is currency for a form of acceptance in future undefined spaces, however fleeting, while simultaneously plotting futures elsewhere. These cities are shared and individual sites of imagination, places of mobility and extraction. These tensions played out in daily interactions are complex, and while gathering social and cultural capital within these worlding cities these creatives appear to ascribe to a lightly rooted or aesthetic cosmopolitanism and culture of conviviality that shape how Lagos and Accra look and feel.


2. Approach and data

Rooted in sociological and anthropological enquiry, the descriptive analysis in this paper attempts to understand the lifeworld of young West African creatives through triangulation methods. Research conducted between December 2020 and October 2021 was comprised of unstructured face to face interviews, a public discussion and online focus groups. Participant observation and analysis of online secondary content and engagement supported enquiry scripts. Influenced by Bauman (2013), these interviews focused heavily on itineraries and cultural mental maps to better understand how respondents navigate within cities.


West African coastal cities of Lagos and Accra were selected as Anglophone cultural hubs. The cultural production that emanates from these cities are recognised globally as shaping culture with a specific focus on music, fashion and visual arts (Das, 2019). Both cities benefit from ECOWAS labour and trade policies supporting mobility. It should be noted that this paper is not a comparative city study, rather an exploration into commonalities in experiences between creatives that reside in Lagos and Accra.


Thirty participants were selected in total, fifteen each from Lagos and Accra chosen through snowball sampling. Attempts were made to ensure an even gender split, however, final data shows an over-representation of men. The data presented has been anonymised. All participants are selfidentified creatives, who lived and worked within either Lagos or Accra and are between the ages of eighteen to forty years old. Respondents in Lagos were predominantly Nigerian, with one Ghanaian exception. In Accra, the picture was much more varied, with respondents from Cameroon, Ivory Coast Nigeria and Ghana. Due to the limitations of COVID, social media (specifically Instagram) was an essential tool in building creative connections and cultural maps. While not explored in this paper, the role of social media in building global and local engagement within the African creative industries requires greater analysis and research. The limited sample size does not allow larger conclusions to be drawn around the accommodating nature of cities towards nonnationals.


The frontiers of the creative industries globally are known for their permeability, perhaps best demonstrated by the ongoing dispute over an exact definition of who should or should not be included within them (Shorthose, 2004). As an ever evolving concept the creative industries selected and used for participant selection takes inspiration from Richard Florida’s categorisation (2003) and UNCRAD’s definition includes poets, writers advertisers, broadcasting (TV and radio), novelists, artists, cultural curators, entertainers, actors, designers and architects as well as cultural figures and creative analysts. Essentially speaking these are the knowledge based economic activities which drive creative and artistic industries globally. Florida extends his definition to include engineers, academics and think tank researchers, though arguably they do not shape the African cultural production but rather analyze, study and make sense of the world around us.

3. Findings

The following sections explore how young West African creatives, nationals and otherwise, forge their lives within the West African cities of Lagos and Accra, exploring city imageries and creatives connections to other localities. What is evident across all accounts and between cities is that all forms of membership and belonging are built past the state. Belonging in Lagos and Accra is a combination of individual agency and collective projects and for the most part show citizens engaging in forms of collaboration and conviviality that is fragile and fleeting, as a means to greater self-actualisation. This shallow level of engagement should not however be dismissed as undesirable or unwelcome but rather seen as a functional and resilient means to survival and in many instances thriving in diverse, turbulent and changing African cities. The findings below are presented in the following subsections; firstly, glocal transit spaces and places, secondly, survival strategies in shifting sands and lastly cities as cultural currencies.


3.1 Glocal transit spaces and places

The African city has been historically understood as a thoroughfare, a temporal space not to settle but as a place to extract and access opportunities, and then leave (Ndi, 2007). Landau and Freemantle (2010) argue that in African cities, with specific reference to Johannesburg, urban spaces act as stations for ongoing journeys rather than final destinations, even if final destinations remain unknown. West African creatives had complex relationships with Lagos and Accra. Translocalism was evident in accounts with respondents claiming an attachment to several spaces simultaneously, while almost always rejecting the cities they lived in as home. There was a reluctance to belong to the city of residence; despite expressing levels of attachment, it was not seen as aspirational. Cities were discussed as places to increase personal value to have a better footing to opportunities elsewhere. Elsewhere was not always known, but when mentioned aspirational destinations included global cosmopolitan cities such as London, New York and Paris. Fola*, a Nigerian women fashion designer claimed, “Lagos is a market, you go to the market to take. Nobody wants to live in the market”.


