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[Open Research] Landscapes of Aspiration in Guangzhou’s African Music Scene: Beyond the Trading Narrative

By Roberto Castillo (2015). 

“This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published in the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs on 20 Jan 2016, available online at: [.PDF]

To cite this article: Castillo, Roberto (2015). Landscapes of Aspiration in Guangzhou’s African Music Scene: Beyond the Trading Narrative, Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, 44:4, 83-115.**

1. Introduction: African Nightlife on the Pearl River

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[Wave Bar in Zhujiang’s Culture and Art Zone (Photo: author)]

After a couple of informal meetings, Dibaocha (43), a well-known Nigerian singer in Guangzhou, finally invited me to one of his performances. We arranged to meet at a Starbucks near the Garden Hotel – a landmark in Taojin (one of the most affluent parts of Guangzhou). When I arrived at midnight, Dibaocha was already waiting inside his black SUV. As I jumped in, I caught a whiff of air freshener mixed with the fading smell of a new car. As I relaxed in the air conditioning, I sensed a certain tension, however. Dibaocha was talking intensely on the phone, and failed to acknowledge my arrival. As he argued in English about some payments, he anxiously zapped through his latest album, which was blaring through the sound system. At the same time, he was texting in Igbo and pinyin on a second phone. As I waited for the conversation to end, I noticed that he was dressed in full hip-hop attire. I knew from our previous meetings that Dibaocha was stylish (I always felt comparatively underdressed), but that night was special. He was wearing neon-blue pants with a pair of impeccable white shoes and a matching tee. He also had a few silver chains around his neck and a glitzy blue hat. On his right wrist, a gold bracelet with the name “DIBAOCHA” set in “diamonds” shined in the phone’s light. Strewn across the back seat of the car were dozens of copies of Dibaocha’s two albums, flyers, clothes, and a handful of cables. Hanging above them on a cable extending from window to window were four tutus and four sexy nurse costumes in dry-cleaning bags. In addition to all this, there was a big metallic box on wheels with a cash slot at the top and a couple of posters of Dibaocha taped to it.

As the argument on the phone abruptly ended, Dibaocha was clearly upset. “This is wrong, man. The dancers don’t want to come to the show,” he told me. “You need to convince them to come,” he commanded, handing me his phone. Surprised by his request, I felt I had no choice but to comply. After several attempts to reach “Irina Dancer” again, she finally picked up the phone and said, in what I assumed was a thick Russian accent, “I told you, we will not go to your show,” before promptly hanging up. I called back several times, but to no avail. Finally, Dibaocha asked me to call from my own number. This time Irina did not hang up, and as I introduced myself rapidly, Dibaocha started driving in the direction of the venue – Wave Bar in Zhujiang’s Culture and Art Zone (an area on the bank of the Pearl River renowned for its nightlife). Irina was adamant that she would not go to the show that night, saying that Dibaocha needed a manager – someone to help him organise his events. In one of the several conversations we had that night (Dibaocha kept insisting that I call back), Irina made me promise that I would be the one to contact her in the future, instead of Dibaocha. In turn, I made her promise to try and find us some available dancers amongst her contacts that night.

The drive to the bar, which should have taken 20 minutes, eventually extended upwards over an hour, as Dibaocha didn’t know the way. As we drove down empty streets and criss-crossed the Pearl River several times, I started getting anxious and asked him to pull over and ask for directions. A few blocks ahead, we spotted a young man waiting at a bus stop on a lonely street corner. Dibaocha lowered the window, pulled over, and asked for directions in perfect Mandarin. The man seemed to know the place, but had trouble explaining how to get there. “Get in the car and take us there,” Dibaocha commanded. Much to my surprise, the young man didn’t hesitate before jumping in the back seat amongst the tutus and nurse costumes, and directing us to the venue.

