Murja Ibrahim Kunya, a TikToker, in the Curriculum? Why the heck not?

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I was tagged in a FB thread lamenting the perceptions of Hausa popular culture studies by Muhsin Ibrahim on how such course of action is looked down upon. Indeed, he related personal bad experiences on his encounter with what one might call ‘culture purists’ who do not see anything worthwhile studying about contemporary popular culture. I feel that my response should be enlarged beyond the one I gave in order to reach wider audiences and stimulate debate. 

‘So, what exactly is ‘popular culture’? Without being bogged down by technicalities, it is simply what people like. Often referred to also ‘mass culture’.  Which differentiates from ‘elite culture’ preferences of the high order of the society. Elite culture is often favored because it is seen as cultural representative due to its historical purity. For instance, Shata is elite culture, while Rarara is popular culture. Both were singers. But while Shata was a griot whose lyrics represents the historical antecedents of his society and culture, Rarara was a singer whose lyrics represent his pocket. 

Thus, everything people do can come under the purview of popular culture – fashion, food, literature, cyberculture, sports, architecture, theatre, drama, films, music, art, you name it, it is popular culture. It is the dominant culture. Some of the universities that teach popular culture in the world include Harvard, Cambridge, MIT, Stanford, to name some of the top ones, plus thousands of others. 

So, why study popular culture? There are many reasons, but one of the most compelling is social awareness. Such study makes us aware about important social issues. You may not follow Hausa TV show operas, but they illuminate critical tensions within communities and some reflect the ideals of the political culture; Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s “Kwana Casa’in” is a case in point. Mediated popular culture gives creators opportunities to be creative. 

Thus, popular culture can raise awareness about important social issues. TV shows, films, and music often address topics like discrimination, environmental concerns and mental health, sparking discussions and encouraging positive change. For instance, in Kano in early 2023, AA Rufai Bullgates [sic] an individual with mental health issues became a popular culture media celebrity due to his delusions of grandeur; at one stage he bought Kano State for ‘gangaliyan’ naira – his coinage. It took the social media to make people aware of the extent of his illness – and stop exploiting his guile. 

The contempt with which we approach studies of Hausa popular culture – or, let me modify, modern/contemporary culture – allowed a big room for others to be experts on us. In this way, researchers such as Mathias Krings, Carmen McCain, Novian Whitsitt, Brian Larkin and Graham Furniss came to dominate the documentation of Hausa popular culture. 

In 2007 I was a visitor in Graham Furniss’s house in London for lunch, and I was blown away by a bookshelf covering a whole wall devoted to his documentation of Hausa romantic (soyayya) fiction containing over one thousand volumes. In Kano we refused to even acknowledge such novels existed, and at one conference, I heard a University Librarian describing them as ‘trash’. Now, if you want to study the earlier novels in the genre, you can only find them in the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies, courtesy of Graham Furniss – while they are not available in Bayero University Kano. 

Novian Whitsitt, an American, became an expert on the feminist ideologies of Bilkisu Salisu Ahmed Funtuwa and Balaraba Ramat Yakubu – two wonderful and brilliant female writers we ignored. He made a name out of researching their novels – and he had to learn the Hausa language first before he could even read the novels. In Kano, where we speak Hausa, we looked down on these writers. Now, if you want any reference to the works of these ladies, you have to go to Amazon for his books, for he is considered expert on Hausa feminist writers. 

Matthias Krings collected more Hausa cinema tapes than any European researcher and established a vibrant Hausa film reference library in Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany, where he is based. In Kano we refuse to even acknowledge that Hausa film is worth studying – until we gave the study a shove and held an international conference on Hausa films in 2003 – the first of its kind in the whole of Africa in studying an indigenous African language film industry. Even the practitioners – filmmakers, producers, directors – don’t see the value in studying their works, believing that such is done to denigrate them, rather than a critical analysis of their art. When I established Yahoo! Groups social network in 2001 – long before Facebook – those who entered the group were constantly fighting us for studying their art. 

In any event, it was Brian Larkin from New York who even opened up the doors in 1997 with his brilliant paper, “Indian Films and Nigerian Lovers: Media and the Creation of Parallel Modernities.” Soon enough he became the only reference point on the emergence of modern mediated Hausa popular culture. I could go on, but you get the point. 

