Interview – Dr. Jenny Mbaye Lecturer in Culture and Creative Industries, City University, London
Through my work I have the fortunate opportunity to meet individuals working to create ‘the city’ and shape its future in African contexts. London, being a hub of minds and activity brings many from far & wide engaged critically in thinking about how cities work and thrive. None more so than academics engaged in thinking about and pushing new narratives & perspectives about African and African diaspora cities. In this interview, with Dr. Jenny Mbaye, the cultural and creative industries are in focus; in a world of mega-cities that are constantly changing, these sectors have the potential to define and distinguish the identity of our urban space, and so are increasingly at the heart of global social and economic life. While there is still a way for the cultural economies of African cities to go on the global plateau, Dr Jenny Mbaye, a lecturer in Culture & Creative Industries at City University in London, illustrates in this interview, that there are many movements and initiatives that are showing determination & innovation in establishing the way forward. We discuss new ways of reading the ‘urban,’ and the role policy can play in propelling key entrepreneurs, who are needed for us to open doors to the continent in terms of culture & cultural production.
RSJ: I understand you are not a new comer to London?
JM: London is home for me really. I first arrived in London in 2006 to start my PhD at LSE (London School of Economics) at the geography department. I later left to South Africa for a post-doc at the African Centre for Cities (http://www.africancentreforcities.net) at the University of Cape Town as I was invited to join a newly opened research cluster on urban & public culture. I stayed there for 3 years, returning to London in January of this year for my position as Lecturer in Culture & Creative Industries. This has made me very happy, as it allows me to be closer to my two homes also: France and Senegal. So yes, happily back in London as a returnee!
RSJ: Your PhD focused on cultural production & creative economies in the development of Francophone West African societies, can you share a bit about your research?
JM: Yes, my PhD focused on cultural entrepreneurship in the music sector in Francophone West Africa. My field work was carried out in Burkina Faso (Ouagadougou) and Senegal (Dakar mostly) and my challenge was to understand how entrepreneurs make things happen locally – so essentially trying to understand organisational and managerial dynamics in the music sector. I aimed to do this not from a world music perspective, that presumes that everything is happening in Paris, Berlin or London, but rather things happening on the ground in the chosen capital cities, looking at how things have developed in very different but also similar fashions, it was, therefore, important for me to have stress-and-tell stories* between two different extremes of the West African ensemble: Dakar and Ouagadougou.
* a kind of research rigour: a process of shedding light on the what and how of ‘things’. By giving a particular emphasis bringing to the fore the essence of an argument/ observation, followed by providing a detailed account of what is under this spotlight, taking the time to document, identify and understand. Resulting in grounded and detailed stories; a prerequisite to any comparative work.
The best way for me to do my research was to integrate and interrogate the organisations of identified entrepreneurs, which included the Urban Music Festival in Ouaga and the Bureau of Cultural Engineering in Dakar (the Bureau subsequently closed in 2011. A link to the first repertoire of musical enterprises we realised). They did extraordinary things and I learnt a lot from them. Throughout the PhD, I was reconsidering what we understand as ‘entrepreneurship’ and how there may be a different story to the individual capitalist agent in other contexts such as – and not only in the music industry – but in the context of the music economy in West Africa.
RSJ: How did you experience the transition of looking at these dynamics from a more ‘cultural’ to an ‘urban’ perspective while at the African Centre for Cities? Was it a relevant arena to progress your study on the music sector and its socio-economic dynamics? And what would you say were some of the outcomes of your ambitions there?
JM: When I finished the PhD, joining the research cluster on urban & public culture in South Africa, shifted the focus slightly. Most forms of cultural and creative activities are concentrated in cities, and on our continent where you may have just one major metropolitan city and huge distances between the capital city and the secondary city, this is something that participates in the appreciation of how cultural and creative economies work and proceed in those locales. So the post doc was about putting the emphasis on this relation between cultural production, organisation, management, enterprises and the urban context. It was, for me, also another learning curve in articulating: what makes a city distinctive? In which ways does the city impact on the kinds of cultural production in focus? And how can cultural production impact on the city? Within this vast domain, I was always focused on urban popular music which was/is Hip Hop. What interested me most was looking at the music economy from a specific genre that was transversal to the whole region – compared to the Mbalax, for instance, which is regional only to Senegal – Hip Hop was something that was present throughout the West African region and hence allowing for transversal and trans-local dynamics to emerge. During the time of my research, I worked for the Ouagadougou urban music festival: Waga Hip Hop (link above), it is the first Hip Hop festival to emerge in the region (almost 12-15 years ago). Since, they have developed collaborative ties with other Hip Hop festivals in the region. This collaborative development was the first time an opportunity – away from the French Institute or the French Cultural Centre – was presented for West African artists to tour within the region for a very long time. So up until my time at the ACC, the urban dimension of this popular music was somehow taken for granted. I was trying to unpack what it means & how people actually interact with it. Overall, I think the main contribution of my research was bringing more ‘culture’ to the ‘urban’ rather than the ‘urban’ into the cultural production I was interested in. Looking back at my time at the ACC, my contribution to The Routledge Handbook on Cities of the Global South & Rouge Urbanism: Emergent African Cities further pushed the barriers and added complexity, from the Hip Hop perspective, on what it means to be an urban citizen, what it means to participate in an urban ‘policy’ and how you can do so outside more conventional, democratic or economic paths – while considering the subtleties too. So ultimately, offering other registers to read the ‘urban’ and the city, that comes from a more politics and policy approach.
