Original image by Paige Furness. Collage by Ta'Ron Joyner.

Why I'm Okay With Losing at the Woke Olympics.

Why I'm Okay With Losing at the Woke Olympics

'We need to think about the ways in which the 'practice' of a Woke Olympics affords us public praise, but does little to engineer a meaningful everyday politics, IRL as well as URL.'

This essay is part of OkayAfrica's SA Reframed series, featuring personal writing from some of South Africa's best young writers edited by Verashni Pillay.

I never thought I'd write this piece, but let's face it, the woke thing has gone too far. And before I'm dismissed as another inequality apologist, and shoved in a corner with Kanye West, hear me out. Increasingly, particularly in virtual communities, we are moving towards a space in which 'wokeness' is less a process of being awakened, and more an attempt to weaponize whatever philosopher you read that week (that's if you didn't just catch the Fanon sparknotes on someone else's tweet). As a person deeply engaged in political and pop culture work, I have a front row seat to the ways in which we have replaced critical thinking with old school binary oppositions; used complicated vocabulary to spin our opponents into webs of words (with little substance) and have begun to operate with a kind of smugness previously reserved for university lecturers and people who like to say "I told you so".

What does woke mean anyway?

The concept of being 'woke' has had a long evolution. The phrase 'stay woke' was originally used by playwright and novelist Barry Beckham, writing in The New York Times in 1971, talking about the influence of Marcus Garvey on his consciousness and a commitment to serving his fellow black people. In the 2010s, the term got a reboot from Childish Gambino's uber-popular track 'Redbone'. In between this, black people have and continued to think through awakening, consciousness and what it means to see the light - as reflected in the works of everyone from Frantz Fanon (I had to! The wokes love the man) to Lauryn Hill's game changer Miseducation album, to the re-reawakening soundscape of Solange's A Seat At The Table. And yet, a small group of people have increasingly reduced this evolving, complex and incomplete history to a set of aggressive attempts at performing their open minds and giant brains.

My masters research in digital media was focused on the politics which govern virtual communities like Twitter and Facebook, and it became clear that despite our early 1990s optimism about the positive impact the internet would have on our politics and quality of debate, the hope of a truly open, emancipatory internet was short lived. Instead, divisive politics and a culture of 'one upmanship' often undermine our ability to receive new ideas and think outside of what scholar Axel Bruns calls 'filter bubbles', but what is often called an echo chamber. And while us lefties are quick to dismiss right-leaning folks as insular and cut off, my research suggests that the tendency to cluster and exclude was as prevalent if not more prevalent in 'woke interests groups'.

Now that we know better, can we do better?

Ultimately, wokeness in itself is not a politics. While being woke does very rightly connote a broadly speaking leftist, pro POC, global South-inclusive way of thinking, it cannot stand on its own––because it has (in recent years at least) been built as opposition to. So, say us wokes get everything we want? What is the project thereafter? What is the politics of wokeness that we can sustain in building our new world? There is a big difference between an (important) everyday discursive politics which helps us to think, but do we know what it takes to do?

We need to consider the way in which this politics includes and excludes certain people; and the ways in which our ideas will confront our current systems which are racist, classist and generally anti-woke in nature. It is not enough to have the satisfaction that comes with being right if we have no willingness or ability to take this forward––which requires far much more work and compromise than simply muting Candace Owens or Steve Hofmeyr. I am absolutely NOT saying that it is the job of young people, Black people, the LGBTIQA+ community to think through all solutions and God forbid, to educate. But I am saying that if the only time you speak up on issues is in performance in virtual communities, and in response to, then maybe you're not as committed as you thought. I suppose a crude, but functional analogy would be the way in which women will vulnerably share their incidents of gender based violence, only for some unmoisturized man to reply "mEn GeT bEaTeN uP tOo". The point is not that violence against men is good, but rather that many of the men responding would never otherwise engage issues of violence, or advocate for men in abusive relationships. It's a performance of wokeness with a deeply abusive agenda.

Similarly, I would ask, in the absence of things to be (justifiably) frustrated by, what does the wokeness project spur us to do? Or is it increasingly becoming a kind of impotent catch-all for those of us who are maddened by our world but totally unable (and sometimes) unwilling to do the work to fix this. As such, the concept of the Woke Olympics (originally coined in a remarkable article by Maya Binyam) speaks to the fact that this brand of pseudo-politics is more label than practice, more virtual lashing than political engagement. You know the type––has a sharp and clever quip on every issue, doesn't shave their armpits, uses the term womxn instead of women because: erasure, but hasn't paid their domestic worker since the start of social distancing? We need to think about the ways in which the 'practice' of a Woke Olympics affords us public praise, but does little to engineer a meaningful everyday politics, IRL as well as URL.

You know consciousness isn't a competition right?

My second issue with the so-called Woke Olympics is the (as the phrase suggests) competitive nature of this politics. If you are an Erykah Badu-listening, Fanon-reading, Studio Ghibli-watching type, with a few more miles in the consciousness tank, you think you're a kind of alpha-woke, capable only of issuing correction, castigation and critique. You know your thinking journey is never over right? You know that even the smartest person can get it wrong?

