The space of reality television has evolved from the pioneering shows of the early 2000s like The Real World and Road Rules to include shows with every premise you could dream up. Almost unbelievable wealth is one frequent theme in the genre, and reality TV has taken us across the globe to see how the one per cent lives in different countries. African diaspora one percenters are having a moment, thanks to shows like Discovery+’s London Lit and Netflix’s Young, Famous & African, which show what life is like on the lap of luxury across the pond and beyond. As much of the world suffers from war, climate change, inflation, and so much more turmoil – especially the parts of the world where these new reality shows take place – it seems odd that we should subject ourselves to more content about the elite… off.
Netflix’s original series Young, Famous & African explores what it’s like to be part of modern high society in Johannesburg, South Africa. Through the 7-episode reality series we get to know the wealthy people from Tanzania, Uganda, and Nigeria, and despite their varying origins, they all have one thing in common: money. Even for those who may have acquired their wealth through sketchier means, flaunting that wealth is basically a second job for these new faces. London Lit, the Discovery+ series about millennial British West Africans in the British capital, follows a similar thread. This crowd, though younger than those in the Netflix series, is just as rich, and the money in their families is quite extensive; the cast includes DJ Cuppy and Kiddwaya. Young people in London Lit try to make their mark on the world.
The upward trend of positive, interesting narratives about the continent is hugely exciting to me as a child who grew up in the States without much accurate representation of African culture on mainstream television. The media’s depiction of Africa and African people for a long time was almost entirely comprised of poverty porn or of xenophobic stereotypes, and those portrayals impacted a lot of us in real life. You couldn’t find an African kid who didn’t grow up being asked ridiculous questions about life back home.
The misconceptions about our cultures caused many of us to overcompensate in some way, either by moving away from our Africanness or by overextending ourselves to prove that the continent was so much more than what is represented on TV and in movies. Instead of requiring people to read a book and learn more about Africa, we bore the burden of battling ignorance with excellence. As part of our crusade to show the “real” Africa, we often looked at the successful entertainment industries and the sprawling mansions that dot the landscape.
There are a number of very well-off Africans living both at home and abroad. If we treat that lifestyle as the standard for the rest of Africa, we are dishonest at best and harmful at worst, as it implies that riches are the only experiences worth caring about in Africa. Most Africans, whether at home or abroad, don’t enjoy exorbitant wealth. A large portion of Africa is still recovering from a long, painful history of colonialism, and those fraught relationships with European countries have only given way to modern colonialism from new world powers seeking to further exploit their resources. Conflicts resulting from administrative corruption complicate citizens’ economic growth.
The recent news cycle and our social media timelines do not support the narrative being shared. In times of war, Africans living in Ukraine crowdsource for food and shelter after being turned away at the border due to racism. Ethiopia has been ravaged by a civil war that has left the Tigray region desolate. Even as South Sudan attempts to heal after its Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict, millions of people are still displaced. The political sphere in Nigeria is in disarray after the shocking police brutality that led to the EndSars protests. You shouldn’t be fooled by these glitz and glam shows- only a very small fraction of people are living those lives
This contradiction is not limited to projects coming out of Africa. There is a global preoccupation with rich people’s business in pop culture. Shows such as Made in Mexico, Bling Empire, Singapore Social, Shahs of Sunset, and The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives keep the affluent entertained. Their high rises and gated estates are just on the other side of chaos. Despite purporting to delight us with the daily dramas of the global elite, streamers pushing narratives about the one percent do feel misguided in our current climate. Although we are awed by the couture fashion and luxury cars, and we are thoroughly entertained by the drama of who is the biggest boss, the reality is that these lifestyles are almost like fiction when we look at what the rest of the world is experiencing. Even here in the U.S., we complain about the rising cost of gas while watching Bravo’s Real Housewives buy Bentleys on a whim. During a pandemic that will not end, the one percent oohs and ahhs over what we do while going to the President for another stimulus check.
Could the solution simply be to stop making or watching these reality shows? You can have a lot of fun when you don’t think too much about how unrelatable they are. To make the world’s gaze on the African continent more nuanced, it might help to broaden the scope. Many parts of the continent are still trying to rebuild on their own terms, after centuries of colonialism, imperialism, and global interference. Africa does not owe anyone luxury as its respective countries develop. A balance between flashy reality shows and realistic portrayals is beneficial to Africans in the diaspora and at home. It’s titles like Blood & Water that keep you on the edge of your seat while being realistic about class disparities in South Africa. Castle & Castle’s chicness is stabilized by its no-holds-barred discussion of Nigeria’s complex legal system. Chewing Gum and Big Age explore the challenges of being a second-generation African with heart and unflinching honesty.
Although private jets and billionaire balls make for great television, they are only part of the story. By promoting African culture in popular media, we shouldn’t hide the truth by only privileging the elite – what we really need is a representation of a complete picture. That is the representation that we need.