Driving in Guangzhou’s night (video)

When we finally got to the bar (at around 1:30 a.m.), it was almost empty. There were two Chinese dancers and a Chinese DJ on stage, and another 30-odd people (including the staff) roaming around. The speaker volume was intolerably loud, so we sat on the terrace outside the bar, ordered a couple of beers, and waited. “A lot of people will come. Don’t worry,” Dibaocha told me. I kept calling Irina, but she eventually said that neither her Russian friends nor some Colombian dancers she knew would be able to make it. At around 2:30 a.m., a group of Dibaocha’s Nigerian friends arrived and sat with us – there were two businessmen who lived in Foshan, a “middleman” from Dongguan, and another singer from Guangzhou.

By 3 a.m., only a few of Dibaocha’s “fans” had arrived and, without dancers, the show seemed doomed to fail. Nonetheless, Dibaocha appeared calm and was positive that people would still show up. An hour later, only 30 tickets had been sold, but Dibaocha’s friends had started pressuring him to get on stage. Finally (at around 4:30 am), he opened the night (or the morning) with one of his most popular singles, “I Believe.” A few minutes before getting on stage, he had told me that he was not happy about performing without dancers and that he was still waiting for some important people to arrive. As he started singing, a group of foreign students dancing on the stage failed to realise that a concert had begun.

Subsequently, I attended several of Dibaocha’s shows, and most of them were packed to the hilt. Nonetheless, that first night gave me an insight into some of the difficulties faced by African musicians in Guangzhou: advertising and self promotion; negotiating with venue owners; booking dancers and/or back-up singers with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds; dealing (personally and financially) with the possibility of people not showing up; and, to some extent, fearing police raids.

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[Dibaocha during one of his performance, 2013 (Photo: author)]


2. African Presence in Guangzhou: Beyond the “Trading Narrative”

Dibaocha is among the countless foreigners who, over the last 15 years, have entered China in search of material and immaterial well-being. The southern metropolis of Guangzhou, more than any other city in the country, has become a magnet for scores of African entrepreneurs (i.e. businesspeople, traders, producers, adventurers and explorers, etc.) whose attempts to “make it big” have led them to try and set foot in the country. Despite the huge and well-documented presence of Africans in the city, no one really knows how many Africans are there in Guangzhou at any given time. Population figures have been widely and controversially discussed (see Bodomo and Pajancic 2015; Castillo 2013), and over the years, scholars have provided figures ranging from 1,500 to 20,000 to over 100,000 (Zhang 2008; Li, Ma, and Xue 2009; Bodomo 2010). At the same time, ubiquitous media reports have spread rumours of a population between 200,000 and 500,000 growing at a rate of 30 to 40 per cent annually since 2003 (see Branigan 2010; Osnos 2009, amongst countless others). Recently, however, in the wake of popular fears over a potential ebola outbreak in China, Guangzhou’s authorities revealed that less than 5,000 citizens of African countries were residents in the city (Zhuang 2014; Huynh 2015). Needless to say, official figures do not reflect the potential number of visa overstayers, and also do not account for those who stay short term (i.e. transient population). Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 5.23.47 pm

African presence in the city has been a magnet for scholars; and over the last eight years, almost 50 academic articles have been written about the subject. At the end of the first decade of the 2000s, Bertoncello and Bredeloup (2007, 2009), Le Bail (2009), and Bodomo (2010) sketched the general contours of the phenomenon and highlighted the emergence of new African trading posts and communities in China’s “city-markets” where “transnational entrepreneurs” functioned as bridges for Africa–China relations. Around the same time, Chinese researchers Li, Ma, and Xue (2009) and Zhang (2008) led the early explorations into the urban spaces that, they argued, were transforming into (transnational) “ethnic enclaves.” While this early body of research established a foundation for the study of African trading activities in Guangzhou, it also fostered notions of Africans in the city as merely mobile profit-seeking subjects in search of “comparative advantages” (Bertoncello and Bredeloup 2007: 101).