RSJ: As cities increasingly compete on the global stage, the strategic use of creative industries within urban policy has become a global trend. As the potential to capitalise on this attention & money widens globally, should creative industries be positioned in the same fashion in African urban economies?
JM: I would rather distinguish it as a ‘cultural economy’, in more general terms, because it is not something that should be seen solely in terms of economic development or instrumental to new-liberal agendas – cultural production and the cultural product is what we should focus on. I like to refer to it as an ‘extraordinary’ merchandise/commodity. Firstly, ‘ordinary’ because it is something you can buy and sell – trade – as it can actually allow you to make a living (for some making a huge profit). But also ‘extra’ because it is something that is loaded with dimensions of identity – you are not just selling a Mercedes or whatever, there is something which is very much reflective of your position in the world and of who you are. Be it music, theatre or dance, it is providing a vision/ glimpse of what your world looks like from where you are standing. What is significant to me with the cultural economy on the African continent is that for a change, and in a very long time, there is a train that we may be able to catch without being too late. The investment required in this economy is key. Looking at the digital economy, for instance, it is something where ‘access’ is much more democratised and easier than other industries; you do not require such a heavy investment in terms of infrastructure. Looking at the jump made without necessarily equipping all our territory with landlines, the spread of the mobile and smart-phone has been incredible. This is a step that we have made and in doing so, jumping to catch the train of the cultural economy. This means a lot, for instance, to the cities of Kigali and Nairobi that are investing in the Apps market, a type of digital entrepreneurship that is part of this cultural & creative economy in the sense that they are based on intellectual property and copyrights. And the big giant with who they have to deal with are the mobile phone operators, just like the music or audio visual entrepreneurs whose cultural product is based on streaming and the streaming market. While Kigali and Nairobi are more focused on Apps systems, Lagos, home to Nollywood, is more focused on audio-visual industries. Dakar, interestingly, is very much known for its music, but it is the Dak’art Biennale on Contemporary Art (http://www.dakart.org/2014/) that is becoming its international selling point; a focus on contemporary and visual art that is confirmed when we consider the recent nomination of Dakar to UNESCO Creative Cities Network for ‘Digital Arts’ Each region, country and city will have a different positioning in terms of what the cultural economy can mean and how it can be invested.
“Africa’s cultural economy is an ‘extraordinary’ commodity. Firstly, ‘ordinary’ because it is something you can buy and sell – trade – as it can actually allow you to make a living (for some making a huge profit). But also ‘extra’ because it is something that is loaded with dimensions of identity”
RSJ: You talked about the democratisation of the tools & technologies available to ‘create’ and the strong drive coming from an ensemble of diverse bottom-up agencies. How best can this force be met, accommodated and further propelled from a top-down approach? Can official policy be useful, and what role can it play, specifically, within African cities?
JM: A tension – or rather the articulation – between planned, so top-down organs, and more bottom up initiatives, exists. To give an example of that tension, yesterday was the 23rd of June, it is quite an important date in Senegal as it was when a new movement Y’en a marre managed to pressure the government at the time, led by Abdoulaye Wade, to not proceed with his intention to change the constitution. The movement was led by Hip Hop artists and journalists: cultural producers. They pressured and managed to gather not only young people but across generations, translating the emergency of a political debate in popular terms. Terms which were easily accessible and sparking a genuine political debate. This date is now marked by this movement. What is interesting about this example is the civil society of cultural producers grabbed a debate which should actually be a top-down debate or articulation, to re-asses its importance at a level of common ordinary citizens: planned vs organic emergences.I also want to give you the example of the Dak’Art Biennale that I mentioned before. The Biennale of Contemporary Art is a state-sponsored and funded event, which has also grown to host an ‘OFF’ programme. The ‘OFF’ programme emerged spontaneously & organically out of initiatives by cultural producers (gallerists and other visual artists), who wanted to contest the kind of structure and organisation of the Biennale that is mostly concentrated in five sites within the plateau. The ‘OFF’ movement aimed to diversify and multiply the programme by opening artists’ workshops and other galleries beyond the earmarked affluent and built up areas of the city, to include the popular neighbourhoods. What is interesting is that the ‘OFF’ programme has finally been integrated into the official programme by the policy makers in charge of the event, realising that it was actually serving them as it widened the Biennale scope. There might have been two official sites in a given neighbourhood, but 30 ‘OFF’ sites, which were democratising the access and the participation in this event. We learn from this that when one and/or the other has their ears open to accept the inclusion of different perspectives and initiatives, this can result in productive, or useful, articulations between top-down and bottom-up initiatives. So to answer your question, yes we need policy because at the end of the day policy is a way to make sure people who want to ‘make’ or ‘do’ can. A policy framework is one that allows for some form of regulation but also some form of social security and from this we can appreciate culture in a more transversal way. At the end of the day, what is a public policy? Or cultural policy? It is something that only public officials can install. They are the people in charge of the public interest and collective good. There are certain things that the corporate world cannot do, or the civil society and only the government can do. And by only the government, that doesn’t mean it cannot work with different instruments, however it ultimately means that you agree that it merits an important field in your society and that it needs to be framed. We have come a long way from the very patronage-like approach to culture and education. From the days of Senghor for instance, where it was very much a presidential directive: creating the grand Ecole Nationale des Arts for instance, which is still active today but quite likely to be discordant with the reality of the field – or society. Nowadays, for instance, it would be much more useful to teach more on cultural management or computer-assisted types of production. Key entrepreneurs are needed for us to open doors to the continent in terms of culture and cultural production, so we need to think seriously about the broader interest of the market and its eco-systems – instead, for instance, of accommodating short-term individual corporate interests of say the mobile phone operators who hold a monopolistic position on streaming or Apps markets. Again, only cultural policy can do that.
