In 2008, when a multicultural Senator from Chicago with a Kenyan Father became the first black President of the United States of America, many knew that Africa had made a mark in the world that throughout history, had few other milestones to be compared with, in magnitude. The Moorish conquest of Europe and North Africa, which lasted for about 700 years starting from the 8th Century A.D., significantly shaped modern-day Europe and Western civilization. From the music to education, the influence is subtle but the evidence is ingrained in the transfer and evolution of invention and innovation. When the North African Saint Augustine of Hippo, penned down his theological insights of Original Sin and Just War in the 4th and 5th centuries, he may have been unaware that his writings would become one of the directions of modern Christianity.
19th Century Russia’s Alexander Pushkin, whose Great-Grandfather was an East African Abram Gannibal, may not have dreamed that he would today be referred to as the Father of modern Russian literature. Even Gannibal himself, brought over from East Africa to Russia in the 18th Century, started out as Peter the Great’s slave and rose to become a Governor and a Military General in Russia. And lastly, though certainly not least, there is Mozart’s contemporary, Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George, whose Father was French and Mother, Wolof from West Africa. A world renowned Composer during his time, he was also a master swordsman in Paris.
Times has changed quite a bit since then, new types of ‘black’ have emerged as a result of major migrations and settling of Africans across the globe. The perils of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Colonialism, and Racism have all contributed to the many definitions of ‘black’ in the world today. The conflict of ownership for identity is a constant issue among Africans, African Americans, Caribbeans, and other groups. Being black had become in many ways, synonymous with the African American experience in America, almost always carrying negative undertones of struggle and prejudice.
The great West Indian Educator, Edward Wilmot Blyden, usually considered to be the Father of Pan-Africanism, always maintained that for Africans and the African Diaspora to move forward and flourish, both sides needed to reconnect. In recent decades, the rapid emergence of this reconnection has been even more evident, especially between Africa and America. With more and more African Americans reconnecting with Africa through such things as DNA Ancestry and Heritage Tourism, many Africans seem to be sharing ownership of the ‘black identity’ as well, by virtue of the many pioneering milestones achieved by Africans in America and around the world.
2014 has started off with great momentum for Africans, especially those setting milestones outside of the Continent, sometimes as the only representative of blacks in the midst of global platforms dominated by other cultural groups. Africa seems to offer a renewed opportunity for the ‘black identity’ these days, with excellence, recognition, and graceful achievements representing an experience that extends beyond any particular group. The recent achievements and recognitions this year by Africans are refreshingly reminiscent of the Boulognes and Gannibals whose achievements then, are today, achievements that any African, African American, West Indian, or any black can be proud of. It is not certain what influence Africans will have on the cultures and societies of tomorrow, however what is evident is that Africans continue to stay in the mix, making their mark all over the world.
Here are some African and First-Generation Africans in the Diaspora, who have earned global recognition in Entertainment and Technology at the start of 2014; it will be interesting to see how much influence they would have had on the global community at the end of the year.
(Kenya, East Africa) Lupita Nyong’o, Actress/Director
Born in Mexico to Kenyan Parents, Lupita Nyong’o has taken the world of motion pictures with storm. Following her movie role in the 2013 Film, “12 Years a Slave”, Nyong’o has earned a series of prominent awards and recognition in 2014. She received the award for Best Supporting Actress at the 2014 Golden Globe Awards and the 2014 Critics’ Choice Awards. She has also been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award this year as well as an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress at the prestigious 2014 Academy Awards. She is the first African to be nominated for the award. Nyong’o was one of the only two blacks on the list of the Top 10 Gamechangers in 2014 by MTV. She seems to have a transformational effect on how we perceive beauty in mainstream media. Discussions can be found all over social media about her skin-tone and how much influence she might eventually have on how black women are portrayed and accepted in the media.
(Sierra Leone, West Africa) David Sengeh, Biomechatronics Researcher, MIT Media Lab
Sierra Leonean David Sengeh does not seem to know how to be mediocre in success. The heights he is able to reach in the world of Technology due to his brilliant and innovative approaches to solutions, has earned him the company and support of some of the greatest names in the industry. Sengeh, who has had the opportunity to introduce Microsoft’s Bill Gates at a Harvard University event, is also a proud Alumni of the prestigious University, earning his Bachelors there in Biomedical Engineering. Sengeh, who is currently a PhD candidate at MIT, was recently listed in Forbes Magazine’s 30 under 30 for Technology in 2014. He was one of the only two blacks listed under this category. One reason why the world’s most important people may have their sights set on Sengeh, is probably because of the success he seems to already have in one area that he has tried to leave an influence, namely development. Slightly echoing a blend between the philosophy of Economist, Amartya Sen and the grassroots approach by Economist, Muhammad Yunus, Sengeh has proven, through his most recent initiative, “Innovate Salone”, that with opportunity and access, anyone can lift him/herself out of poverty and change their condition themselves. Through the work of many young Students in Sierra Leone, Kenya, and South Africa, Sengeh continues to show that inequality can become a myth if we choose to, at least beginning with the mind. Notwithstanding the great strides made by Sengeh so far regarding how we view innovation and creativity as tools for equality and growth; Sengeh’s own work is also dedicated to changing the way we view illness and disability in the world.
