You Ain’t African, Meryl Streep

Abel Shifferaw pens a response to Meryl Streep after the actress' "we're all Africans really" comments at the Berlin Film Festival.

Meryl Streep in Out Of Africa

The Berlin International Film Festival’s all-white panel had a cute little debate Thursday concerning diversity and inclusion within the very much white-dominated film industry.

Meryl Streep, acclaimed American actor known for such classics as Out Of Africa, is the president of the esteemed festival's jury. The question of diversity and inclusion of people of color was raised three times, AP reports. When asked by an Egyptian reporter if she understood films from North Africa and the Arab world in general, Streep responded, “ I’ve played a lot of different people from a lot of different cultures.”

Yes indeed, Streep has, very literally and figuratively, played us.

Streep continued, "There is a core of humanity that travels right through every culture, and after all, we're all from Africa originally.” As an unconvinced crowd looked on, Streep further reiterated the point, “You know, we're all…Berliners, we're all Africans, really."

What Streep said, is, I admit, essentially correct, as we all did originate from Africa. Homo Sapiens, the modern human, what we are, first popped up in Africa and specifically what is known today, thanks to unification efforts by the likes of people like King Menelik, the nation state of Ethiopia. As an Ethiopian myself, I’m extremely proud to be from the location where modern humans originated. In fact, it’s one of my favorite talking points.

“Ethiopian food tastes like Indian food.” Someone will say.

“Naw.” I will respond. “Indian food tastes like Ethiopian food.”

“I love riding my bike.” Someone will say.

“Well, did you know that Ethiopia is the cradle of civilization.” I will respond. And so on.

Noting this truism is not in and of itself a problem, but when raised as a defense to charges of racism and white supremacy it becomes a massively flawed and highly offensive line of reasoning. The scientific community has concluded that race does not exist on a biological level but is rather a social construct. That being said, this social construct does have very real and tangible effects on our lives. To evoke this cross-racial solidarity not when black and brown people are being murdered by racist violence, but when accused of not being inclusive, is opportunistic and wrong. There are levels to this. The main being, Streep got it twisted.

The issue of a lack of diversity within Hollywood from people of color, queer folks and women has been rocking headlines and twitter feeds. #OscarsSoWhite has raised valid criticism of the overwhelming whiteness of Hollywood in addition to the snubbing of filmmakers of color on the basis of skin.

Lest we forget another comment Streep made.

"There is a core of humanity that travels right through every culture”

Perhaps this ‘core’ Streep is referring to is Europeans or the ‘West’. It seems that they have a historical affinity, if you will, for traveling, “right through every culture”. These excursions usually consist of but are not limited to: colonialism, cultural imperialism, neo-colonialism, regular imperialism, cultural appropriation, extra imperialism, stealing land, exploiting labor, and so on.

So, be cool Meryl Streep, you ain’t African.


6 Samples From 'Éthiopiques' in Hip-Hop

A brief history of Ethio-jazz cultural exchange featuring songs by Nas & Damian Marley, K'naan, Madlib and more.

This article was originally published on OkayAfrica in March, 2017. We're republishing it here for our Crossroads series.

It's 2000 something. I'm holed up in my bedroom searching for samples to chop up on Fruity Loops. While deep into the free-market jungle of Amazon's suggested music section, I stumble across a compilation of Ethiopian music with faded pictures of nine guys jamming in white suit jackets. I press play on the 30 second sample.

My mind races with the opportunities these breakbeats offered a budding beat maker. Catchy organs, swinging horns, funky guitar riffs, soulful melodies and grainy and pained vocalists swoon over love lost and gained. Sung in my mother tongue—Amharic—this was a far cry from the corny synthesizer music of the 1990s that my parents played on Saturday mornings. I could actually sample this shit.

The next day, I burn a CD and pop it into my dad's car. His eyes light up when the first notes ooze out of the speakers. “Where did you get this?" He asks puzzlingly. “The internet," I respond smiling.

In the 1970s my dad was one of thousands of high school students in Addis Ababa protesting the monarchy. The protests eventually created instability which lead to a coup d'état. The monarchy was overthrown and a Marxist styled military junta composed of low ranking officers called the Derg came to power. The new regime subsequently banned music they deemed to be counter revolutionary. When the Derg came into power, Amha Eshete, a pioneering record producer and founder of Ahma Records, fled to the US and the master recordings of his label's tracks somehow ended up in a warehouse in Greece.

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