MTV Africa- ready for Western prime time?
Almost twenty-four years after MTV itself launched, the channel is ready to start up an African service called MTV Base on May 20th. For the occasion, they held a South African concert featuring Will Smith and Ludacris, which will be broadcast on MTV itself.
Needless to say, there are some skeptics about this. Foremost is this RELEVANT magazine editorial which chides the network for the small content of actual African music videos as opposed to Western (American) ones. MTV has made itself an easy target: critics love to point out how it's not about music anymore, that it's become a huge marketing firm to shove pop culture down teens' throats, representing everything swarmy about the entertainment industry. Though it definitely seems that way sometimes, the reality is that love or hate it, they're doing this service in a continent that's otherwise forgotten- think of it as another foot in the door for world music in the mass entertainment circuit.
But that shouldn't totally let the channel off the hook- this is a good start but they also need to support more world music. Even if channel just has small number of African videos, it's much better than zero there or elsewhere. Obviously, the ratio should be higher and maybe the thinking is that this approach will initially draw more viewers and advertisers.
But then what happens after the channel gets on its feet? Is the problem that there isn't enough local content yet? I wondered about that myself until I did a quick search and found African Music DVD listing, Pan African All-Stars and Amazon Listing of African Music DVD's just for starters. Granted, that's not a lot but when MTV started, there wasn't a lot of content for them to use either. Maybe the hope is that since there is this forum now, music videos will become a more widespread phenomenon in Africa now.
One adjustment that might need to be made deals with time. Since videos feed off of pop music, their standard length is usually 2-5 minutes, which is good for short-attention spans (you'd think that decades after the form became so ingrained in pop culture, we'd see more of that rule broken but no...). Many African songs are just getting warmed up after 2-5 minutes (though some superstars like Youssou N'Dour are making pop length songs on their albums). Standard single-length songs usually makes no sense here just as they would confound jam-band grand-daddies the Grateful Dead or techno grand-daddy Derrick May.
So how would you reconcile say a two minute video followed by a 15-20 minute song? An hour long show minute just have two songs total then. Individually directly videos would by necessity still fall under the pop-length format (the logistics to do an extended video is usually saved for the top stars who can get a budget for such a thing) but concert footage of a song would clock in at many minutes. Would you want to be a program director and try to figure that out? Then again, if there really is a paucity of material, then longer songs would definitely help to fill the time slots. If MTV Base does focus on the shorter songs, you have to wonder what kind of effect and expectations that's going to create for African music in the future.
When I spent time in Southern Africa in the late 80s, I noticed that many of the people there were fascinated and intrigued by Western culture but at the same time, they were loathe to give up their own culture. As such, I wonder how a channel like MTV Base will play for this demographic. Despite these obvious problems, I'm rooting for it, hoping that it becomes more ingrained with the locales that it hopes to reach.
But I also think it's reach should be beyond Africa: this channel should be to beam some or all of its content elsewhere. Think of it as a multi-million dollar cultural exchange program. If African viewers get to see a lot of our videos, why shouldn't we get to see theirs? If part of the schedule came on MTV or MTV2 or VH1, there would definitely be viewers who would pick up on this who have never seen African music before, not to mention people who are fans of it already. Is it too far-fetched to think that just as 9-11 was partly a horrible reminder for the West to take other regions of the world seriously, Paul Simon's Graceland was an infinitely gentler, kinder reminder for the West to take the rest of the musical world seriously? Africa may want its (own) MTV but we need theirs too. As an African professor told me before I left for his continent, "we live to share- what else is there?"