Her sentiment was shared by Tayo*, a writer and curator based in Lagos who struggled with the idea of living there, and five years into his experience had reluctantly succumbed to the identity of a Lagosian. He found the idea that he lived somewhere that does not care for him deeply troubling, with specific reference to the End SARS Lekki Tollgate Massacre, where on the 20th October 2020 Nigerian army officials shot, injured and killed unarmed protesters without provocation at Lekki Tollgate in Lagos. He discussed a creative life beyond the present and was awaiting an interview for a visa to the United States. His account of his experience as a creative in the city was weaved with statements of ownership and belonging and highlighted the contradictions of global and local tensions in identity formation and the difficulties in blending them.


Attachments to non-physical spaces were common amongst the group. Ayo*, a photographer based in Lagos, pondered the question about identity and belonging, a minute passing before he claimed, “home is in my head”. Ayo was not alone in assigning the feeling of home to an imagined nonphysical space. Many of the creatives interviewed claimed they adapted so that there could be a separation of space from place. Yet, when discussing the cities where they lived and worked, there was a loose sense of entitlement and ownership over spaces that they had initially appeared to reject. Home as a non-physical space was followed by claiming a sense of belonging beyond the state, whether this was as a West African, a pan-African or most popularly, “a global citizen”. Mobility, detachment and polygamy of place was a central component of the creative identity.


Lagos and Accra were described as places that enable aspirations to be realised while not being “aspirational” to those that live within them. All creatives questioned discussed moving out of the city, through their narratives describing these spaces as a stepping stone to elsewhere, zones of transit to individual recognition and success. The lack of attachment to the city can partially be attributed to the absence of national or municipal creative infrastructure in the creative ecosystems and everyday life, which arguably adds to the level of detachment from civic duty towards the city or investment in it (Simone, 2004). Lagos and Accra are examples of places where the state shows partial interest, the decline of factories in the area of Nyaniba estate in Accra has for example driven private investment and enterprise, this has happened without the aid of public planners. Nana* claimed the only engagement she had with formal structures of governance was her light and water bill, arguing that the government doesn’t value her or her industries and anything achieved came as a result of her own efforts.


The phenomenon of cities as transactional spaces with loose levels of attachment is not in itself new. Hans Peter Hahn has written about African cities as transitionary stages for young people, with many individuals gazing beyond the city and using it as a stepping stone to another destination (Hahn, 2010). Meanwhile, Bauman (2013) describes cities as places where strangers meet and continue to meet while remaining strangers. Given the size and scale of growth, in both cities but especially Lagos, it is unsurprising that there is a lack of accepted civic engagement. The accounts suggested that accepting oneself as part of the city would almost be as if limiting one’s aspirations.


The interesting and novel part of the creatives’ urban experience is the strategies formed to succeed within these urban spaces. These bottom-up initiatives of conviviality, tactical cosmopolitanism and creative placemaking are discussed within the next section. All initiatives are embedded in simultaneous local and global identities. They highlight internal identity struggles and tensions through attempts to domesticate or reterritorialize the city so that it is more representative of a place they would like to live and yet it is not claimed as home.


3.2 Survival strategies in shifting sands

In cities that are increasingly fragmented, dispersed and outward-looking, inhabitants within them build identities that span across cultures, languages, spaces and places. Rapid growth in cities has been paired with confrontations over the use of urban spaces, mediated largely by those on the ground (Landau and Bakewell, 2018). West African creatives can be seen to carve out spaces within the city for themselves. They mould these spaces and position them to be globally aspirational cosmopolitan symbols of the city they want to see. They, meanwhile, can be seen to straddle local and global identities and build shallow communities guided by sentiments of conviviality and rooted cosmopolitanism.


3.2.1 Creative Placemaking

Creative placemaking was an intentional, ongoing project evident within both cities, influenced by global subcultures and suspended in time that enabled individuals to forge lives in multiple locations. These reconstructed cultural ‘homes’ were described as safe and free, transcending the local to speak also to global ambitions and connections. Carmen Leccardi (2016) calls this phenomenon the reterritorialization of space, claiming that these border zones are efforts to reconstruct the city to somewhere people want to live, the city they want to see.


In Accra, the area of the city that attracted the most attention was Nyaniba estate. Claimed by some as Osu, it sits to the South of the city, close to the sea and older fishing communities but also a stones throw away from the busy commercial hub of Osu and the old money affluent areas of the city; Labone and Cantonments. With a number of gallery spaces, studios, café and bars with creativity at their core you could be mistaken that it is a microcosm of the rest of the city. In Jamestown Café you will hear Ghanaian, American and South African accents intermingling discussing new projects and events with complaints of poor internet, rains and the unreliability of Bolt.


