A new world order of cultural production

7 July 2022

CEDITRAA was launched in 2021 as a joint project of the Rhine-Main Universities (RMU) alliance in cooperation with the Pan-Atlantic University in Lagos. The project aims to investigate cultural entrepreneurship in Africa and Asia and the role of digital media in the international dissemination of the related output.

"The 20th century was clearly dominated by US-American popular culture," states Professor Matthias Krings of the Department of Anthropology and African Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). “However, in the last ten years, other global players have moved up alongside the USA. South Korea is becoming increasingly prominent in the Asian market while in Africa it is Nigeria with its burgeoning movie production and music industries. You could say that there is a now a new world order in terms of the production of popular culture."

This new world order of cultural production is the subject of the Rhine-Main Universities project CEDITRAA, short for Cultural Entrepreneurship and Digital Transformation in Africa and Asia, which is a collaboration of 18 researchers from Goethe University Frankfurt, Mainz University, and the Pan-Atlantic University in Lagos in Nigeria. They are experts in a range of different disciplines – from Anthropology, African Studies, and Korean studies through to Sinology, Film Studies, and Economics. "This interdisciplinary approach is crucial for CEDITRAA," emphasizes Krings, one of the two CEDITRAA speakers. "We want to study the phenomenon from as many different perspectives as possible."

Nollywood in Nigeria

Krings has invited his colleague Professor Ute Röschenthaler and doctoral candidate Tom Simmert to also take part in this interview. About another participant he adds: "Dr. Izuu Nwankwọ will be with us a little later." Born in Nigeria, Nwankwọ came to JGU as a Humboldt Fellow. "We are delighted to have him on board. He has already produced some outstanding work on stand-up comedy in Nigeria."

CEDITRAA is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). "We are being financed to the tune of EUR 2.1 million through the Regional Studies / Area Studies funding line," continues Krings. "And there is an option of obtaining further support in a second funding period." The project started in early 2021 and is expected to grow: "We will be recruiting doctoral candidates in the near future." The JGU side of the project is being coordinated by the Mainz-based Center for Intercultural Studies (ZIS). The three participating universities collaborate closely and complement each other depending on their focus of research: Frankfurt has a special interest in South Korea while the team in Mainz primarily looks at what is happening in Nigeria.

For several years now, Krings has been studying the popular culture of this West African country: "In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Nigeria established a thriving movie industry that rapidly dominated the African continent before reaching out into the rest of the world." The term Nollywood came up as a counterpoint to Hollywood and Bollywood. "This achievement was largely attributable to digitalization. Streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify were of major relevance here. The Nigerian movie Òlòtūré, for example, made it into the Netflix Global Top Ten in 2019." It is very similar with South Korea: the Squid Game TV series on Netflix was an international sensation. The large businesses running these streaming platforms found themselves accessing new markets and, as a result, often ended up acquiring local competitors. On the one hand, they were distributing content infused with a flavor specific to a particular region while, on the other hand, the strategy also made the productions mainstream.

Afrobeats and the music industry

"It's not just movies that Nigeria sends out to the world," adds Krings. "The music genre of Afrobeats has proven itself very popular around the globe." This is Simmert's area of expertise. He studies the music industry, the tactics of which he summarizes as follows: "The industry's approach is to gamble on which trends will turn out to be lucrative before they have really taken hold. So once the Afrobeats craze started to pick up pace, the industry began to invest heavily in local labels, procuring the corresponding cultural property." What transpired was comparable to what occurred in the movie industry: it supported both the dissemination and the homogenization of the Afrobeats sound.

Simmert draws attention to another aspect as well: The song "Love N'wantiti" by Nigerian singer-songwriter C'Kay became a world hit in 2021, with TikTok being largely responsible for the song's success. "TikTok lets users upload their own content and combine it with audio tracks that are already available on the platform. You can create your own videos, basically. This is how C'Kay’s song went viral in that it became the background music for more than 10 million videos."

Röschenthaler, on the other hand, is interested in the legal dimension of these processes. She focuses on the protection of intellectual property rights given to artists by TikTok and what happens when other users integrate that material in remixes or brief clips. "The copyright rules were written with print media in mind and are indeed better tailored to that format," she explains. "But the situation with music in the digital media era is different and much more complicated. The interests of the industry, of cultural entrepreneurs and of the artists themselves are often diametrically opposed. Digital platforms generate a certain amount of income for individual content creators, but generally it is the big stars who tend to benefit most from copyright regulations rather than talents who have yet to establish themselves."

The TikTok example illustrates quite well the approach and work of the CEDITRAA researchers. Traditional methods of anthropological research with tools such as participant observation and interviews continue to play a major role. But now these are augmented by what is known as digital anthropology, which goes far deeper than analyzing content. "We strive to enter into real conversation," explains Simmert. “Participant observation in this context involves us accompanying the people in music production, for example. We don't just observe and take notes any longer, we actually interact with them." Simmert gives Likes and writes comments, and – as a musician himself – uploads his own content.

Cultural reception and impact

Nwankwọ will add another important element to the CEDITRAA project because comedy is a big part of Nigerian cultural life. "It really is big business," he emphasizes. "Our comedians started to get really professional in about 1995." Kick-started by Nollywood, many had their first break in movies, which helped them hone their skills. At the same time – unlike the movie and music worlds – this sector is resisting the trend towards becoming mainstream. "A lot of punchlines are derived from the various dialects of Nigerian languages and particularly Nigerian phrases that have found their way into the local Pidgin English. It is nearly impossible to effectively translate this." However, these comedians also have an impact way beyond the borders of their own country. They visit and perform for many Nigerian communities abroad and their work is also disseminated through digital media.

CEDITRAA offers multifaceted insights into two emerging cultural centers: South Korea and Nigeria give a lot of impulses to the media world in the form of movies and music, but at the same time they are instrumentalized. There are many other factors that will be dealt with during the project, such as whether and to what extent Nigerian pop culture influences that of South Korea, and vice versa, and what effect the old has on the production of the new. For his part, Nwankwọ will be looking in detail at the degree to which non-African artists have been inspired by the products of the Nigerian culture industry. Among these are acclaimed imitators but also those who have attracted censure.

"We are very satisfied with the outcome of our first year in the CEDITRAA project," says Professor Matthias Krings. Naturally, the course of the project was affected by corona restrictions. "Nevertheless, our collaboration turned out really well despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that we had to communicate online. We were able to meet frequently and regularly, which would have been hardly possible in the analog world. We also wouldn't have been able to get together such an international audience for our first two conferences, which we now held online." Krings pauses to take a deep breath: "But I do hope we will soon be able to meet each other face-to-face again, although we certainly won't be abandoning the digital channels just yet."