In 2005, actor Will Smith expressed an interest in helping to reshape Africa's image and encouraging more people to visit the continent. The African-American celebrity made his first trip to Africa when he was filming scenes for his 2001 movie on the life story boxer Mohammed Ali. Smith took to the vast and diverse landscape of the continent and has since made numerous trips back; encouraging fellow Americans to do the same. He says, "It is just so beautiful, and I feel like I have a perspective. (AIDS in Africa) is the greatest epidemic in the history of man, but I think that the public relations approach is wrong. I think if you show sick children and flies and all of that, that turns people off. There are so many beautiful things."
Rapper-turned-actor Ludacris also visited Africa for his musical video shoot and expressed amazement at the beauty of the people and the countryside of South Africa where the video was shot. In interviews with the media he calls on his fellow Americans to "pick up a book, learn more about Africa as a whole, and, if you get the chance to come out here, come and realize and see it for yourself exactly what I'm trying to show you." Ludacris explained that his intention to shoot his video in Africa was to show the world the beauties of Africa that American media does not want to show. "People just think its all jungles and flies and poverty. It's nothing like that. I had to show the beautiful side of what Africa is as a whole’ he explained.”
The opportunities for rebranding that is presented here by these two African-American celebrities is significant. These are young, highly visible and successful recording artist and actors with a fan base that stretches across all parts of the world. Presently, no effort has been made to tap into opportunities that are presented by western celebrities who have expressed concerns about the negative portrayal of the continent; yet Africa bemoans the role of celebrities in endorsing negative brands of Africa. To undertake the task of rebuilding or rebranding Africa, like it or not, Africa will need to engage with Western celebrity culture and personalities.
Blogger Kofi notes on Annansi Chronicles that evidence of the power of celebrity can be seen in the media coverage of the recent TED Global conference in Tanzania. `The fact that Bono can have so much power as to …. be the only one of 50 or so presenters over the 4 day African conference covered widely in the press illustrates the power of celebrity.’
To make an inroad into rebranding Africa, it is essential to employ some of the tactics and popular cultural tools through which information is assessed globally. The celebrity culture is at the top of that list. The challenge today is that Western celebrities on `save Africa’ missions receive all the attention to the exclusion of African celebrities. Humanitarian relief agencies know this as celebrity endorsement of humanitarian aid for Africa has become the norm; giving visibility to NGO efforts and driving the agendas of Western governments’ foreign policies on Africa. International NGOs take advantage of every opportunity to market and push their agendas for Africa, Africans and their allies committed to a rebranding agenda against aid and charity should do the same. Public declaration of commitments to support positive rebranding of Africa as shared by Will Smith and Ludacris should have been harnessed into major public relations and engagement opportunities.
Current efforts to re-brand Africa focus on communicating the possibilities and business innovations taking place in Africa, while ignoring the branding activities of international aid and charity marketing. To re-brand Africa to a mass audience requires a repackaging of Africa, and demands public information and advocacy strategies for engaging with the current channels of aid and charity branding of Africa because two-versions and perceptions of a brand cannot live together; one brand has to dominate.`A brand is valuable for one reason and one reason only. It dominates a category.’ Because of this, most new brands don’t stand a chance. New branding efforts of/on Africa including national initiaitves will not stand a chance unless the old brand is challenged.
Information and research to challenge current negative branding of Africa exists but they are not available in popular and assessable forms and formats. They are not promoted within and through existing formalized institutions or structures that can systematically disseminate challenge negative branding of Africa and promote alternatives to targeted parties and consumers in Africa and the international community.
By Choice Ufuoma Okoro
Ms. Okoro is a Media and Communication Professional with over a Decade Working as a Journalist in England and Nigeria, and Program Coordinator Human Rights and Peace Justice Global & Ecumenical Relations Unit
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