Soon after, Haugen (2012) and Mathews and Yang (2012) shed crucial analytical light on the case study. By highlighting the complexities involved in the mobilities/immobilities that inform African experiences in the city, Haugen (2012) challenged previous assumptions about the hyper-mobility (free flow) of transnational entrepreneurs. Mathews and Yang (2012) used the analytical framework of “low-end globalisation” (previously developed by Mathews (2007, 2011) in the context of Hong Kong) to make sense of the commercial activities carried out by foreigners in Guangzhou. In that framework, African and South Asian traders in Southern China are cast as carriers of globalisation as they acquire, export and sometimes smuggle cheap, and often counterfeit, goods across borders.Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 5.25.19 pm

Currently, most of the literature on Africans in Guangzhou focuses on trading activities and connections (see, for instance, Müller and Wehrhahn 2013; Daouda 2015; and Marfaing and Thiel 2015). Some more grounded and insightful explanations have emerged from the analyses of these activities at the “local” level, however. Bredeloup (2012), for instance, furthered her previous insights on trading posts in the city by highlighting a crucial issue: the recurrence of what she calls a “commercial form.” In discussing the recurrence of this form, Bredeloup’s work resonates with Li, Lyons, and Brown’s (2012) analysis of the “African enclave” as “restlessly restructuring.” Whether one agrees with the existence of such an enclave, notions such as “recurrence” and “restructuring” paved the way for the discussion of a crucial notion in more recent research: transiency (see Castillo 2015; and Bork-Hüffer et al. 2015). Indeed, African presence in Guangzhou is to a great extent informed by what Bork-Hüffer et al. (2015) call “new transient spaces”: unstable, transforming spaces where transnational and translocal activities converge. The transiency and instability characterising these spaces, and the strategies individuals and collectives design to cope with difficulties, are described in Castillo’s (2015) analysis of “precarious homing.” The migratory precarity, for instance, that some Africans face in Guangzhou has been tackled in Bork-Hüffer and Yuan’s (2014) discussion of changes to migration laws in the Hu–Wen and Xi–Li eras and, more importantly, in Lan’s (2014) analysis of state regulation of “African migrants.” In this analysis, Lan makes a case for the existence of an “anti-African immigrant campaign” in the city that has influenced the ways in which China manages foreigners on a national scale.

Moreover, some scholars, such as Haugen (2013a) writing about Pentecostalism and its promise of delivering prosperity for Africans in the city, Bodomo and Ma (2012) exploring emerging foodscapes, and Han (2013) expanding extant knowledge on the complex linguistic exchanges in what she deems an “Africa Town in Guangzhou,” have painstakingly attempted to provide descriptions that broaden imaginings and conceptualisations of African presence in China. Of late, Lin et al. (2014) and Huynh (2015) have also addressed issues of health and gender, but much remains to be done in those areas. Additionally, the ways in which African students defy clear-cut classifications by switching between multiple roles and activities has been explored by Haugen (2013b) and Bredeloup (2014), but could benefit from further investigation. Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 5.26.48 pm

The aforementioned body of research is crucial not only for understanding certain aspects of the African diaspora in Asia, but also to making sense of the issues I discuss throughout these pages. Thus, what follows is an attempt to contribute to the growing diversification of literature on African presence in China. In this article, I explore the area of personal aspirations in Guangzhou’s African music scene. Drawing on a year of sustained ethnographic fieldwork, I show how aspirations are not necessarily economic or rational calculations – ancillary to trade – despite being often traversed, articulated, fuelled, and constrained by economies and economic discourses. I contend that the overarching trading narrative has left little space for issues of agency, emotion, and aspiration to be considered in their own right. Indeed, most of the Africans that I have met in Guangzhou over the last four years regard (and utilise) trade not as an end in itself, but as a tool to achieve other (sometimes more important) mid-range and long-term objectives (see Castillo 2015).

