The Bullet Pen

Home » Culture

Category Archives: Culture


By Safy-Hallan Farah
I am an East African Girl. A couple years ago, one of my friends told me that being an East African meant I’m not really black. A visibly mixed-race girl with a “high yellow” complexion and sandy brown hair telling me I’m not black didn’t sit well with me. I wanted to tell the girl, in the words of CB4, I’m black y’all. I’m black like the back of Forrest Whitaker’s neck. I’m black like Snoop Dogg’s lungs. I’m black like some Helvetica font against a white backdrop trying to sell you stuff.
I’m a black woman. But my nose, my loosely coiled curls and my fivehead make me black in a way that extends the colorism debate, creating this hierarchy of aesthetic value where I’m not just black, I’m also acceptably black.
Back in the day, white people went to East Africa to find Iman, their acceptable black girl. When white people did this, former Essence Editor-in-Chief Marcia Gillespie called East African model Iman Abdulmajid “a white woman dipped in chocolate,” highlighting Iman’s acceptable blackness while also lamenting the fact that black women’s beauty is often measured in their proximity to whiteness.
Two decades later, Bill Cosby in his “Ask the Ethiopian” speech said African Americans should aim higher than menial jobs because menial jobs are for “Ethiopians,” i.e. immigrants, i.e. The Other. Marcia and Bill emphasized the otherness of East Africans like we’re not black, too, which is why I’d like to tell Bill: please let us, East Africans, have all the menial jobs. But in accordance with Marcia Gillepsie’s criticism, make sure those shitty jobs aren’t jobs where the way we look will inspire racists to pat us on the back and deem us more respectable or better than other black people. This is what the fashion industry notably did with Iman.
East African Girls, Iman included, take part in a system that marginalizes and limits other forms of aesthetic blackness. Every image of Iman or Yasmine Warsame or Liya Kebede reinscribes white beauty through black beauty. Reinscribing white beauty through black beauty has always been with us, but in recent years it has inspired rappers to reference East African Girls like we’re the 49th Law of Power, predictably denigrating black women who lack acceptable blackness in the same tired ways.
The first rapper I remember rhyming about East African Girls was Nas. In “The Set Up,” a song from Nas’ “It Was Written” album, Nas raps, “They thought the hoes were Somalian.” The “hoes” in question are “two fly bitches, Venus and Vicious.” On his latest album, “Life Is Good,” Nas references East African Girls again, in a party song called “Summer” ft. Miguel and Swizz Beats.
East African Girls have been referenced in several other songs: Wale’s “No One Be Like You” (“Somalian women, Ethiopian queens/Never could tell the difference, I just know that you mean”) and “Hold Yuh Remix” (“I’m lookin’ for an Ethi-Somali here beside me”); Tinie Tempeh’s remix of Drake’s “The Motto” (“My bitch booty bigger than a fucking Eritrean”); Common’s “Celebrate” (“Exotic broads lobbyin’/Spanish, Somalian”); Drake’s “Where To Now” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Poetic Justice” ft. Drake.
In “Where To Now,” a track off Homecoming Season, Drake’s second mixtape, Drake spits sweet nothings about an East African Girl, over a J. Dilla beat. Drake desires the East African Girl (perhaps as much as he desires getting ghost head from Aaliyah): “Ethiopian girl, Ethiopian girl, with yo long curly hair and yo big ass bootay.”
In “Poetic Justice” by Kendrick Lamar ft. Drake (music video above), Drake does it again: “I was trying to put you on game, put you on a plane/Take you and your mama to the motherland/I could do it, maybe one day/When you figure out you’re gonna need someone/When you figure out it’s all right here in the city/And you don’t run from where we come from.” But couched between another lazy description of a faceless, nameless East African Girl, and Drake’s assertion that that East African Girl is busy ignoring him for another man, is a story of afrodiasporic identity, which is what sets Drake apart, narratively, from other rappers.
While Drake’s definition of black beauty may seem limited, his definition of black identity is what Touré would call “post-black,” and Michelle Wright would call “postwar diasporic black.” Drake’s flow in “Poetic Justice” facilitates a broader discussion of black identity and black authenticity, a discussion that implicitly critiques Marcia Gillespie’s “white woman dipped in chocolate” statement, positing that East African Girls “come from” the same city Drake does, Toronto. The underlying message is that Drake considers us black like him. Drake, as a black Jewish man whose Degrassi character Jimmy Brooks dated a fake East African Girl, occupies a similarly hybrid space like East African Girls. For many East African Girls, that feels like poetic justice because the definition of ‘authentically black’— descendants of Africans brought here as slaves— is a limited definition that doesn’t even include Barack Obama, much less East African Girls.
When one does a cursory Twitter search of Drake’s “East African Girl” lyrics, fetishistic things are tweeted by Drake fans, most notably East African Girls themselves. “Poetic Justice” functions, on some level, as a false empowerment anthem,a song For East African Girls. There is a pleasure many East African Girls I know derive from hearing men, particularly Drake, talk about us to a larger supposedly authentically black population. A pleasure teenage me would no doubt indulge in, too. It’s a reiteration of our own myth that when God created humanity, he started with the Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans first— borne out of us is whiteness and blackness. It’s unscientific but when you’re a teenage girl, especially a young East African Girl, there’s no science needed to justify supremacy or fetish, and where those two things interplay.