One respondent claimed he only frequented these spaces, as they provided freedom which he couldn’t find elsewhere due to his sexuality. These spaces were guided by global cosmopolitan norms both unspoken and upheld. Images of these spaces circulate globally and become symbolic signs of aesthetic cosmopolitanism (Lombrano, 2016). Creative communities show predictable patterns of engagement within the city with cultural maps overlapping with inhabitants moving and interacting with places and people with familiar and similar tastes and dispositions (Melber, 2017).


In Accra, Ekow*, a fashion designer and cultural communicator, during a panel discussion mentioned Republic Bar as a signifier of change within the creative community. Republic Bar and Grill, nestled on a side street in Osu is an upscale take on a local “spot” and was mentioned in several accounts from Accra-based creatives as somewhere that married different social and creative scenes.


In Lagos, six locations reoccurred in the narratives of respondents’ cultural maps. These were: Bogobiri, H Factor, La Taverna, Nok by Alara, 16by16 and the New Afrika Shrine. All of these creative spaces are middle-class establishments, globally focused in their visions and largely within a five-kilometre radius of each other, mainly on “the islands”.


The instrumentalization of very specific spaces enables creatives to build a space of fluid and loose acceptance and belonging, however shallow the engagement with a distinctive image of the city and subsequently themselves through their knowledge and connection to these places. While the spaces differ, they are all similar in their local and global visions, and are all unique from the everyday spots within the city and subsequently strengthen the city brand. As privately-owned spaces, the creative communities can enjoy and frequent them without having accountability or responsibility for maintaining the space or the community, therefore fostering loose but vital connections. The performances and impressions of the city by creatives shape how African cities are portrayed in the global press (Das. 2020/Nwosu, 2020). It could be argued that the performance is instrumental to the value of the city when used as currency and subsequently the individual value of creatives.


3.2.2 Conviviality and rootless cosmopolitanism.

Conviviality and loose notions of cosmopolitanism are used as survival strategies of locally embedded but globally focused creatives to navigate the cities they reside in. The marrying of global and local identities is discussed by Skovgaard-Smith and Poulfelt (2018), who argue that cosmopolitanism is often used as a cultural resource. In their study of international expatriates living in Amsterdam, they find that individuals find “commonality in indifference”.


Kwame Anthony Appiah describes the balancing of global and local identities as ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’ (Appiah, 1997). Cosmopolitanism is often dismissed as a concept when describing mobile African communities as it is associated with rootlessness. Appiah describes rooted as someone who has a level of attachment to cultural practices or a place they consider home, or several and an affinity to a more significant global vision (Appiah, 1997, p. 618). He further argues the pursuit of individualism can only happen as a result of collective identities. The term seems oxymoronic yet goes some way to understand the experiences of the creatives in both cities. Appiah (1997) claims it is possible to have roots in one place or many places and yet be a citizen of global ambition and that they complement each other and are inseparable.


Multi-layered and sifting identities that straddle the local and global enable conviviality through their quest for intimacy and distance. Francis Nyamnjoh (2017) reminds us that complex identities and relations between city dwellers need not be dismissed as undesirable or unusual. Incompleteness can be the order of the city, identities and even communities. Conviviality fits well with the idea raised by creatives of the cities as markets, bringing together mutual need and mutual gain. Callahan (2012) argues that conviviality is fundamental to being human, claiming that it enables self-realisation while enabling mutual accommodation within a space, and arguably a loose sense of civility. Conviviality is focused on non-linear futures and fits with a flexible, rooted cosmopolitanism that looks back to look forward, a term that is called Sankofa in Akan, a Ghanaian language. The entanglement of the global and local and the tension caused as a result can be viewed as natural.

Accra and Lagos are sites of imagination, as discussed by Mbembe and Nuttall (2019), enacting shared and individual visions. Creatives within them create strategies for survival outlined as aforementioned, and yet it is important to state that tensions occur between the global vision and the reliance on spatial knowledge and cultural heritage arguably to loosely root oneself and build an occupation-based community with like-minded people. Conviviality is king amongst creative communities where there is an acceptance of their present and attempts to improve it through creative placemaking without the willingness to embed themselves due to the fear of immobility, real or imagined. Conviviality and rootless cosmopolitanism allow creative connections to multiple localities simultaneously and a fluid sense of belonging to the cities they reside that doesn’t curtail mobility aspirations.


