The Netflix series Young, Famous and African doubles up as entertainment and an education on the diversity of being African.
By: Sbu Mkwanazi
Africa has always been bursting at the seams with insightful and eternally engaging stories. Non-Africans have often taken the lead in telling their version of sometimes skewed stories, but of late, an increasing number of African voices are taking up the baton to set the record straight.
These are African changemakers who are no longer waiting for outsiders to dictate what being African should look, sound or feel like. They are using their heritage, expertise and ingenuity to stamp their authority in the world, using a number of platforms such as social media, streaming sites and podcasts.
One of the most effective loudhailers in setting African narratives continues to be Netflix. As part of its strategy to produce as much African content for a market that has been largely ignored, it is poised to release Young, Famous and African this month.
For its first African reality TV series, the streaming service has roped in big-hitting celebrities from South Africa, Tanzania, Nigeria and Uganda, spanning industries such as fashion, music, entertainment and entrepreneurship.
The representative cast boasts the likes of Ugandan businesswoman Zarina Hassan, South African actress, singer and businesswoman Khanyi Mbau, South African rapper Nadia Nakai, musician from Tanzania, Diamond Platnumz, renowned South African DJ, Naked DJ, Nigerian model and actress Annie Macaulay, South African sports anchor and media personality, Andile Ncube and Nigerian stylist, Swanky Jerry.
The eight-episode production gives viewers a chance to know the celebrities intimately. Shot in Johannesburg, South Africa, the A-list personalities are all friends on a mission to find true love – a quest that is not as simple as it sounds, especially for celebrities who are consumed by their careers.
A southern perspective
“I got involved in the show as it is going to showcase Africans who are young, proud and inspirational. That kind of light has not before been shone on African artists. Of course, getting to know my fellow Africans is something that I was down for,” says 31-year old South African Nadia Nakai, known for her intoxicating rhymes as a rapper.
In South Africa, Nakai is also famous for being a television presenter and music writer, having penned hits such as Saka Wena and Don’t Cut It. The show is going to further open her appeal to a pan-African audience.
“I have always been exposed to what other African countries are producing, as I travelled to a number of nations. I was fortunate enough to have attended high school in Kenya and I entrenched myself in Swahili culture and their way of life for a few years. This is just one of the experiences I had on our continent, which inspired me to see myself as the African rap queen. It was my state of mind of where I wanted to end up, travelling and performing in as many African countries as I can.
“Not only do I want to be known in these different locations, but I would love it if Africa was one country, and we were one nation. I think we would be the strongest nation in the whole world. There are still so many African stories to be told and the rest of the world is now coming to us for music and fashion inspiration,” she enthuses.
Ugandan businesswoman Zarina Hassan is the CEO of 14 Brooklyn City College branches in South Africa. At the same time, she demonstrates her versatility by being a popular socialite, boasting more than 10 million followers on Instagram, with her digital presence bagging her the Social Media accolade at the 2020 One Africa Awards.
In 2011, she released a single titled Toloba and since then, it has garnered almost a million views on YouTube. Hassan is also no stranger to popular culture, as she starred in her own reality TV show in 2012 called Zari, Boss Lady.
“In this day and age, there are still people who think that Africa is only about our wildlife. So it is important for us to portray what our countries are all about, but also to show that we can be glamorous and glitzy as well, like the rest of the world,”
Known as Zari the Boss Lady, the mother of five is poised to be what she refers to as ‘the East African spice’, which brings its own drawbacks.
“People only know the boss lady side of me and because of that perception, some people think I am just fierce or strong. On the show, the audience will get to see the motherly side of me and just how affectionate I can be. People are going to be shocked at how much of a loving mother I really am. They are going to witness qualities that they would not normally associate with me.”
More than just about fame
The word entertainment often leads people astray, making them think that it is just mindless consumption of content. This is how the average person on the street takes in information, and reality TV takes the lion’s share of this.
Reality TV is how American culture continues to infiltrate most societies, and this form of entertainment informs viewers’ outlook on life, which is why shows such as Young, Famous and African are so critical for the African continent, as the world takes more notice of how we represent ourselves.
“My brand has always been a mysterious one. I build my brand solely on my talent and I was never the guy who would put himself out there, as my focus was always on my clients. At first, I was not interested in the series, but then I realised that I not only needed to tell my own story, but to tell Nigeria’s stories as well,” said Nigerian stylist Jeremiah Ogbodo, known to his more than 1 million Instagram followers as Swanky Jerry.
“For 12 years of my life, I have consistently invested my time, energy, money and talent into other people, making sure they look their best as African public figures. Of course, people know about my work as a stylist, but they do not know me as a person. This is a chance to know who I am,” he said.
Nigeria is one of Africa’s most exciting and profitable creative hubs. This was evident in 2021 when Nollywood produced close to 3 000 movies, more than 20 authors were bestowed with various accolades, and musicians made a name for themselves globally. Ogbodo aims to add yet another feather in his native country’s hat, but with a slightly different focus.
“Besides being a household name in my home country, I can tell you that I see myself as the biggest stylist in Africa. No other stylist from any African country has the same following as me and this includes Ghana, South Africa, Uganda and other nations. My aim is beyond just showcasing the beauty of Africa to Africans, as we already know what we are capable of. Now, we have to show the rest of the world what being African is all about.”
It’s a people game
Reality TV shows are anchored by the various personalities who share their most intimate part of their lives with millions of viewers. The more human – vulnerable and fallible they are – the more likely they are to make connections with their audience. This then results in a production that is globally well received. The African cast plans to be themselves, but also provide enthralling TV. One of the ways this will be translated on screen are via the surprising elements of their varying personalities.
“The misconception about my personality is that I am a monster because of how I portray my brand. I hardly show emotion in terms of a smile, or crying and laughing, and even my poses are serious. People will get to see a lot of emotion from me as I am human, just like them,” said Ogbodo.
“People often think I am aggressive and confrontational but on the show, you will see that I am uncomfortable with situations that involve drama. As a rapper, people think I should always fit the gangster and thug mould, but it really is not my brand at all,” said Nakai.
The authenticity of reality TV is regularly up for contention since the thought is that celebs change who they are just because there are cameras in front of them. Does this have the potential to paint a watered-down version of their true selves?
“When cameras are on you 24/7, you actually forget about it. Whatever you want to say or do, you do! I expressed my feelings and emotions freely. I can comfortably say that none of us held back on anything whether or not the cameras were rolling,” said Hassan.
“Being African is who we are. We do not magically put on a coat that makes us more or less African. Cameras do not mean we have to speak with so-called deeper African accents or look any different. There is no need for any of us to act African, as we are 100% African. This is why we need more shows like this, as some people still think Africa is one country and we all speak the same, dress the same and look the same. South Africans sound different compared to Nigerians and Ugandans sound different to Tanzanians. This is the type of knowledge that we hope to impart on the show on a global scale,” said Nakai.
When such a dynamic group of individuals are in the same space, common inter-African topics are bound to crop up. One of these is how Africans view each other.
“As a Ugandan-born businesswoman who is based in South Africa, when I go to Uganda, so many people note how South African I sound, yet in South Africa, people say I sound Ugandan. Different accents or not, we are all Africans,” said Hassan.
“I do not really watch a lot of TV as I prefer music. But when I compare what we created with other international TV shows, I feel we will top the charts. Being African is such a diverse thing.
“As a Nigerian, I am obsessed with how South Africans pronounce certain words with so much emphasis. The beauty of being African is that we can be so many things,” concludes Ogbodo.