Young, Famous & African: TV’s Obsession With Global Elites Is Getting Weird

Photo: courtesy of Netlfix.
The reality television space has expanded from the pioneering series of the early 2000s like The Real World and Road Rules to evolving (or devolving, depending on who you’re asking) to include shows with any and every premise you could dream up. One frequently recurring theme in the genre is almost unbelievable wealth, and recent iterations of reality TV have taken us all over the globe to see how the one percent lives from country to country. The one percenters of the African diaspora, in particular, are having a moment, with shows like Netflix’s Young, Famous & African giving us a peek into what the lap of luxury looks like across the pond and beyond. But at a time when much of the world is legitimately struggling to stay afloat amidst war, climate change, inflation, and so much more turmoil — especially in the parts of the global south that many of these new reality stars call home — it’s not a reach to say that subjecting ourselves to more content about the elite feels… off. 
The new viral Netflix original Young, Famous & African uncovers the dreams and nightmares that come with being part of modern high society in Johannesburg, South Africa. From Tanzania to Uganda to Nigeria, the wealthy crowd that we get to know throughout the course of the 7-episode reality series hails from over the continent, and though their heritages vary from one another, they all have something in common: their money. These new faces are mind-bogglingly rich, and flaunting that wealth is basically a second job —  even for those who may have acquired it through sketchier circumstances.
As a child who distinctly remembers growing up in the United States without seeing much accurate representation of African culture on mainstream television, the uptick in positive, interesting narratives about the continent is truly exciting to see. For a long time, the media’s depiction of Africa and of African people was composed almost exclusively of either poverty porn or of xenophobic stereotypes, and those portrayals impacted a number of us in real life; you’d be hard pressed to find any African kid who didn’t grow up being asked ridiculous questions about what life was like back home. (When I moved to Houston, Texas, my classmates definitely asked me if I’d ever ridden a zebra after learning that I was born in Nigeria.) 
To combat the misconceptions about our cultures, many of us felt like we had to overcompensate in some way, either unfortunately moving away from our Africanness or overextending ourselves in order to prove that the continent was so much more than the cliches on TV and in movies. For better or worse, we burdened ourselves with the responsibility of battling ignorance with excellence instead of requiring people to, say, pick up a book and learn more about Africa. That crusade to show the “real” Africa often involved only showing the good parts of our culture, focusing on the successful entertainment industries and the sprawling mansions scattered throughout the continent. “See!” we would insist to wide-eyed audiences who were shocked that affluence and Africa could be mutually exclusive. “We’re living the life, too!”

It’s true; there are a number of very well-off Africans thriving at home and abroad. But acting as if that lifestyle is the standard is dishonest at best and harmful at worst because it positions wealth as the only African experience worth caring about.

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It’s true; there are a number of very well-off Africans thriving at home and abroad. But acting as if that lifestyle is the standard for the rest of the continent is dishonest at best and harmful at worst because it positions wealth as the only African experience worth caring about. In truth, exorbitant wealth isn’t the case for most Africans at home or abroad. Like many places across the global south, much of Africa is still recovering from a long, painful history of colonialism, and those fraught relationships with European countries like Britain and France have only morphed or been replaced by modern imperialism by new world powers looking to drain their resources even more. Further complicating the citizens’ economic growth is the persistence of administrative corruption and the conflict that ensues as a result. 
The current news cycle and our social media timelines belie the narrative being shared. Accounts of Africans living in Ukraine crowdsourcing for food and shelter after being turned away at the border because of racism in times of war. A year-long civil war in Ethiopia that has left the Tigray region in despair. Millions of people in South Sudan are displaced even as the country attempts healing after its Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict. Nigeria’s political sphere in a fragile state after the shocking police brutality that led to the viral #EndSars protests. Don’t let the glitz and the glam of these shows fool you — only a small fraction of people are actually living that life.

It’s dystopian, almost, oohing and ahhing over what the one percent does.

And that contradiction isn’t just present in projects coming out of Africa. The preoccupation with rich people’s business is a global occurrence in pop culture. Dramatic shows like Made in Mexico, Bling Empire, Singapore Social, Shahs of Sunset, and The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives prop up the affluent. Chaos is just on the other side of their high rises and gated estates. Although they’re meant to delight us with the daily drama of being part of the global elite, streamers pushing narratives about the one percent in our current climate does sometimes feel like a misstep. Yes, we’re awed by the couture fashions and luxury cars, and we’re thoroughly entertained by the catty drama about who’s the biggest boss in the group, but the reality is that these lifestyles almost feels like fiction when we look at what’s going on in the rest of the world. Even in the U.S., we’re complaining about the rising cost of fuel while watching Real Housewives shop for Bentleys on a whim every week on Bravo. It’s dystopian, almost, oohing and ahhing over what the one percent does while we literally beg the US President for another stimulus cheque to tide us over in the middle of a pandemic that just won’t end. 
Is the solution to simply stop making or watching these reality shows? I wouldn’t necessarily go that far; they’re honestly a lot of fun when you don’t think too deeply about how unrelatable they are. The real fix might be to widen the scope, to give the world’s gaze at the African continent some nuance. After centuries of colonialism, imperialism and global interference, the reality is that much of the continent is still trying to rebuild on its own terms. And as its respective countries evolve, Africa doesn’t owe anyone luxury. What would serve African people at home and across the diaspora is balancing the splashy reality shows with more grounded portrayals. Titles like Blood & Water that keep you at the edge of your seat while being realistic about class disparities in South Africa. The chicness of Castle & Castle that is also stabilised by the no-holds-barred discourse of how complicated Nigeria’s legal system can be. The comedy of projects like Chewing Gum and Big Age that detail the challenges of being second-generation Africans with heart and unflinching honesty. 
Billionaire balls and pimped-out private jets make for great television, but they’re only a small part of the story. Promoting African culture in popular media shouldn’t mean shielding the world from the whole truth about what’s happening by only privileging the elite — what we really need is for these stories to paint a more complete picture. That is the representation that we need. 
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