Creating the perfect performance or party demands carefully-designed infrastructure. Attention needs to be given to the size, layout and location of the venue, its acoustics, its staging, and its lighting. But beyond questions of space are those of time. Many of our communal encounters with music happen after dark, where the night is fundamental to our experience.
It is now widely acknowledged that our thinking about cities suffers from night blindness (nyctalopia). Little attention is given to how people engage urban space at night and how these practices might differ from what happens during the day. When we do talk of cities after dark, it is frequently in a language of fear, drawing associations with criminality, recklessness and danger. Night-time in the city is cast as a ‘Negative Space’, whether as an unnoticed backdrop or a source of ‘negative’ sentiment. Night-blindness and night-fear affect approaches to urban Africa in particular.
This month, I convened a panel at the 7th European Conference on African Studies in Basel, exploring the lives of Africa’s nocturnal cities. The conference is organised by a network of African Studies Centres in Europe. This year, it drew over 1300 participants from across the world. Alongside the panels, roundtables and film screenings was a programme of performances and exhibitions, including Congolese Rumba, photographs on Namibian music history and performances by South Africa’s Tabita Rezaire, Itai Hakim, The Brother Moves On, Marcus Wyatt, the Andile Yanana Sextet, and Kajama.
By paying attention to the night, our panel sought to explore ‘negative space’ in the artistic sense: the in-between, ephemeral, all-too-often invisible cartography of our cities. Drawing on case studies from Lagos, Johannesburg, Lilongwe and Afro-futuristic literature, panellists uncovered the everynight practices of Africa’s urban residents, revealing the unique possibilities of the night to engage space differently.
For many of its residents, Lagos is a sensory cacophony of traffic and hawkers, crowds and collisions. But, as anthropologist Chrystel Oloukoï discovered, some had found ways of using the night to ‘put the city to order’. For these Lagos revellers, the night becomes a means to escape the entanglements of the city. Nightclub venues were often deliberately removed from public space — separated by fenced parking lots, terraces, and long corridors. Like the popular venue on Victoria Island, Club Quilox, or the aptly named Escape Nightclub. Olokoï showed how some partygoers in Lagos used their nocturnal lives to remove themselves from, and ultimately, transcend the city.
Conversely, Johannesburg partygoers seemed to be reaching for the city through their nights out. Revellers were engaged in subtle territorial conquests to claim a stake in the urban centre. Their night-dreams were about ‘taking back’ or asserting belonging in the city. This was evidenced both in my own work and that of Olokoï. Some of these Jo’burg city revellers were African migrants, imagining home through Afrobeats, shona dancehall, or the mounting of a Ghanaian flag on the DJ booth. Some were young, black South Africans, filling the dancefloors their parents had once been denied access to. Some were the suburban middle-classes, whose nocturnal identities sought to reclaim parts of the inner-city that for years had been considered ‘too dangerous’, ‘too poor’ or ‘too black’. Some were among those poor and black, but at night were staking their claim to a newly-middle-class bar or a newly-gentrified nightlife district. To be seen in the city at night was to make a social statement — to demand recognition.
Welcome to Johannesburg
Where we wear our nightly masks
Our private pain stored away
to be dusted and worn again at sunrise
The morning is a Cinderella moment
Beauty suddenly disappears
Ugliness returns with the intensity of the rising sun
_ Abdul Milazi, Johannesburg
In both nocturnal Lagos and nocturnal Johannesburg, partygoers occupied their cities in ways they would not normally do during the day. Tjark Gall and Rebekka Keub showed that in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, life seemed to decelerate at night-time. Inadequate street lighting and limited access to transport meant that night-revellers were forced to occupy the city in new, creative ways. For some, taking on the night requires literally crafting space to be, using light, music and public spaces to re-imagine new modes of interaction. It’s most popular nightclub, Chez Ntemba, is part of an African nightclub franchise, lit in red and blue light, spilling onto an outdoor terrace.
As it turns out, a number of Afro-futurist novels have used the night as a literary tool to explore the resistant, creative sides of their characters. Our final panellist, Renzo Baas’, explored the role of ‘the night’ in two African science fiction novels, each set in a major African city.
The first is Utopia by Ahmed Khaled Towfik, staged in in dystopic and utopic Cairo (the two futures separated by a wall). The second is Keziah Jones’ and Native Maqari’s graphic novel Captain Rugged set in a future-Lagos, where land is the new oil. The novel is accompanied by Keziah Jones’ 6th album, also titled Captain Rugged, drawing night-grooves together with political satire and fantastic imagery. In each of these novels, Baas showed us how the night offered a counter-balance to the rigid and controlling power-structures of the day — a space in which characters could imagine alternative futures (for better or for worse).
By thinking about the night as a ‘negative space’, the Nocturnal African Cities panel showed not only that which was present at night, but also what was absent during the day. By understanding what night revellers are searching for and why, we get an enhanced awareness of history, power and experience in our cities.