3.3 Cities as cultural currencies

“Sometimes I see people say they are based in Lagos, but I know they live elsewhere when they are in Nigeria. Lagos has become trendy. It is the brand.” Tayo*


Space was unfalteringly described as a form of currency, Tayo, based in Lagos describes the city as a brand and the theme of cities as a currency was reoccurring throughout experiences. Knowledge of cities was used to gain social capital and acceptance outside of it with Lagos and Accra being positioned globally as the centre of West African cultural production (Das, 2020/ Amachi, 2020). Lagos and Accra, rather, have become creative global brands, through an organic process of negotiation led by creative tastemakers through online marketing (ibid). West African cultural production itself is a careful blend of local and global influence. The positioning of these cities by creatives and the creative concentration within them have established these cities as currency, reinforcing their global value. As Africa is having its media moment, attention is turning towards its cities that make the most noise through cultural production and the most visible and ‘authentic’ creatives within them are those at the front of the revolution.

Being perceived as local amongst locals was seen to be incredibly important, even for non-natives. Respondents could be seen to draw on collective memory to reinstate local belonging and yet such narratives contradicted with global identities and attempts to distance oneself from the city. Many creatives wanted to create a ‘local’ city identity for international authenticity without the associated attachments, as the value of the currency of the Lagos and Accra was seen to be rising globally. The global exchange rate working in their favor. By referencing the evolution of cities respondents attempted to own and legitimise their space within the cities. Gervais-Lambony argues that memories and discourses about the past relate to the production of identity and an urban attachment (Gervais-Lambony, 2014, p. 358). Collective memories in the accounts provided were not mutually accepted, but their negotiation and cultural scripts legitimised presence within spaces. The contention of memory, GervaisLambony argues, is a demand of legitimisation and recognition often by urban dwellers within space, a quest for a sense of ownership and belonging (Gervais- Lambony, 2014, p. 367).


The emphasis on local attachments and belonging was never discussed in interviews, yet highlights a tension at the boundary of the habitus. Many of the creatives interviewed shared relatively similar socio-economic backgrounds, with similar life trajectories and connections. The ability to work within the creative industries with its precarity and instability and persist and forge a career depended largely on economic and social capital. While not all creatives were from the same socio-economic background, significant trends were evident with many creatives dismissing their social class and the access it afforded and downplaying privilege within very fractured and divided societies.


Validation for creatives needed to be both local and international. Each sphere with its level of value and means of exchange. The creative communities in Lagos and Accra could arguably be seen to have the same spheres of exchange with an emphasis on place-specific knowledge and legitimacy. The value of European or American experience increased social capital within the space, enabling greater access through existing networks. One famous Nigerian chef claimed they wouldn’t have been able to start their business in Lagos had it not have been for their experiences and time spent in the United States. They openly admitted without their global mobility currency it is unlikely they would have been accepted within the creative space or have been able to access the opportunities and clientele available to them. Global middle-class subjectivities around Western education play out in the narratives of various creatives.


Through the narratives, there appears to be an intrinsic need for social recognition that detached and thin digital engagements alone cannot provide. The space and connection to other cities act as currency to increase individual values. For the currency to stay valid it needs to be used. Collected spaces and attachment to them, performed or otherwise equate to relevant and accepted social and cultural capital, that often also connected creatives to other creatives on the continent leading to what could be seen as an accepted and valid form of creative currency.


4. Conclusion

This paper highlights the use of cities to build social and cultural capital to enable mobility and progression elsewhere, whether it is realised or not with self-actualisation as the goal. Cities are invested in so much as they can be leveraged for individual gain, this investment is loose and detached. There is considerable importance by the studied group placed on utilising localised knowledge to manage a local identity and attachment while pivoting towards a global ambition. West African creatives questioned adopt a loose rooted cosmopolitanism and culture of conviviality to survive and thrive within the spaces that they live, meanwhile reterritorializing spaces and showcasing their vision of their cities to the world. West African creatives could be seen to use cities as cultural currency, knowledge and claims of the city exchanged with ease to allow for life to be lived across multiple physical and imagined worlds. This form of currency relies on being used consistently to ensure it retains its value. Its relevance is guarded, specific and spatialised and under threat from new technologies and forms of creativity. At its core, this paper attempts to contribute to forms of membership and engagement within African cities and provides themes of departure for further study on how African creatives are shaped and shape-built environments and what that means for future mobility and growth of African cities and those within it.

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