This competitiveness is a wasted opportunity. These individuals could make meaningful contributions through their knowledge; they could act as important defenders of vulnerable groups in online communities and help to change the perception that those who know less will be shunned.

One of the main tenets of my research on South African black Twitter focused on the ways in which we signal agreement and disagreement. The sentiment analyses were clear, and ultimately disappointing. While we seem able (in individual, one-on-one) interactions to be able to be kind to those we are in disagreement with, hot group topics are treated entirely differently. The emergence of the #(Insert celebrity name)isoverparty, "disappointed but not surprised" and the daily practice of 'cancelling' all signal social and linguistic ways that we cut off people and discussions. Then there's the case of a hashtag like #CBDTwitter: a term used to reference ignorant/uneducated users, with the "CBD" bit callously making an inference those who live in the degraded inner city and former central business district. It relegates and dismisses those who think/speak differently to a category far away from us.

And sometimes, our knee jerk wokeisms backfire. In one interaction on Twitter, one user jumped to ask "Y are these women all lightskin?" [sic] on some photos that had been posted. This is a fair question if we're talking about Kenya Barris' entire body of work, most commercially successful Instagram models, or Khanyi Mbau's Instagram pics. But in this case, the colourism conversation did not apply as the original poster replied "Cause all these "women" are me ??????". This means that the user did not even so much as open the images before reaching for the woke lever (imagine the red chair on the Graham Norton Show). More and more we are seeing the aesthetic performance of woke politics in ways which are entirely empty, or purely ego-driven. Responding to this particular incident, Twitter user @JayCartere masterfully diagnosed the issue, which is this ballooning tendency towards being only "recreationally offended".

But let's be clear here, before the "All Lives Matter" or "They're such snowflakes" brigade thinks they have gained another member. I am deeply committed to spaces like Twitter and pop culture artefacts like The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and A Seat At The Table albums for helping people of colour to think broadly, engage intensely amongst themselves, and aggressively shut bigots down if need be. I am here for any meaningful politics which encourages more freedom of thought, and more inclusive spaces. What I am not into is this sense that your politics can be dialled in and out of––as we respond to things we see. A tweet is not always the appropriate place to launch into a tirade, and not every pop culture misstep requires commentary.

Pop culture is not the passport to your politics.

Let's get back to basics, to key values that we can commit to, everyday, where no one sees it, and where it's not just another veiled shot at going viral.Where the only pay off is the expanding of your own consciousness and the chance to think and live better than the day before.

Binwe Adebayo is an internationally-published culture writer and Media Studies Scholar. She is interested in politics, power and pop culture and writes about art, film, books, music and design.

Photo Credit: Victoire Douniama

This Photographer is Capturing the Femininity of Congo’s La Sape Movement

Once a male-centric domain, women in Congo are disturbing the gender boundaries of La Sape, and photojournalist Victoire Douniama wants them recognized.

Even though the African fashion industry is finally getting the recognition it deserves, many under-the-surface subcultures that foster community and creativity expression still exist. One of those subcultures thrive in the Republic of Congo, where Congolese dandy culture, called La Sape (La Societe des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elegantes), finds provenance.

Its history dates back to the early 1920s and 1930s during the period of the French colonial era. Notably, it was a form of protest against French colonialism. La Sape or Sapologie is a movement of unique complexity. It is more than just a catwalk of sapeurs who dress ostentatiously in colorful suits but represents the socioeconomic and political knot that ties the population.

Messani Grace in blue tux

Messani Grace, in a tuxedo. She says: "My husband is a sapeur as well and he is part of the main reason I feel confident to do this because he supports me alot and teaches me all I need to know about fashion."

Photo Credit: Victoire Douniama

Since its inception, La Sape has had a masculine presence. Although women showed interest in La Sape, it was strictly reserved for men. Congolese women were expected to wear African print dresses and be housekeepers. Despite the challenges and backlash, a group of Congolese women kept challenging the status quo, fighting for their style of expression. Today, hundreds of women have joined the movement, dressing in suits, tuxedos, and bow ties.

Victoire Douniama wearing white

As a photojournalist, Victoire Douniama centers her project on female sapeurs because there was a gap in representation by other photographers.

Photo Credit: Victoire Douniama

Documenting these women is Congolese photojournalist Victoire Douniama. Raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, Douniama has always been inclined towards art from a young age. She was inspired by her older sister’s sketchbook. “I was so fascinated by her art and her drawing talent," Douniama told OkayAfrica. "So visual arts has always been a passion of mine." Douniama's gift for drawing was evident by fifth grade and ,during her adolescent years, she developed a passion for photography.

As she settled back in the Republic of Congo, she was struck by the lack of representation of the nation in the media which mostly depicted negative aspects of the country. For Douniama, centering her craft in her native country is important, as it not only represents her roots but also it's an opportunity to use her passion to showcase the rich natural resources and cultures of the Congo. The neighboring country, Democratic Republic of the Congo, has also been a stage for Douniama to practice her work alongside various NGOs.

