Innocentia Mhlambi

Faculty / Academic Staff
popular Culture in Africa
Intellectual Biography: 

“The Global South as a Source of Theory”
Innocentia J. Mhlambi
Wits University
For my PhD thesis, drawing from Barber’s (1987, 1997, 2000) seminal work of popular culture, I developed critical tools that could be used, specifically, for African-language literatures and a range of popular culture artefacts in South Africa. The book that emerged from this work further demonstrated that these approaches could also be used to appraise work of art; African composed opera in this case, which does not necessarily stem from a class category that Barber’s work identified. For in South Africa, art music is composed and practices by classically trained composers and singers drawn from the length and breadth of South Africa’s social strata. The transnational identities of many of these composers and singers, a situation enabled by a post-1994 status of the country, and the fact that many of these composers and singers, not long ago, were fixed within black geographical spaces legislatively identified by the apartheid state, entail that their music practice is simultaneously refracting both local and international cultural flows and mixes. The local influences in this form of art music, endow the artwork with a number of discourses, Barber (1999) termed African discourses which resonate with local popular sentiments and worldviews, while the international influences, are illustrative of the global artscapes to which music from the black South Africa can contribute. In this particular, instance, opera, which in different international quarters is regarded as a dying art form, is shown from the South, that it is instead transforming itself into some new and in-between European classical music practices and African cultural traditions. The contact zones, where European and African traditional forms are negotiated, mediated and transformed into some new, creolised and innovative, has long been a space for negotiating African modernity in South Africa as scholars such as Masilela (2003a), Comaroffs (1993, 1997), Peterson (2001) and others have aptly demonstrated.
The extension of the contact zones into operatic spaces, not only marks cmulticentric ultural flows that traverse the whole planetary spectrum in ways that move in and out of another all the time, but also how at the moment of contacts, the transformative potentials occasioned can inform new ways of understanding the world processes and systems that affect the human subject. For an example, in a collaborative work conducted with a musicologist, Professor Naomi André, from the University of Michigan, black opera for both African Americans and Africans in South Africa relates differently to the mainstream or what could be considered the Global North cultural practices. In both instances the opera genre constitute narratives of Blackness/Africanness, sketching out central moments of African/African-American history and incorporating of distinctive portrayals of African philosophy and unique methods or ways of expression that foregrounds contemporary views of socio-political, and economical economies that transform Africans. In the American context black opera is marginalised and relegated to second rate art music forms by the mainstream and yet in South Africa, this musical form is foregrounded and readily accepted in the mainstream even though it valorise underrepresented voices in ways that flout, repudiate and remake this classical form as a template for high art music and as a preserve for the Global North.
My work on one hand extends these black Transatlantic conversations and on the other engages new critical lines of inquiries, especially revelations by opera “indigene” on how the operatic space can be used for articulating multicentric perspectives that have always occupied marginal zones.

Presentation Title: 
Re-casting African Philosophy in Post-1994 Black Opera
READINGS Comaroff, J. and J. 2012. Theory from the South: Or, how Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers. Annotation The contribution of this book lies in the frameworks it put in place for considering Global North/Global South relations. Appandurai, A. 1996. Modernity at Large: The cultural dimension of globalisation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Annotation The work offers critical tools to thing about globalisation as multiply-constituted networks of culture. The emphasis of the contribution lies on its demonstration of global cultural flows, and the mutability of global cultural flows. Chakrabarty Dipesh 2000. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Annotation This work offers re-examinations of the Global North’s totalising and universalising theory and practice. It re-examines ideas of rationality, universality and difference and locates these within intercultural and intersocietal studies.
I have so far written two articles; one on the opera Winnie (2011) a collaborative project with Professor Andre from University of Michigan and Donato Somma, a coleague from Wits University, and the other on Princess Magogo kaDinizulu (2002). Both these articles are with African Studies and African Journal of Cultural Studies respectively. Furthermore, individually, we have been planning on writing monographs concentrating on those areas of black opera (composition, training, production politics, audience reception, funding etc,) across the Atlantic divide, that foreground politics of blackness and the opera genre as a new narrative medium.