Queer Voices: Neema Githere

For Neema Githere, a Queer Kenyan-American curator and guerrilla theorist based in the #digitaldiaspora, the internet was how she developed a sense of community and identity. Granted, the digital space hasn’t been without its fair share of trauma. She shares more.

Neema Githere is a Queer Kenyan-American curator and guerrilla theorist based in the #digitaldiaspora. Having dreamt themselves into the world via the Internet from an early age, their work archives and is curated around their own coming-of-age as a digital nomad. She theorizes on Afropresentism, and we had the honor of hearing her story and learning more about Afropresentism. Read on below:

Amandla: How would you describe Afropresentism?

Neema: Afropresentism is less of a theory, and more so a way of life. It’s a code to channel the memories of the past, towards a vision of the future, and manifest it in your present expression. I struggle at times to articulate what it is in words, because I feel somewhat traumatized by academia and how inaccessible expression there is (and simultaneously pressured to articulate what Afropresentism is in a way that would be lucrative within academic spaces…even though that’s very much the opposite of what I envision it to be/constitute).

I spent three years in college, I was at Yale majoring in African Studies, and before having an epiphany as to the irony of me being an African going to an exclusionary American university to study my own history—my senior thesis was going to be on Afropresentism. Over time, I realized that living Afropresentism–rather than overintellectualizing it—is what I wanted to be doing with my time.

Afropresentism to me—the earliest definition I have of it from 2017—is “a digital genre that fuses archival, documentary, and fine arts on and through new media in the expression of an Afrofuturist lived reality.” My conceptualization of it has changed significantly since then…it’s grown to be something more encrypted, and more all-encompassing than that. As I write this, I am in my grandparents’ village in rural Southwestern Kenya, and watching my grandmothers on the farm—that is what I now understand Afropresentism to be. It is an indigenous technology, a value system, a lived practice of survival and self-determination.

Amandla: Although your family is originally from Kenya, you have traveled to many countries of the world, including Latin American ones, often connecting with black people of those places. How has this travel influenced your development of Afropresentism?

Neema: Before emigrating to the United States, I lived in Spain—in a small town called Nerja, in Andalucia—because the US had denied my visa twice already, and it made more sense at the time to move to Nerja and live with my aunt than it did to remain in Kenya with my grandparents. I always wonder about the alternate reality in which my visa to the United States was never approved, and I remained living in Spain. I would have been part of the diaspora in a completely different way. I think subconsciously that is why I gravitated to learning Spanish. In terms of how travel has influenced “Afropresentism”—the word “Afropresentism” actually developed from a trip abroad. I was in Accra, Ghana on a trip with the African travel startup I was working for at the time and the term originated from a conversation I had with Nana Osei Kwadwo, a Ghanaian curator and writer. The concept was very much so born from observing life and the art scene in Ghana, and comparing that to my experiences in other places across the continent and the #digitaldiaspora

The hashtag concept #digitaldiaspora is one I came up with back in 2016 after coming across a book by the same name (sin el hashtag) that traced Black participation on the internet since 1995, which got me reflecting on the subcultures that I saw emerging and was finding community in on Instagram in particular. At the time, I was still in academia and the hashtag bloomed into a research project which eventually got funded. I was studying abroad in South Africa at the time and proposed a project that traveled to Brazil to compare how Afro-diasporic youth were articulating new identities online. I remember I had come across a photo that February of someone who looked like they could be my family (@lumamora) - but they were in Salvador da Bahia. Five months later, I flew to Brazil because of that photo I saw on Instagram, and that photo led me to a whole community that gave me a vision of who I wanted to be not only as an artist but as a lover and friend. Since then, Brazil has become a complete second home to me.

More than anything, travel has helped my conceptualization of Afropresentism evolve from being a theory, into being a practice. Afropresentism, this indigenous technology of connection and love, informs everything about how I move around the world, the things I take notice of, and what I do with them. Whereas academia would have me traveling to compile reports or essays about other people, as somewhat of an outside observer, travel enables me to build a genuine immersive community of which I am an intimate part.

Amandla: What does the internet represent in your political (hi)story? How can we expand our use and understanding of this tool while acknowledging that certain platforms censor "radical" voices?