\u200bTsiba Mary Jane wears blue suit

Tsiba Mary Jane works as a thrift cloth vendor at the market of Mikalou in Brazzaville. He says: “I use my hair as a form of identity, as you can tell my hair is colored green, yellow, and red. Which represents the Congolese flag."

Photo Credit: Victoire Douniama

Her tenacity is certainly unmatched as she navigates her craft in a country faced with various economic challenges, especially since the pandemic. Being an independent photographer under such hurdles can be discouraging for some, but her portfolio speaks for itself. When asked about her secret to success, she said: “You have to develop your own style and clients will hire if it corresponds to their brand."

Of the various projects under Douniama's belt is her photo journal, Les Saupeuse du Congo. For Douniama, La Sape is more than just a fashion statement. She recognizes the political elements of the visuals. The emergence of female sapeurs is revolutionary and, without a doubt, impressive.

“It originated as a political protest during the colonial era and a movement that called for change in Congo Brazzaville and the DRC," Douniama said. “It challenges the conservative role of women in Congo and it normalizes freedom of expression, which is vital for Congolese people to become more open-minded."

Kourissa and her son Okili Dojido

A portrait of Kourissa and her son Okili Dojido at a funeral outside a home at “La tchiemé.”

Photo Credit: Victoire Douniama

As a photojournalist, Douniama centers her project on female sapeurs because there was a gap in representation by other photographers. “I wanted to give the ladies a space to share their experiences and what exactly inspired them to join this movement, and how people within their societal circle responded to this," she said. "Because at some point, this conservative movement was only reserved for men."

This photo project has given her a look into the dynamic of La Saupeuse and their self-fashioning practices. The exuberant sapeuse is in her mid '30s to early '50s. She’s a wife, mother, and can be found in various walks of life as a market vendor, police officer, thrift clothes vendor, or government official. She carves her hair into an undercut or taper fade, with touches of different dye, borrowing masculine-considered accouterments and accessories like smoking pipes, hats, and umbrellas.

In colorful suave suits, these women are overturning gender norms, which require them to dress in traditional “lady-like” attire known as Liputta — a bold move for a conservative country as Congo. For this reason, regardless of how liberal much of society has become, some women are scorned, discriminated against, or even receive backlash.

So, can Les Saupeuse translate into a social upgrade for the lives of Congolese women? As the world continues to interrogate patriarchal standards, it’s a movement that is still forging its identity within the culture. “Many people did not think women can do all of this," Douniama said. "That is why they mostly wanted women to be reserved and submissive."


10 African Documentary Films You Should Check Out

Featuring Music Is Life, African Moot, Cesária Évora and many more.

For its 24th edition, the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival,running from June 23 to July 3, returns to physical locations in Johannesburg and Cape Town for the first time in two years. OkayAfrica took a deep dive into the festival’s program and presents ten of the most anticipated films playing. You don’t want to miss these titles.

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(Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)

Rise Immortalizes Giannis Antetokounmpo's Story Of Victory

The Greek-Nigerian sports star and his family give the world their sincere story and show us that "When one of us wins, we all win."

Disney+’s RISE is a charming, family-friendly film depicting traumas that one couldn’t fathom. The movie tells the story of Greek-Nigerian basketball superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo (Uche Agada) and his ascent from poverty to National Basketball Association champion. The film retells the years the Antetokounmpo family spent dodging immigration officers, the four children sharing a single bed for years while their parents slept on the couch, and the sacrifices that led to the Antetokounmpo brothers’ domination in the NBA. A harrowing tale of perseverance and dedication to family that could be an empathy-building tool for the sports fans that are attracted to the brothers’ professional escapades.

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The Alluring Distinction of Falz

Falz' contributions to Afropop are masterfully encapsulated on BAHD. We speak to him about his vast scope of sounds on the new album, Nigerian politics and more.

Falz is one of Afropop’s most distinctive figures. His songs have defined several periods of Nigeria’s push into international spaces, formed on the background of rap but possessed with amorphous creativity. With the backdrop of a global pandemic, the 31-year-old musician again found himself staring down the well of reinvention.

Having made appearances across several facets of the entertainment industry, he wanted to move into a new soundscape. He poured that motivation into his fifth studio album BAHD, a collection of twelve songs which show Falz at his most risque and naughty. “To be honest it’s a big mix,” he mentions to OkayAfrica some days after its release. “It’s arguable whether this is actually pop. This can even be looked at as an Afro R&B project, it’s an Afro-fusion project as well. I definitely touched on a few different genres while making BAHD. That was the aim from the beginning: I just wanted to have an album with a vast scope of sounds”.

Each featured guest uniquely broadens his vision. Whether it’s Tiwa Savage on “Beautiful Sunflower” or The Cavemen on “Woman,” there’s a seamless entry into the lush sonics of Falz’s universe. He tells me animatedly that he’s always wanted a song with the iconic Ms. Savage, and already has multiple songs with the Highlife-influenced Cavemen. His curatorial skills are present on “Inside,” combining the unusual duo of Timaya and Boy Spyce to fine effect. Apparently the record was created way before the latter was signed to Mavin Records, pointing towards Falz’s continued inclination for digging deep and leaning into new styles and sounds.

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