Making Africans Human, One Video at a Time

by Racialicious special correspondent Wendi Muse

Yesterday morning I was a bit reluctant to get out of bed and start my day.

Okay, VERY reluctant, so much so that I had to rely on the luscious sounds of early-morning video wakeup via the channel that only plays music between 4 am and 8 am before it mentally assaults you for the rest of the day with reality shows despite having the word “music” in its name.

Anyway, I was trying desperately to find something cheerful to wear in order to distract my co-workers from the less than excited expression I was most likely to bear for the rest of the day due to poor sleep when I noticed there was a very dark-skinned black woman on television with natural hair who was over the age of 40. I thought to myself, “Am I dreaming? A black woman in a music video who is fully dressed, whose face I see instead of her ba-donk-a-donk, and completely sans 10 pounds of extensions? Something must be wrong.” I then noticed more beautiful brown-skinned people in the background listening to the woman speak and thought for a moment, considering that I heard no music, that I had somehow switched the channel to CNN without realizing it.

But I hadn’t. I pressed the “info” button on the remote and the screen read “MTV: Video Wakeup 7:00 am – 8:00 am.” Hmmm…what was going on? A few seconds later, I was greeted to the sounds of Fall Out Boy, the quasi-emo-pseudo-punk-hipster-teenie-pop band of “Dance Dance” fame and whose lead singer Pete Wentz has apparently been showing his pinga all over town. Despite all of the skinny-jean dropping, it looks like the group has been up to some good. Their video for “I’m Like a Lawyer with the Way I’m Always Trying to Get You Off (Me & You)” does a shockingly good job of what Bono and the Vanity Fair crew seem to have a few problems getting right: humanizing black Africans.

Fall Out Boy does a few things many other celebrities cum activists sometimes neglect to do (either out of ignorance, a bad publicist, or total lack of care…I can’t quite put my finger on it) and that an equally concerned American audience tends to forget:

1. They establish that Africa is a continent in which there are many countries
The video takes place in Uganda, to be more specific, the Gulu Township in Northern Uganda, which, according to the film Invisible Children, a documentary that focuses on the forced conscription of children into the Lords Resistance Army, has become a place of refuge to avoid being kidnapped into military service. By taking two seconds to note the specific location in which the video takes place, F.O.B. (or the really smart people who did the research for the video) avoids falling into the trap of the “hey look, there are problems in the country of Africa!” camp. Thank goodness for that. Maybe now some of the kids who watch MTV on the regular will be more likely to pull out a map and locate Uganda or maybe “the South Africa, such as.”

2. They provide the audience with characters with whom they can easily identify
The video tells the story of a young couple involved in a budding romance that is cut short when the male partner is abducted by guerillas. Though the couple is reunited in the end, one is given the impression that it was only fate that brought them back together as opposed to any of their individual actions. People of many cultures are familiar with this storyline as it is a common thread in countless love stories. Couple meets, falls in love, is separated by tragedy/conflict, and finally reunites by chance. Despite the fact that the characters in the video are black and Ugandan, audiences worldwide can identify with the situation. So many activists fail at this mainly because they focus so much on tragedy but very little on the commonalities between people facing extreme adversity and those on the other side of the globe who are not. The average American may not know what it’s like to go hungry or to be kidnapped or to have a war going on in his or her backyard, but that same person is likely to have had a crush, to have dated, and to have something come between him/her and the person he/she loves. This tiny connection aides the process of humanizing the people to whom the outreach is geared and it’s a vital step that’s lacking in a lot of the more popular campaigns.

3. They do not portray black Africans as uncivilized/savage or identical
While the video demonstrates that many of the soldiers were once townspeople (and some are even children) just like the other civilians, the differences between the two groups are asserted by their proclivity to commit acts of violence. What’s interesting here is that the director did not present the typical lumpen Africans swallowed by tragedy, but instead created characters, blurred the lines between good and evil, and presented the people as individuals. They did not wear loincloths or war paint, or carry spears. The land was populated with people and not animals (in a funny twist, F.O.B. band members performed in the grass as if they were the animal side chorus as opposed to the director utilizing the typical montage of lions, giraffes, and wild birds passing through the grasslands.

4. They provide their viewers with information on how to become more involved
At the end of the video, the website for the Invisible Children organization is displayed for viewers to get involved. How actively F.O.B.’s fans will apply themselves to helping improve the lives on Ugandan child soldiers is to be determined, but at least the band included the information so that the mental weight of the issue didn’t necessarily stop when the video ended, leaving viewers to question “now what?”

So in short, I am proud of Fall Out Boy for taking a moment out of their busy guy-liner application to give MTV viewers something to think about and to do it successfully, without reducing black Africans to faceless nonentities in a public service announcement. The only weird part is that I noticed the organization they did a little advertising for is not the most diverse. The only person of color I noticed was an Asian-American guy in one of the pictures, but I couldn’t find him among the staff profiles. And the section for the Ugandan staff of bracelet makers, management, and mentors are completely blank, meaning that they either haven’t entered them into the system yet or they simply don’t exist. Call me cynical, but I find it a bit odd that a group doing outreach within Uganda has zero Ugandan staff members and an all-white domestically-based group. Did all my praise for F.O.B. just fall through the floor?