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African heritage: Are young Africans losing their heritage or is it becoming something else?

Image credit: iCanvas.

Are we losing our ethnic culture and heritage to mainstream media and Western societal norms?

Commonly described as the “Father of South African jazz”, late multi-instrumentalist, singer and composer Hugh Masekala believed that Africans were becomingly increasingly dissociated with their own cultural identities.

Masekala was known for voicing strong opinions on the loss of African heritage, particularly amongst Africa's youth. Frequently discussing his upset over the fact that many Africans can no longer speak their native tongue, Masekala was a prominent figure in the promotion of maintaining cultural and ethnic traditions and lifestyles amongst Africans.

The debate around ethnic and cultural identities is a vast, multifaceted and endless one. There is no right or wrong answer, and there is no real 'solution' to what Masekala so strongly argued.

In a world dominated by the forces of globalisation and mass media, it is not uncommon for Africans, and other ethnic groups alike, to experience what can be perceived as a ‘loss’ to what connects them to their ancestral homelands.

This is isn't something I think we should berate or find anger in, but something we should constantly try to understand and work with, not against.

Image credit: New York Public Radio

Masekala would often claim that Africans were willing to embrace all other cultures except their own.

Is this entirely accurate, though?

I think it is important that we view cultural identities, especially cultural identities amongst diasporas, as fluid and dynamic, rather than a static and fixed social fact.

Thinking of our ethnic and cultural identities in this way helps us understand that the 'loss' of culture and tradition that Masekala identifies in young Africans are not exactly the result of cultural embarrassment or running away from ancestral ties, but rather, is a process where mixing of cultures and social interactions is producing a different kind of cultural identity and ancestral attachment.

We are living in a world where interactions amongst different people happen all the time. It is unavoidable. We have access to the internet, social media platforms, communications technology and modes of transport that bring us closer together in ways never experienced before. This is bound to have an impact on who we are as people and how we identify ourselves.

In today's world, we cannot avoid being influenced by cultures, traditions and lifestyles, other than the ones assigned to us at birth. Whether this is a positive thing or a negative thing, I believe, is totally subjective.

A leader in this particular debate, Robin Cohen conceptualised the process of 'creolisation' amongst diasporas. A creolised culture is one in which the parent (ancestral) culture and host culture merge, producing a distinct and separate third culture.

Taking the debate back to the early '90s, scholars such as Boyarin and Boyarin, noted that it is in fact this mixing of cultures that preserve cultural identities.

Where individuals like Masekala found this mixing harmful, others find it a useful way of keeping cultural identifies alive, even if they are not exactly what they used to be.

Touching on the decline of young Africans speaking their native tongues, it is important to recognise that maintaining ancestral language is just as complex as retaining cultural and ethnic traditions.

In many cases, young people are not losing the ability to speak their mother tongue, but are simply attached to their respective native language in a new and unique kind of way.

Exemplified by the British Greek-Cypriot diaspora, language maintenance and identity expression across generations have been achieved through 'code-switching' - the seemingly random alternation of two languages during a conversation.

Practised particularly by younger generations, code-switching allows the native tongue to still be used, but in a contemporary and hybridised way.

We can see how the debate over cultural identity and heritage is complex with many forces in play, it is not as black and white as Masekala portrayed things to be.

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