Neema: The internet has always been how I developed a sense of community and identity. Granted that hasn’t been without its fair share of trauma. Back when I was in college, the internet was a way I made witty commentary about the racial and class trauma I encountered in/around the institution. In 2015, I posted a Facebook status about a racist incident at a fraternity on campus, which went viral and ended up being posted in all of these big news outlets like Time Magazine and The Washington Post, which called it “the Facebook status heard round the Ivy League”.

From there, all of these conservative trolls found my personal account and started direct messaging me death threats and hate mail. The PTSD I got after that shaped what I shared online the following years, and in specific, made me leave Twitter (I’ve only recently come back to it). Instagram has also been a large part of my virtual community building. It took some time for me to get comfortable sharing my political beliefs again online after the Twitter/Facebook trauma but once I did (around 2018), I realized that the platform was not showing my content to the majority of my followers. Prior to that, I would post mainly travel content with occasional social commentary, and the photos of me in these “exotic” landscapes would get a thousand likes. Once I started pivoting towards more outspoken content around elitism and classism, I noticed that the posts were only shown to around 10 to 15% of my following, getting one to two hundred likes. That’s around when I began looking more into the Instagram algorithms, and when I began to become more critical of the attention economy.

Through reading and my own observation, I realized that Instagram remains profitable by hooking our attention -- through algorithms that track what we look at, for how long, the kinds of pages we follow, and what posts we like, and then showing us more of the same kind of content. For most people, that content is face pictures and simpler posts with shorter captions. I’ll never forget this quote I came across that goes, “if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product ”. That is the essence of Instagram.

Learning about all that, and observing how the platform essentially encourages the most surface-level expression and engagement, I began to get really frustrated and that frustration led to me promoting #divestfromInstagram - a movement to get queer Black and Brown content creators to move off of the platform. I realized that our communities are the ones turning Instagram into this multi-billion dollar company -- feeding it our intimate thoughts and generating trends and aesthetics that go on to influence entire global markets. My reasoning was: if we recognize our cultural power and leave this platform en masse, the company’s surveillance capitalism infrastructure (where they make money from monitoring and selling our data), will collapse. I myself left Instagram in February 2019, focusing instead on Patreon and offline organizing.

After around six months of being off the platform, this class I attended facilitated by Olivia Ross called “Drafting Neo-Cyber Feminisms” inspired me to return. That class was where I was first introduced to the term “data trauma”. I realized how all of this censorship and silencing online, as well as the consequences of virality before it, were the sum of my data trauma. And I thought to myself “if there’s data trauma, there must also be data healing”--from that point, I challenged myself to not let the trauma I experienced on that platform overshadow all of the meaningful connections that I also experienced there.

Thus, #divestfromInstagram evolved into @datahealing - a convening group whose aim is to “alchemize our data trauma into new technologies.” Many would say that our present state as black people is (still) colonial since the majority of the systems that sustain our societies are a result of oppression. If Afropresentism aims to reposition the utopic conversation from the future into the present, how does it prepare us to transcend these preexisting realities?

Afropresentism affirms that there is no moment but the present, and the way to be in that present is to surrender to a state of gratitude. I always say that the present is the future in motion. That how we carry ourselves, the liberatory decisions we make in the present prepare us for the future we most desire.

Now, I admit that my conceptualization of Afropresentism and its liberatory possibility is deeply informed by my own diasporic context as an African who migrated to the West, rather than as someone whose lineage has been shaped by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. So in that regard, my pre-existing reality is marked by colonialism but is also privileged in having proximity of access to my African ancestral land. With all of that in mind, I’d say that Afropresentism prepares us to transcend those realities by affirming that transcendence, now, is an option, to begin with. That transcendence is a valid response--this instantaneous, decisive alchemization of oppression into freedom through the choice to not be defined within the context of our traumas alone.

Like Adrienne Maree Brown writes “what we pay attention to, grows”. We have the right to collectively pay attention to the wealth, resilience, and brilliance of our cultures; and to allow that re-investment of attention to serve as its own manifestation of liberation.

Connect with Neema @Neema on the queerafricannetwork.com

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