East African girls are generally not mixed race, yet this idea that we are is deeply embedded in the minds of white racialists, leading some to believe we’re an entirely different, special, exotic breed of people. This goes back to the pseudoscience of Carleton S. Coon’s “The Races of Europe.” Anthropologists and white racialists, which are often one in the same, have been claiming we are of majority Arab or white or “Afro-Asiatic” descent for years. And while that isn’t the sentiment of Drake or Nas’s lyrics, our alleged mixedness underpins their lyrics by virtue of the sheer selectiveness of the East African Girls shouted out in hip-hop lyrics. When Drake or Nas reference East African Girls, it can be easily inferred that they mean Cushites representing the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia). “Cushite,” a term derived from “Cush” of the Hebrew Bible and Quran, is in reference to our shared “Afro-Asiatic” language classification, which is often mistakenly typified as a shared racial identity. This little mistake triggers a big mistake: the conflation of biology and genetics with race and ethnicity as a social fact, which reifies the racial categories.
One of the most popular threads on, a sneakerhead forum, is called, “African Women Appreciation Thread: ‘Young East African Girl/Thoroughbreds.” A commenter in the forum who goes by Macc E-Money claims he was deprived of “beautiful African women,” and wasn’t able to procure a Somali “thoroughbred” until he left his home state of Michigan. Macc E-Money references Drake’s “Young East African Girl” lyric, presenting black beauty in a limited way and privileging East Africans over other Africans while passing it off as an appreciation of African beauty.
The lines between acceptance, fetishism and exoticism are blurry. It would seem that the primary distinction between black (North American) men, East African men and white men exoticizing East African Girls is that for many white men and even some East African men, the exoticism is firmly rooted in a belief in the racial categories—a belief that race is biological when it is in fact social, and a fetishization and romanticism of our Arab World ties and colonial past. For a lot of black men like Drake, it’s way less insidious. At best, it’s a misguided reinscription of the white standard of beauty through acceptably black women. At worst it’s intra-racial discrimination. Usually, it’s a combination of all these things but if representing, hyping and esteeming women with acceptable blackness is good for all girls—Trickle Down Acceptability, if you will— then we’d probably live in a post-racial world where fairies and dragons and Tupac populated the earth.
Sadly, we live in a racist, sexist world where black men and white people can hurt black women in the same ways. Black women hurt black women, too, but differently: we don’t have each other’s back. Those that see themselves represented in the lyrics and the videos, accept it without questioning it. And those who lament the overrepresentation of East African Girls, frequently fail to realize that the “Young East African Girl(s)” of Drake’s lyrics are like all women of color; they are objectified and male-gazed upon in hip-hop. These women are mythic, “exotic” generalized by rappers as theambASSadors of their ethnicity or nationality. We are an idea rooted in a scant and skewed example— a token— from Drake’s own lived experience, mixed in with a little bit of mainstream imagery and a history that isn’t even our own.
Perhaps my own cousin, Leyla who Drake once bought lunch for, is Drake’s East African Girl. Maybe his East African Girl is my friend Ayan, who Drake met while clubbing. Maybe his East African Girl is like Helen Gedlu or Lola Monroe. Drake’s East African girl, whoever she is, does not account for of all of us. Our varied hip-to-waist ratios and hair textures and booties (or lack thereof) and cultures make us more nuanced than whatever Drake or anyone else needs to believe.
The over-representation of East African Girls cannot be separated from broader media representations of acceptable blackness. Broader representations that, in the 90s, brought us acceptable black women like Tatyana Ali, Stacey Dash, Chilly of TLC, etc.; the biggest face today being Scandal’s Kerry Washington. It’s no wonder Kendrick Lamar believes there is a balance issue. Kendrick cast Brittany Sky, a black woman, as his love interest in the video for “Poetic Justice.” Brittany Sky is a black woman who is neither East African or light-skinned, however she is every bit as acceptably black as Iman. It’s Drake’s love interest—or rather, sex interest— who is actually balancing representation. But she is who Drake is having sexually for that night, not who, as the video and the lyrics suggest, Drake wants; Drake wants the East African Girl he’s talking to on the phone. Drake is talking on the phone with the East African Girl while his sex interest is splayed across the bed, naked. Thus, even within the video there is a hierarchy. There’s a specific depersonalization and objecthood of the non-acceptable black woman’s body. The non-acceptable black woman is granted zero agency, and rendered the least desirable in a video that is supposedly progressive.
There is nothing progressive about acceptable blackness. There is, however, something progressive about Drake and the internal conversation he seems to be having in his music. When Drake raps about this East African Girl as he is talking to this East African Girl on the phone, he is also talking with other black people. He is having a conversation with Marcia Gillepsie and Bill Cosby and me and that girl I used to be friends with who said I wasn’t black. This conversation requires context that can’t be reproduced for an American audience with limited knowledge of the nuances of blackness. This conversation cannot translate externally, hence the phone. The video begs for the consistency of our transmuted presence but the direct presence of an East African Girl wouldn’t make sense to an audience that doesn’t understand Drake’s specific location in the diaspora, what diaspora is, or who East Africans are.