As for music, no one cared – until the Talibanic censorship regime from 2007 to 2013 in Kano, favorably enabled the separation of Nanaye soundtrack music from Hausa films, creating independent Hausa Afropop music genre. It also led to the emergence of Rap music among young Hausa lyricists from 2013 – the year of creative freedom for Hausa popular culture. Billy-O produced the biggest hit Hausa Afropop hit of the year with ‘Rainy Season’, producing a brilliant Enghausa song accompanied by Maryam Fantimoti. 

No attempt was made to internationalize the study of the emergent music genres by anyone. They were all obsessed with studies of the songs of griot acoustic musicians, believing that the Afropop genre is a passing fad. Seeing a room for documentation, I entered into the field. In any event, I was considered a loose cannon in the whole Hausa ‘adabi’ canon. Luckily for me, my foray into Hausa popular culture, or ’Adabin Hausa’ as they often call it (while I prefer ‘Nishaɗin Hululu as the Hausa term for popular culture) was from the prisms of Stuart Hall (Birmingham School) and Frankfurt School critical theory perspectives. Most importantly, I was analyzing popular culture as a mass-mediated communication, rooting myself firmly in communication theories. I was not interested in etymology, morphology, syntax, grammar, pragmatics, stylistics or other branches of the study of literature in my analysis (I profess ignorance of these branches). My focus was that something was happening, it was providing a stethoscope on the social awareness pulse. We need to document it. It was no longer acceptable to let others become experts on us. 

Thus, studying or even debating mediated popular culture was definitely frowned upon in northern Nigeria. I believe I am one of the few flying the flag of the discipline – such that it has now crept its way into a university curriculum. Next semester (December 2022/23), I will be teaching M.Sc. Popular Culture in the Department of Mass Communication – one of the very few Departments in the country courageous and bold enough to do so. It’d be a fully interactive class, touching all aspects of what gives us social awareness through mediated popular culture. 

Now, to the question of Murja Ibrahim Kunya, a TikTok influencer who speaks at more than 100 km per second. She is important enough to have a Wikipedia page. Dr. Muazu Hassan Muazu was one of the lecturers teaching EEP 4201 – Venture Creation and Growth course in the School of General and Entrepreneurship Studies (SGES), Bayero University Kano. We once taught the course together. In the first semester (2022/2023) examination, question #5 went like this: “Murja Kunya and Me Wushirya are bloggers who trend by causing scandalous contents on their social media handles, for that reason, they are given advertisement jobs. If they do that they become – (a) influencer marketers, (b) brand ambassadors, (c), trading agents, (d) marketing managers.” Students are to choose one which they believe was the correct answer. 

What drew attention was the focus on the activities of TikTokers – activities not taken seriously, especially those of Murja Kunya who elicited different reactions from different people. One posting on Facebook even labeled her a mental health patient. And yet, here a university is asking academic questions on their activities. The entire 70-item question paper included references to various brands – KEDCO, Rufaidah, Salima Cake, A.A. Rano, L&Z Yoghourt, Sahad Stores, MTN, Chicken Republic, and so on. All these are marketing HUBS. Why not TikTokers? Marketers are looking for audiences – notice how those silly and irritating videos pop up on news sites on your device to attract your attention? Dr. Mu’azu’s inclusion of cyber popular culture in his course – and Chicken Republic, dealing with food, IS part of popular culture – to me, is a brilliant acknowledgement of the popular culture and its social relevance. Crazy, drugged, attention-seeker or not, people follow Murja Kunya. That means audiences, that means market – making her a perfect vehicle to advertise products. So, what’s wrong with that? If a woman frying ƙosai by the roadside has the same level of audience attraction, we should also acknowledge her as a marketing potential. That does not mean we endorse what they do – it means we are interested in reaching out to their audiences to buy our products. 

Without pop culture, we wouldn't be able to understand generations, so knowing gives us all a better understanding. Overall, a critical analysis of pop culture and media can help to shed light on the ways in which media interacts with the society and can help to promote more informed and nuanced understanding of media's role in shaping our world.

Now, print Ale Rufa’is Bullgates gangaliyan note and purchase your village.

Abdalla Uba Adamu, 
is a Professor of Media and Cultural Studies, Bayero Universe, Kano.

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