From ‘The Woman King’ to Netflix’s ‘African Queens’ — how Africa’s history went pop

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved stories. As a child, I loved fantasy best. I read Darren Shan, Joseph Delaney and CS Lewis. I watched Hercules, Aladdin and Mulan. I watched the animes Naruto and Dragon Ball Z. I played games from The Legend of Zelda, Monster Hunter and Dragon Quest series.

Because each of them included characters, creatures, deities and concepts from the cultures of a range of places, from Japan and China to Greece and England, I unwittingly immersed myself in them.

From CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, I learnt about fauns. From Aladdin, I learnt about the One Thousand and One Nights. From Monster Hunter and Dragon Quest, I learnt about qilin (or kirin, in Japan), a chimerical giraffe- or deer-like creature. From Naruto, I learnt about shinobi (the ninja), about the kappa, a half-human half-turtle minor god that stalks rivers, often dragging to their depths unsuspecting victims, and about the Japanese Shinto Sun goddess Amaterasu.

It was only as a university student, reading and writing about great ancient and medieval African civilisations, that I realised that elements from the cultures of these places had been conspicuously missing from the stories I had so enjoyed in my youth. It wasn’t the case, because of this, that I hadn’t connected with those stories; I had. But after my exposure to just a little of the true historical depth and cultural richness of diverse African societies, what did cross my mind is that they had in pop culture been underexplored and underdisplayed.

© Kgabo Mametja

This may be finally changing. In the past five or so years, we’ve seen the release of a spate of pop culture stories that explore African cultures, from novels (be it Marlon James’s Dark Star trilogy or Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone), to films (Black Panther and The Woman King), and TV series (African Queens: Njinga).

Black Panther’s release in 2018 was a watershed moment. It was both critically and commercially successful, grossing $1.3bn worldwide. To media executives, creatives and the general public, this proved definitively that there is an audience — an exceptionally large one — for African stories. (Wakanda, the fictional African kingdom of the movie, was of course the invention of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; but in making the adaptation, director Ryan Coogler and lead actor Chadwick Boseman travelled around the continent and immersed themselves in aspects of the cultures that constituted their heritage.)

Black Panther paved the way for more of these stories to be told. African Queens: Njinga, a docudrama series to which I contributed, was one of them. It is a passion project of American actress Jada Pinkett Smith. She’d had a conversation with her daughter Willow, who’d asked her who the queens of Africa were and why we don’t know about them.

The series looks at the life of Njinga Mbande, a 17th-century queen of Ndongo, in modern-day Angola, best known for resisting the aggressive attempts of the Portuguese to colonise her kingdom. For 60 years, she fought against them, exercising noteworthy skills in politics, diplomacy and warfare. In Angola and other neighbouring nations, she is seen by many as a hero. In Luanda, Angola’s capital city, a statue was raised to her in 1975 when the nation proclaimed its independence; it still stands. The series’ dramatic sequences were filmed in South Africa, and the expert contributions came from the US, UK and Angola. African Queens: Njinga was a global production, meant to be consumed by a global audience.

An illustration of a male African hero holding a shield and spear
© Kgabo Mametja

The fact that we’re seeing such stories being told and shared on global platforms only recently is not because storytellers — African or otherwise — have only recently begun to tell stories featuring African histories and myths. In the wake of decolonisation, many African storytellers — from journalists and historians to novelists and filmmakers — interrogated what it meant to be African, and the place of traditional African values in societies that had been so heavily influenced by European culture.

However, as the influence of India, China and many African countries surges, more of these countries’ stories are being widely told and adapted. On Netflix and other streaming platforms, you have access to Korean dramas and Bollywood films as much as American and European shows. Japanese anime, which was a fringe aspect of nerd culture when I used to watch it as a child, has become mainstream. South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite swept the 2020 Oscars, and Squid Game, created by his fellow countrymen Hwang Dong-hyuk, was almost unfathomably popular. Black Panther, The Woman King and African Queens: Njinga are just a part, albeit an important one, of this wider shift.

Considering, however, the size, diversity, depth of history and storytelling talent that characterises Africa, there’s a wealth of stories that are yet to be told. I think of Sundiata Keita, the 13th-century founder of the Mali empire, arguably Africa’s most famous medieval empire. Or Mansa Musa, his great-nephew, who in 1324 made a splendid pilgrimage to Mecca; when he and his train stopped off in Egypt, they spent so much gold in Cairo that they flooded the market with it, devaluing it for more than a decade afterwards. Or Amanirenas, the one-eyed warrior queen who battled against the forces of the Roman emperor Augustus.

When the story-lovers of future generations watch films or TV series or play games that feature African cultures, they’ll come to learn about and appreciate them in a way that no non-African really has before. They might even be inspired to create their own Africa-centric stories. And, in this way, African stories, histories and cultures will take their place on the global stage among those of other cultures from which they have been shut out for far too long.

Luke Pepera is an anthropologist, writer and broadcaster

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