Taking “An African Election” on the road.

An African Election (crowd scene)

by Siji Jabbar

Newspaper headlines that say something like “Election clashes in [insert African country]” probably attract more attention than any coverage of the examples of good electioneering – Nigeria, Zambia and Liberia in 2011, Senegal, Lesotho and Guinea Bissau this year. For so populous a country, the Nigerian one was particularly impressive. Those who see these examples as minor achievements are either overlooking, or conveniently forgetting, the fact that elections in most African countries have to deal with complexities that countries in Europe, say, are spared, the most obvious of which is the issue of homogeneity (degree of similarity in cultures values, language, ethnicity and religion in the country’s population), with European countries at the homogeneous end of the spectrum and African countries at the heterogeneous end, a consequence of the lumping together of previously existing kingdoms into “countries” under colonialism. This was one of the time-bombs left behind by colonialism, and one of the reasons we need to debate what form of democracy we should be practicing. What form is right for the specific nature of our societies?

African countries are also relatively young, and as a result haven’t had as much time to iron out all the other wrinkles of the democratic process. Frankly, America and European countries aren’t quite done with that task, either. The closest a western country came to pure democracy was probably Iceland after the country came close to financial ruin.

Anyway, this challenge of reaching agreement in young countries with highly heterogeneous populations is precisely why the examples of good electioneering are important. Each one shows the next country’s citizens that the idea of “nation” is possible, despite the high degree of heterogeneity.

In hindsight, then, it’s a little surprising that no one thought to document an African election until Ghanaian-Swiss filmmaker Jarreth Merz did so in, well, An African Election, the award-winning film of the 2008 presidential elections in Ghana (Grand Jury Winner, Atlanta Film Festival; “Best Documentary” at the AMAA in Lagos; nominated for an Independent Spirit award, etc.). Who knew a relatively peaceful election could be so gripping? This interview probably answers most questions you might have about the background to the documentary, and about how he managed to get such unfiltered access to pretty much everyone who mattered.

