Until COVID-19 hit, Ghanaian artist Yoofi Greene was China's Afrobeats evangelist. Now he's eager to return and finish what he started.
From his home in southern China, Yoofi Greene kept an eye on news of the growing outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. By late January, most of his friends, both Chinese and foreign, had already left and as it became clear that the coronavirus was now spreading widely, he figured it was time to return home to Ghana.
For several years, Greene had built a name for himself in China as an Afrobeats dancer and choreographer, slowly but surely building a devoted following, but his parents in Ghana were scared for him and he agreed to play it safe—packing two bags and leaving behind his Chinese life for what he hoped would be a brief exile.
Afrobeats' success in the US and UK is a major achievement, but for a culture to truly go global, it needs to connect with more parts of the world. Greene saw an opportunity to bring Afrobeats to Asia, and, until coronavirus put much of the world on hold, he had followed through, carving out space for himself and his culture in China.
Based in Guangzhou, where thousands of Africans work and live, Greene had been teaching several weekly dance classes, organizing weekly Afrobeats parties, and traveling on weekends to spread his culture as far as possible across Asia. He was the only foreign instructor at any of the three studios where he taught. Nearly all of his students were Chinese. These days, he's been watching from afar as relations between Africans and Chinese people have taken a turn for the worse.
AFRICAN LIVES IN GUANGZHOU, CHINA youtu.be
Many of his friends and collaborators have since returned to China and begun adjusting to the new normal. Dance classes have resumed at half the capacity to maintain social distancing and with mandatory masks. One of the three studios he teaches at didn't survive and closed permanently. Since he missed a brief window when the Chinese borders reopened to foreigners he doesn't currently know when he'll be able to return.
"My main goal is to introduce African culture to the Chinese people, both music and dance," Greene tells OkayAfrica over Skype from his family home in Ghana. "The dance helps introduce the music. When you're dancing to a song, people always ask what it is. I talk a lot and entertain my students, and I give them music to go home and listen to."
Greene regularly left Guangzhou on weekends to teach workshops in other Chinese cities. "I've been teaching through the dancehall circuit across China since Afrobeats is very similar," he explains. "Pretty much every city has some dancehall. It's really growing here." In Guangzhou, it was also the dancehall community that first gave him a shot when he collaborated with a local dance teacher named Lena.
As a child in Elmina, a town west of Accra, Greene was always dancing, motivated by adults who would shower him with prizes and praise. "I learned from a young age that I'd get rewarded for dancing," he laughs. During middle school he moved onto hip hop dance, but eventually questioned why he wasn't dancing in a local style. In 2013 he jumped onto the Azonto wave and never looked back. The classes he now teaches are a fusion of Azonto and Angolan Afro-house.
Guiltybeats ft. Mr Eazi & Kwesi Arthur - Pilolo | OFFICIAL DANCE CHOREOGRAPHY BY YOOFI GREENE www.youtube.com
After graduating high school in 2014 Greene followed his older brother to Guangzhou for university, studying international economics and trade at a school that teaches mainly in English. "My class had a lot of Africans from all around, it was the first time I met people from some of those countries," he says. "After class we'd go out to clubs and go out to buy stuff and do business." The university encouraged his dancing as well, inviting him to competitions and performances. He's been teaching for about five years now.
Guangzhou has a significant African community with a lot of food and music, but Greene says that there were no parties playing strictly Afrobeats. "There were black DJs who would play Afrobeats songs a few times a night, but that's it. The people would get mad if they played a lot," he says. "But our dancers would make the party go crazy." His parties are majority black people, but earlier in the night they attract a local crowd. "We'd get the Chinese people to come in, but they'd only stay until about 2AM. The black people would come from about 2 to 5. It was Africans, black Americans, South Americans. People from all over."
For the scene to spread further, Greene thinks there needs to be more experienced dancers in the system. He says that some dancers, like those interested in dancehall, pick up Afrodance easily but that they're not interested in branching out. A similar problem exists within the hip hop dance community. "They're the biggest dance studios here in China but they're closed-minded about Afrobeats." He says that he's tried to start an Afrobeats team but that it hasn't worked out yet. "I'd like the team to be diverse, but I think it needs to start with black dancers."
Yemi Alade - Oh My Gosh | Yoofi Greene Choreography | GUANGZHOU, CHINA youtu.be
While the large African community makes Guangzhou a more comfortable place compared to the rest of China, there have always been significant issues there, even before COVID 19. "It's often that I didn't feel safe there," Greene explains. "In parts of Guangzhou, you always have to carry your passport in case they check you. They can pick you up at random and test you for drugs. They only do it to black people, no other races. Sometimes people on the train will cover their nose or move away from me if I'm standing next to them."
Recently, Africans became the target of racist attacks, being evicted from their homes and blamed for spreading Coronavirus. Greene says that his best friend and roommate was safe from the worst of it, since they live outside of the main African neighborhood, but that he was still treated harshly. He was forced to stay in his home with an alarm on his door that would sound if he left, even though he'd been tested multiple times and already went through a two week quarinitine.
"There were black DJs who would play Afrobeats songs a few times a night, but that's it. The people would get mad if they played a lot—but our dancers would make the party go crazy."
"He had left the country and returned in the brief window when they opened the borders," says Greene. "But Chinese people returning from abroad weren't forced to do anything like that, even though they were the vast majority of people returning." While Greene says he knows other non-black foreigners that were forced to do the same, Human Rights Watch has stated that the policy was directed overwhelmingly towards Africans.
As he learned of everything that was happening, Greene had trouble sleeping. "I felt like a coward being here safe in Ghana while Africans were being brutalized there," he admits. "It felt like I had been lying about how things were in China." He says that in person and on social media, he would try and push the positive aspects of living there. But after this all happened he went online and started telling everyone in the outside world what was going on. "I don't even go on Weibo"—one of the main social media platforms in China. "Black people can't go there and come away smiling. I've never heard these words come out of a human being before."
But Greene doesn't want the world to think too badly of Chinese people. "There are a lot of good people there," he stresses. "The people who know me well really embraced me and are very kind." Recently, a couple of his older videos on Tik Tok have gone viral and been flooded with derogatory comments from Africans towards Chinese people. "I just tried to ignore all that. It was too much. I've met so many good Chinese people. They take such good care of me. I've gained so much from being there. But what happened in Guangzhou is very wrong."
Since the borders are still closed to all foreigners, Greene remains unable to restart his life there. He's been teaching some virtual classes, but says that his Chinese students are not interested and that it's mostly Europeans that are taking advantage of them. "Once the borders open I'm definitely going back. I don't think I'll be able to build anything like what I have done there anywhere else. "