(Nigeria, West Africa) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Actor
British born to Nigerian Parents, Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor has become one of the most notable rising stars in Hollywood. His ability to skilfully immerse himself in each of his characters is one of the qualities that has earned him a favourable pick among his peers in the industry. His most two recent movies, “Half of a Yellow Sun” and “12 Years a Slave” have been two of the most talked about movies in 2013. Ejiofor is known to have had one of the best performances of Shakespeare’s Othello in his generation. He received nominations for Best Actor for his role in “12 Years a Slave” at the 2014 Golden Globes and he is one the three leading black Oscar nominees at the 2014 Academy Awards. No African or First-Generation African has ever been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar Award; Ejiofor is the first. This may not only be a great thing for Ejiofor and Hollywood, but also for Africa’s growing local film industry. Local film markets, like Nigeria’s Nollywood, while highly productive, are not necessarily producing the same quality of motion picture, Actors, and Actresses. Not often do we come across films like “Black Girl” by Senegalese Writer and Director Ousmane Sembene, that become global hits, appealing not only to the African audience but the International audience as well. “Half of a Yellow Sun”, starring Ejiofor was directed by Nigerian Biyi Bandele and based on the Novel by Author Chimamanda Adichie. It was filmed primarily in Nigeria and consists of mostly African Actors and Actresses including prominent Actress Thandie Newton from Zimbabwe. The film has already made great strides in the United Kingdom and is set to release in the U.S. in 2014. Adichie herself is a Nigerian Writer whose stories tend to extend beyond the confines of the African in Africa and includes the influences global culture has had on the African’s mobility in the modern world in and out of Africa. It will be interesting to know if there are more of her books that will also make it to the big screen sooner than later. Ejiofor and Newton are just two of the growing number of African American Actors and Actresses who are making the journey over to the African local film industry to share their talents in African-led motion picture production. It will be interesting to see if anything might change this year, in the way the international community approaches African motion pictures and the stories they tell.
(Senegal, West Africa) Issa Rae, Actress/Director
American born to an African American Mother and a Senegalese Father, Issa Rae transformed the concept of ‘being awkward’ and made her brand global. Rae took a simple idea and created one of the most watched shows on YouTube. Imagine feeling awkward and becoming famous for it, in a good way. Her success with “Awkward Black Girl”, the comedy show featured on YouTube that Rae herself stars in, has taken her beyond the internet into television, with HBO as one of her next major platforms. After watching a few episodes, we forget about self-esteem issues and stereotypes and life itself becomes a comedic journey, with less conflict and better interpretations of who we are when we interact. Without much of the weight that most Hollywood Directors have access to, Rae persevered and utilized the most cost-effective methods of telling her story and giving the world several opportunities to take a second look at the stereotypes we apply to each other. The manner in which she utilized social media to transform such a heavy psychological issue that seemed to be much more deeper than the common man can understand and therefore reserved for the experts, made her influence among young men and women who may have felt a bit of awkwardness in their lives as well, fascinating. Rae is one two black females listed in Forbes Magazine’s 30 under 30 for Entertainment in 2014. There may be very realistic expectations that she is not yet finished with tackling stereotypes and she may ‘fix’ the way we view each other, though we will have to wait and see.
(Somalia, North Africa) Barkhad Abdi, Actor
Born in Somalia, it only took his film debut, “Captain Phillips”, to capture the hearts and minds of Hollywood’s elite circle and the global audience that went in droves to the Cinemas. Actor Barkhad Abdi, acting alongside American Actor, Tom Hanks, gave a thrilling performance in the 2013 film. For his role in the film, Abdi received several award nominations, including the 2014 Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Abdi has also been nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor at the 2014 Academy Awards. Abdi is the second African to ever be nominated for the award category. Abdi’s rise gives hope to many amateur Actors and Actresses who are determined to make a mark and exercise their talent and gifts of their craft. For some, it comes natural.
(Sierra Leone, West Africa) Kelvin Doe, Inventor
Sierra Leonean Inventor, Kelvin Doe has probably received more global recognition than most teenagers in his generation. The pace at which his momentum continues to grow and expand is simply fascinating. Just over a year ago, Doe was in Freetown, Sierra Leone creating his own generator, battery, and radio station from anything he could find laying around. Today, Kelvin’s list of notable people he has been in company with continues to grow, including Harvard President Drew Faust, and Chelsea Clinton, and Former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Doe shares a passion for innovation, like his mentor, David Sengeh (mentioned above), and he has taken the opportunity to share his story as a young inventor from Sierra Leone, to the world. The world has been listening and numerous recognitions indicate that they want to hear more and see more from such a brilliant young mind. Doe was listed, alongside Kenyan Actress Lupita Nyong’o, on the Top 10 Gamechangers, by MTV. They were both the only two blacks on the list, both African.