Jarreth says he filmed the documentary with the purpose of supporting Africans who want to be a part of creating their own future by taking part in their electoral process and building democracy. Which means it’s great that the film has done the European and American film festival circuit, but the most important audience for this documentary are other Africans in Africa, especially those with elections coming up anytime soon. Ghana will go to the polls again in October December (as will Somalia in August, and Madagascar and Sierra Leone in November), and Jarreth is taking his film on the road on what he has called A Political Safari.

He will journey through Ghana with a mobile cinema, through rural and marginalised communities, to screen the film and hold workshops to inspire communities with a positive vision of African democracy, and, more practically, develop voter resources that support and facilitate dialogue across ideological, socio-economic and ethnic boundaries.

To bring A Political Safari to nine more African countries (and get the film translated into 5 different languages), Jarreth has launched a kickstarter campaign to raise the necessary $32,000.

So here’s your chance to join with other supporters in making this important campaign a reality, a chance to take part in a movement to strengthen and support the next generation of democratic African leaders and voters.

Fela Kuti – “Sorrow Tears & Blood”

Fela [660x300]

by Ilka Schlockermann

To celebrate the 75th birthday of Nigerian icon and Afrobeat originator Fela Kuti, as well as the recent release of new deluxe compilation The Best Of The Black President 2 and newly repackaged versions of Fela’s entire back catalogue, Knitting Factory Records are releasing this special limited edition 12″ single exclusively for Record Store Day on 20 April 2013.

This release includes the title track, the seminal Sorrow Tears & Blood, restored to its original, complete running time, following the recent rediscovery of the six-minute instrumental section preceding the entrance of Fela’s vocals. The B-Side is the super rare Perambulator, which has been unavailable for decades.

Afrobeat historian Chris May, who provides in-depth track-by-track commentaries for all tracks on the Fela reissues released by Knitting Factory, writes:

Sorrow Tears & Blood (1977) – an impassioned attack on police and army violence against political dissenters in Africa – was among the first albums Fela released following the Nigerian army’s destruction of his Kalakuta Republic commune on 18 February 1977. Characteristically, Fela came back fighting. One of the LP’s early front sleeve designs (there were two, about which more below) was a photograph showing Fela onstage in the aftermath of the outrage, his left leg in plaster from foot to knee. The police and army invariably leave behind them “sorrow, tears and blood,” Fela sings, and the backing vocalists respond, “dem regular trademark.”  The album was dedicated, Fela said, “to the memory of those who were beaten, raped, tortured or injured” during the Kalakuta attack.

Fela’s record company, Decca, refused to release Sorrow Tears & Blood, fearing government reprisals. Fela responded by setting up Kalakuta Records and making the album the label’s debut release.

All this has led to the common belief that the album’s title track was written after, and concerns itself with, the events of February 1977. It certainly resonates with them. However, according to Fela’s friend and sleeve designer, Ghariokwu Lemi, Fela actually wrote the lyrics in the weeks following the South African apartheid regime’s crushing of the Soweto uprising on 16 June 1976. Sorrow Tears & Blood was added to Afrika 70’s set list the following month, and was probably recorded around August/September.

Ghariokwu Lemi was with Fela the night news came in of the Soweto massacre. Writing to me in 2011, Lemi said: “Early on the evening of Wednesday, 16 June 1976, we drove to Ikate, Surulere, in Lagos, to visit Fela’s immediate family: his first wife, Remi, and three children, Yeni, Femi and Sola. They lived away from all the drama at Kalakuta. I had shared a little goro (a weed-infused paste) with Fela earlier, and as we sat in the family living room exchanging banter, I was in a mental struggle to stay focused and keep my concentration. Then, at 9pm on television, came news from South Africa that shocked the world. Defenseless primary school students, protesting against the enforced use of the Afrikaans language, had been shot dead by police in Soweto. We all jumped up from our seats in shock at such beast-like brutality. We discussed this all night long and all week thereafter. A few weeks later, Fela rehearsed a new composition, inspired by a brutality-catalog consisting of his own experiences, clashes between the police and universitystudents, and other confrontations between the army and communities around Nigeria. He wove into this the growing repression by the racist police in apartheid South Africa. All this acted as material for a magnificent new song titled ‘Sorrow Tears & Blood’, STB, on the Afrobeat menu.”