RSJ: Having accumulated a lot of experiences and gained a wide breadth of knowledge, where would you say we need to go from here, not only which directions we are moving in now but also beyond? And how does this perhaps tie into what you are doing in your current position?
JM: I am just back from a conference in Zanzibar, and one thing that became very apparent, is that we are too focused on national markets, if we are talking about a cultural economy, looking at it only from national perspectives is too limiting. When a French artist releases an album, he/she doesn’t think only France – they think France, Belgium, Switzerland, Quebec and Francophone Africa. On the continent we often think as far as our city. So this logic has to be changed and it is actually already changing and there are initiatives showing us how it is actually happening; working across borders in a more trans-local fashion, such as the FestA2H in Senegal and the Assalamalekoum Festival in Mauritania who collaborate in terms of programming. We need more stress-and-tell stories observing similarities and differences, to feed and reflect what creativity can mean for our cities in the African contexts. I am currently co-editing a special issue with Professor Andy Pratt in this publication we have various contributions, including, for instance, a Portuguese fashion designer based at the Lisbon School of Architecture who is working on educational systems in fashion in relation to tailors and designers in both Mozambique and the Diaspora community in Lisbon. So very interesting dynamics in the context of African-Diaspora economies – links which are very poorly explored. The cultural economy is just the tip of the iceberg, there so many stories to be told. A few months ago we had Nestor Garcia Glancini come for a workshop and guest-lecture at City University, he has almost 20 books behind him and is one of the greatest anthropologists thinking on culture and globalisation – but in Spanish! While for a very long time literature was dominated by northern experiences and perspectives, there is great value in opening up and accessing a huge body of literature that has been there, happening and thriving, in Spanish and Portuguese from Latin America, that we know very little about because it has not been translated. On our continent we speak Spanish in Equatorial Guinea and we have Lusophone countries in different regions of the continent, so before connecting with the core London why not build more links with Latin America and engage with a scholarship that may have more stress and tell stories to share? Looking at the cases, for instance, of Colombian cities such as Medellín or Bogota, who for a very long time were known for their troubles with the drug trade, they have managed to transform the city, not from a superficial and external perspective, for tourism for instance, but from within, through culture. Its citizens now feel more in tune with the common good and well-being of the city. These experiences are there, they are very valid and valuable – something I will be very interested to delve into more.
RSJ: You stated we need more stress-and-tell stories to feed and reflect what creativity can mean for cities in African contexts. For anyone motivated by reading about your work, what words of advice or insight would you share on how they can enlist and engage?
RM: A piece of advice I give all my students is: remain curious! A big part of what I do is all about curiosity and collegiality. Knowledge is not produced in a silo, it is produced with people and unless you have a basic interest in someone or something, it is not going to just happen. I wanted to be a photo-journalist so I started with communication, then sociology, then ethnomusicology, then business management, then geography, then urban studies. And at the end of the day all these different facets & dimensions make sense together because they are all talking about this subject that I am very passionate about: cultural production, consumption dynamics and how there are ‘extraordinary’ things happening. I see my role as being a connector and translator between different practices and which leads to the final point that I want to make about culture and cultural production and hence, cultural policy: you need some form of transdisciplinarity, looking back on my journey everything at the beginning seemed like: where are you going?
Jenny F. Mbaye’s research interests include cultural development and entrepreneurship, creative work and industries, practice and policy of cultural production in Africa, especially in the Francophone West African fields of urban music. She has a PhD in Human Geography (urban cultural economy) from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE, 2011), a Graduate Diploma in Management of Cultural Organisations (HEC-Montreal, 2006), an MSc in International Studies specialised in Ethnomusicology (University of Montreal, 2005), and a BA in Sociology (Concordia University, 2003).
MBaye, J.F. (2014) “On the Biopolitics of Hip Hop Galsen: Contestation Art and Democratised Imaginations, SLUM Lab – Made in Africa: Sustainable Living Urban Model; Issue 9, http://u-tt.arch.ethz.ch/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/SLUM-Lab-9-Full-Lo.pdf