What is Culture?
The other night Marte, Damola and I attended an art gallery with some new Ethiopian friends, and went out with them for dinner and drinks afterwards. Dinner and drinks quickly turned into a passionate debate about Beyonce politics, westernization of Ethiopian culture, western Hip Hop and entertainment media in relation to Ethiopia and Africa at large, and Feminism. There was yelling, dramatic hand gestures, laughter, anger, happiness, and enlightenment all encompassed into this very complicated and important conversation.
Not one of us in this conversation had the same racial, ethnic and national experience. Being a diverse group of people engaging in these topics, made each of our opinions very distinctive from one another. The underlying question of all of our debates, one that kept coming up was “what is culture”. Over and over again we would say “well in our culture…” or “well that isn’t (insert ethnicity here) culture!” or “well this idea/establishment/person will/has ruined (insert ethnicity here) culture”. But when I walked away the biggest question I was left with was, what is culture, who decides what culture is, who decides what culture evolves into, and maybe more importantly, who decides what culture isn’t and what it doesn’t evolve into?
Throughout our debate our new friends were telling us about older or traditional Ethiopian culture and the newer one, which they attributed to modernization and an implied westernization. One example of this is the nightclub “Jolly” here in Ethiopia. I have frequented this place once, and I can say it is almost exactly like a New York City nightclub. Our friends told us that Jolly had previously been a traditional place for locals. It was a place where local politicians and activists came to discuss issues that were present in their local villages. Recently Jolly was inherited by the previous owner’s son, and he turned this place into a nightclub. One of our friends had told us a story of how her dad had taken the whole family to Jolly wanting to show them where he used to go with his family and friends to discuss current events, and was surprised and dismayed to find that it is now a nightclub where his family could not enter.
Two of our new friends told us how this is exactly how modernization (and an implied westernization) is ruining Ethiopia. The first, of many, complaints on new Jolly were of its advertisement. Jolly’s advertisements are all of a hyper-sexualized woman, enticing men and women. The advertisement itself sets a standard of the women and men who can attend this club. They told us that women must be hypersexualized, wearing small and tight dresses, and men should look masculine. Interestingly, a western definition of masculine, wearing western clothing (button up, slacks, dress shoes – not traditional), and appear as if they have money and status. Our friends hated this. They said this goes against what Ethiopia is about; women aren’t supposed to be hyper-sexualized, and that isn’t what being a Ethiopian man is about.
Another example of this was the artist The Weekend. To my surprise, The Weekend is Ethiopian! For those of you who don’t know him, he is a Canadian born, American R&B artist who is known for his extremely sexual lyrics that quite graphically describes sexual experiences, where, more often than not, the woman is a sexual object. More frankly, he makes “baby-making” music. Recently, he made an announcement that he is going to release an album featuring Ethiopian music. To two of our new friends (the same two who criticized Jolly’s modernization) this was absurd. How can a man who represents sex and humans in all the ways Ethiopian culture resists, create an Ethiopia-centered album? Won’t he taint Ethiopian culture just as Jolly is?
Another one of our Ethiopian friends had a counter argument however. She basically questioned who are we to decide what is today’s Ethiopian culture. Some people say Jolly and The Weekend and his new album are modern Ethiopian culture. How can we say that there is only one culture? Moreover, she said that she thinks that it can be OK to have these nuanced ideas, despite your thoughts and opinions on it, as long as you teach newer generations that those aren’t the only forms of Ethiopian culture.
She raised a great point. It is a problem that western culture, economics, governance etc., is essentialized and often emulated by non-western countries, but when does something get attributed to the local culture/state/economics etc., and not attributed to the west? Don’t get me wrong, I am all for criticizing the West and acknowledging that colonization and imperialism has created this duality within developing states, where feminized tradition is at war with hyper-masculine modernization. What I am wondering is that, in our critiques of western cultural imperialism, aren’t we still putting the west at the center of all change, oppression, discussion etc.? Culture is an ever-changing and evolving thing; why can’t Jolly just be a new form of Ethiopian culture?
This is an interesting debate, which for us lasted until 1AM. Who is to say what is truly “Ethiopian culture”? I can relate to this; when I think of my own country of India I see how modernization has created and solidified a hyper-masculinized patriarchal state. I attribute this to westernization. I am continuously saying, “that’s not ‘real’ Indian culture that is the westernized version of our culture”. By this I mean that post-colonization India changed a lot, including imposing a lot of western-originated patriarchal culture and policies. So yes, if we take history into account modernization is, unfortunately, westernization, but is it just that?
These questions don’t have a specific answer. Developing countries are not doing one or the other, they are doing it all at once. It is wrong to solely look at countries as either resisting or emulating the west because that rhetoric keeps the west the center of change and non-change. Non-western nations are simultaneously resisting and emulating the west, and they are creating their own new culture and tradition independent from the west. It is all happening, and that is crucial in creating a post-colonial identity. And just as our contrarian friend had pointed out, nuances will come, some that emulate the west, some that doesn’t, but that’s what culture does. Globalization has been happening for years, before colonization ever happened; it is natural. What we can do is understand history, where these ideas came from, so that we can make an informed decision on how to create our and our state’s identity.