By the time the song was eventually recorded, Lemi had listened to Fela perform it at the Shrine and other venues scores of times. “My mind was set on the approach to take on my cover art. Having been privy to the rationale behind the message, I thought I was home free with my concept, like always. Fela was ghoulish in his description of a typical scenario of a police or military raid and its effect. He was caustic in his admonition of a people who were too afraid to stand up for freedom and justice. Since Fela had composed ‘Sorrow Tears & Blood,’ a lot of water had passed under the bridge. Kalakuta Republic had been sacked by one thousand soldiers in a very horrendous raid in broad daylight. I put a bold, stoical and fearless Fela image on my canvas. My painting showed a crowd running away from an unseen cause; an empty road with a single military boot lost in the melee; a vulture waiting for a meal; soldiers meting out jungle justice; a screaming woman lost to fear.”

Lemi thought he had “nailed this cover for good,” but on presenting it to Fela for approval, “found it was not my lucky day.” Fela hated the sleeve, regarding it as defeatist: he particularly hated the detail showing a group of people running away from the police. The argument led to an estrangement between Fela and Lemi which lasted eight years.

Perambulator is one of the great “missing” Fela tracks. Until this Record Store Day special, it has been unavailable for almost 30 years. It was released on Nigeria’s Coconut Records in 1984, and then, apart from an independent Japanese release, which may have been a pirate, pretty much lost to history. There was no European or American pressing – in late 1984, Fela began an eighteen month spell in prison on trumped up currency smuggling charges, which made negotiating international releases near impossible. When he came out, Fela’s most urgent recording concern was rescuing Army Arrangement from the dog’s dinner Bill Laswell’s remix for Celluloid had created.Perambulator has an outstanding long-form lyric in which Fela ridicules the empty words and promises of politicians, asserts his belief in traditional African medicine, and urges African solutions to African problems. It’s eviscerating and funny with it. A blinder, back in circulation.

Hooking Up: Bad Sex

A new book offers an insightful critique of hookup culture—but fails to pose viable solutions.
. The Atlantic.

The often discussed, much maligned, and occasionally defended “hookup culture” bears a name that perfectly captures the boring, lifeless, and dull sexuality that dominates the lives of too many young Americans. It is mechanical, technical, and instrumental. “Hooking up” sounds like something people in a bedroom would do with a desktop computer or DVD player, not something they would do with each others’ bodies. It is a term belonging to machinery, not humanity.

George Carlin said that “language always gives us away.” The term “hookup culture” turns the electrifying mystery of romance—powered by the surge of a smile from a stranger across the room, the heat generated by hands on an unfamiliar set of hips on the dance floor, and the sweet synchronicity of flirtation—into the predictability of an oil change.

In her important, wise, and brave new book, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy, Donna Freitas, scrutinizes, analyzes, and criticizes hookup culture after spending time on several college campuses interviewing thousands of students about sex, romance, and the social pressure to conform to a culture that, in her words, promotes and produces “bad sex, boring sex, drunken sex you don’t remember, sex you couldn’t care less about, sex where desire is absent, sex that you have just because everyone else is too or that just happens.” The short book, written in the style of an informative and impassioned pamphlet, is painfully accurate in its assessment of the idiocy that passes for sexuality in the dormitory. Freitas’ argument is well-researched and well-grounded, and she is sharp enough to condemn hookup culture on sexual grounds, rather than ethical grounds. Her solutions to the problem, jammed into the end of the book, are rather weak and unpromising, but her indictment couldn’t be stronger.

Based on her discussions with college students across the country, Freitas provides three criteria for defining a hookup: 1) A hookup involves some form of sexual intimacy. 2) A hookup is brief—it can last a few minutes or, at the most, a few hours. 3) (This is the most important part) A hookup is intended to be purely physical in nature and involves both parties shutting down any communication or connection that might lead to emotional attachment.

Freitas describes innumerable stories of what passes for the romantic lives of contemporary college students—vet each through social media, eye each other at a party, drunkenly fall into bed, and escape before any thought of feeling can color the experience with the beautiful, but distractive stain of humanity. Highlights from the book include a young man masturbating into the mouth of a nearly comatose young woman, a young woman blowing a guy she just met because it “seemed like the thing to do,” and countless couples going on “traditional dates” only after engaging in “serial hookups.”