By bringing the analysis of aspirations to the fore, I intend to, first, provide a more complex and nuanced account of the multiple rationales behind African presence in the region; second, promote a better understanding (both conceptually and empirically) of how individuals navigate their social spaces and guide their transnational journeys; and third, draw attention to the incessant frictions and negotiations between individual aspirations and the constraints imposed by structural imperatives. I do this from an ethnographic perspective and by emphasising certain transnational strategies that individuals design in order to fulfil their aspirations. Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 5.28.12 pm

Taking a cue from Yiu Fai Chow’s method of “following a person” (Chow 2011), I decided to follow a couple of musicians: Dibaocha, a Nigerian Igbo R&B singer, event organiser, entrepreneur, and father who has lived in the city for over eight years, and Manivoo, a young Ugandan who is in the process of becoming a musician. As I followed them, I started to see their entanglements – in particular, their anxieties over the need to fulfil their main artistic aspirations (i.e. to “make it big” in China and beyond) and how they struggled against a background of complex regimes of mobility that in some cases severely curtailed their aspirations but in other cases enhanced their opportunities.

As will become evident, this article draws heavily on ethnographic data I generated. Indeed,

there is no single definition of ethnography or a uniformed practice of ethnographic method, nor should there be: ethnographic practice responds and adapts to field research situations. (Strauss 2003: 162)

Ethnography, as I have experienced it, is an unpredictable, intersubjective, and open-ended process that entails participation, interpretation and reinterpretation, creation, ongoing reflection, and representation. Moreover, ethnography is a method of knowledge production (primarily based on the ethnographer’s experiences and conversations “on the ground”) that

does not claim to produce an objective account of reality, but should aim to offer versions that are as loyal as possible to the context and intersubjectivities through which the knowledge was created. (Pink 2001: 18)

Moreover, as an unpredictable, open-ended process whose point of departure is “on-the-ground” fieldwork, the ethnographer “embarks on a participatory exercise which yields materials for which analytic protocols are often devised after the fact” (Strathern 2003: 6). Frequently, as Strathern explains, ethnography is a “deliberate attempt to generate more data than the researcher is aware of at the time of collection” (Strathern 2003: 5). However, the data upon which the ethnographic production of knowledge relies is generated (through participant observation, interviewing, and other qualitative techniques) rather than simply collected. Indeed, as Dourish puts forward, ethnographic data

is a result of an ethnographer’s participation in a site rather than simply a feature or aspect of the site that the ethnographer harvests while hanging around. (Dourish 2014: 2 emphasis added)

Accordingly, the analysis I present here emerges from exchanges at particular points in the lives of certain individuals. As such, it is not an exhaustive representation of all kinds of aspirations that Africans involved in Guangzhou’s music scene may harbour. However, the two case studies in this article do provide an insight into the entanglements of hope and possibility involved in individual attempts to use talent, knowledge, and connections to build a future in China, Africa, and beyond.

Two notes are in order here. First, in this article I have chosen not to hide the identities of my two main research subjects, even though conventional social sciences methodology typically requires disguising key interviewees’ identities with pseudonyms. I have chosen this course not only because the musicians whose stories I present here are already publicly well known (especially Dibaocha) but, more importantly, because a condition of my engagement with them was that everything I wrote about them would have their artistic names on it. I have consented to that since the beginning of our engagements. As artists, the subjects were interested in having their names associated with their stories. Also, parts of their stories have appeared in several journalistic pieces and in a couple of documentaries. It is worth noting that individuals depicted here have read and given their consent to the publication of their stories in this final form, and that other than the two main research subjects, other identities have been disguised.

The second is a note on terminology. In this piece the term “mobility” is preferred over migration. I believe that the concept of (im)migration fails to account for the complexities of the geographical mobilities involved in this case study. Moreover, following de Bruijn, van Dijk, and Foeken (2001), I contend that as mobility is an umbrella term encapsulating a plethora of types of movement (i.e. travel, exploration, migration, tourism, nomadism, pilgrimage, and trade), it is more accurate to talk about “African mobilities” in China, rather than “African migration” to China…


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