Why Yvonne Orji, David Oyelowo And John Boyega Are Trailblazers For First Generation African Immigrant Culture
They're doing it for the culture.
March 22, 2018 at 3:06 am
Just two weeks ago the movie Gringo whose subject, a Nigerian man, Harold Soyinka (played by David Oyelowo), hit theaters. I was so excited that the movie (centered around a Nigerian character) was played by a Nigerian actor. I had a high sense of pride just knowing that fact alone. For some of us first and second generation African descendants, our community has become accustomed to seeing people pursue "common" careers in pharmaceuticals, engineering, law, and medicine. It seems like second nature to aspire to be in those fields for most African families due to the immense amount of successful people in our communities that come from those backgrounds. That's why it was rare, and quite honestly still is, to hear encouragement in our culture for careers that venture outside that scope. In my case, some family members believed that pursuing a career in journalism (or anything in the arts) would equate to an unstable and unpredictable life. It's an assumption that draws out fears of living paycheck to paycheck and ultimately results in people getting jobs that are deemed culturally acceptable. However, now more than ever before, we are seeing more first and second generation African descendants thrive in arts and entertainment businesses, which is exactly what we need to see.
Why? Because our peers are seeing beyond the walls of what our predecessors did and are finding a new way to make wealth in the most non-traditional ways. Our generation has created a greater awareness of how far we can go through the means of social media and it has positioned us in a way that hasn’t been seen before.
Now we have notable first and second generation African descendants in the lifestyle, fashion, arts and entertainment fields like: David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o, John Boyega, producer Harmony Samuels, painter Kehinde Wiley, model Adesuwa Pariyapasat, director Issa Rae, author Luvvie Ajayi, actress Yvonne Orji, singer Emeli Sande, model Duckie Thot, Chitwel Ejiofor, television host Stacy Ike, fashion stylist Ade Samuel, rapper Jidenna and Daniel Kaluuya thriving in film, television, music, performance art and fashion. Seeing a list of growing names like this is important for both young and old African immigrants in the diaspora because they need to see the representation of "out of the norm" career possibilities.
So why are there more Africans in mainstream Hollywood than ever before? The short answer is that it is gradually becoming less taboo in our culture and we're seeing numerous talents become examples of success for our community. It's not farfetched to suggest that the more people you see from our continent succeeding in the arts–the more parents will accept it as "normal". All of these actors' successes came from going against the grain by pursuing acting classes or even comedy shows that other people weren't willing to do. Their influence brings a cultural attitude that if they can do it, we can do it too. The deeper answer to what has changed is, a lot of first and second generation Africans are realizing that they don't have to do things the way their newly acclimated immigrant parents had to once do to survive as new American residents.
Barriers and expectations about success from culture have taught us what a career should look like. We've seen African descendants in headlines for upholding the most degrees in industrial, medical and law degrees like popular trailblazers Philip Emeagwali, Dr. Kofi Boahene and Paschal Nwokocha, but rarely in the arts; until now. That's why it can be a discouragement when representation doesn't reflect diversity. Confinement in career choices for any person can result in confinement in self exploration.
Social media has also made it readily accessible to learn about other Africans in different careers and that have ignited both interest and breakthrough in cultural mindsets. Also, Africa’s entertainment sector has seen a boom across the globe over the last decade, especially in countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, where internet access has spread the influence of pop culture even more.
Jeanne Batalova’s 2015 research for Migration Policy found that of the 1.4 million African immigrants in the U.S. who are 25 and older, 39 percent have a bachelor’s degree, compared with 29 percent of all immigrants and 31 percent of the U.S.-born population. The New American Economy study found that 1 in 3 of undergraduate degrees for African immigrants are focused on science, technology, engineering, and math. That report also found that 16 percent have a master's degree, medical degree, law degree or a doctorate, compared with 11 percent of the U.S. born population. This just shows the heavy emphasis and influence these fields have had on the African community. The translation in career statistics is a unique way to emphasize that the choice of careers in our community is very traditional and should have a broader scope of career options.
Positive representations of African descendants in the arts also contribute to breaking the stereotypes we often see connected with being African in mainstream media. We've seen the infomercials featuring starving children with bones sticking out of their bodies, portraying Africa as a place whose people are always in need or media reports about outbreaks of disease or violence. It isn't representative of Africa as a whole, and it's time we get to see narratives directed by Africans in the diaspora. Content created by or featuring African descendants in entertainment like HBO's Insecure and the record-breaking Black Panther are more important now than they've ever been. Not to forget movies like A United Kingdom which was produced by David Oyelowo, and Thandie Newton's documentary Liyana. Having films and series like these created and portrayed by Africans gives us the opportunity to give our narrative an accurate voice in pop culture. It's a new way to empower the world by showing the diverse stories of blackness that goes beyond what was normally displayed as African culturalism.
Representation serves as an important way to glean information about the world. It can propel people to have power in their choices and their future. That's why I'm so proud to see more and more first and second generation Africans taking over in media because it ignites passions within people. Seemingly it will remind those of us who want to explore more in careers in arts and media that we are not alone in our experiences.