Freitas recognizes that the most lamentable aspect of hookup culture is not, as some social conservatives would argue, that it will lead to the moral decay of a modern Sodom and Gomorrah, but that it is so boring. Christopher Hitchens wrote in his memoir, Hitch-22, that there is nothing worse that boring people. Hitchens was correct, and even doubly so if one applies his wisdom to sexuality. Is there anything possibly worse than boring someone in bed?

Hanna Rosin, in her defense of hookup culture, wrote that it enables young women to seek out their sexual partners like “headhunters” thumbing through the most qualified applicants for an open position at a business, while maintaining freedom to focus their attention and energy on professional pursuits. It is difficult to imagine anything that sounds duller, and it is challenging to consider a more stiflingly narrow vision for a short life.

I teach literature courses at the University of St. Francis just outside of Chicago, and I’ve noticed that students rarely even flirt on campus (a big change since I graduated college in 2007). Freitas told me that she ends every course she teaches with a plea that students, in future classes, “try to look up from the laptops and various devices once in a while, to notice that there was a professor talking to them, and potential friends and romantic partners sitting in the room with them.”

Freitas’s work is important because it offers a third way toward sexual independence and autonomy in an America caught between Puritanism and pornography. Rather than morally condemning college students for promiscuity or telling them to treat romance with the detached analysis of the headhunter, she is promising them that better sex—more fun, excitement, and intensity—is available if they only invest more of themselves than their genitals into the experience.

Freitas writes that hookup culture is, perhaps, above all other things, “ironic.” “While being sexually active is the norm for students,” she claims, “the sex itself becomes mechanical as a result of so much repression of emotion.” She goes onto argue that “college is supposed to be a time when young people get to let go of repression” and that doing so would enable young people to experiences sex that is “good, empowering, and pleasurable.”

Pop culture is in the best position to reframe the romantic approach of teenagers and 20somethings

The importance of Freitas’s message and the urgency of her purpose overshadow the dubiousness of her proposed solutions. She recommends that professors incorporate discussions of hookup culture in their English, sociology, psychology, and philosophy classrooms, and she also suggests that parents take a more active role in steering their children away from participation in the hookup lifestyle. Eighteen-year-olds removed from the restrictions of their home for the first time are probably not eager to accept advice from their parents on when and how to sleep with their classmates. The corduroy jacket-wearing literature professor with a white mustache probably won’t have much of an influence either.

The other flaw in Freitas’ book is that she gives feminism a pass, even while acknowledging that many feminist writers have welcomed the destruction of the traditional date, because such courting rituals “propped up patriarchy,” as one feminist critic quoted in the book put it. The benefits and advantages of feminism are obvious to any reasonable and moral person, but every ideology has a dark side and every action has unintended consequences. It seems legitimate to wonder if feminism has unwittingly equalized the sexual playing field to allow women the freedom to behave with as much recklessness as men, as Ariel Levy argued in Female Chauvinist Pigs.

Professors and parents can intercept these questions, but most college students will probably ignore their answers. Pop culture is in the best position to reframe the romantic approach of teenagers and 20somethings. The shift from the sensuality and sweetness of Smokey Robinson and Motown to the aggression and misogyny of Jay Z and hip hop is one of many pop cultural changes indicating how entertainment reinforces and shapes hookup culture. Freitas convincingly demonstrates how Sex and The City, despite its flaws, depicted sex as fun, exciting, and pleasurable, while Girls equates sex with misery and boredom. It is difficult to determine how much pop culture influences the lives of young people or how much the lives of young people influence pop culture, but a rescue from the mechanical tedium of the hookup seems most likely to arrive on the television, movie screen, or in song, if it ever arrives at all.

Too many young Americans might be too busy and blinded by monetary goals and financial pressures to notice such a rescue, regardless of the form it takes. The prevailing lifestyle choice of Americans seems to be to live as torpedoes. You have a launching point and an ultimate destination, and nothing is going to distract you from your pre-planned course. As The End of Sex shows, and as even Hanna Rosin’s defense of hookup culture reveals, sex is dangerous and subversive to the torpedo mindset because it should involve risk, commitment, and depth. Most threateningly, it could lead to love.

%d bloggers like this: