Can you dance to it? The world takes on the ‘Jerusalema’ challenge.
It started in December and was initially isolated. You probably didn't know about this if you didn't live nearby or if you didn't know someone who did.
But in February it had started to cross borders - first regionally, then worldwide. By summer it had become an integral part of everyday life from Angola to Hungary to Canada. World leaders spoke about it on national television. Health care workers gathered around it.
"It" was of course the dance challenge "Jerusalema".
When an Angolan dance group recorded DJ Master KG and singer Nomcebo dancing to a South African house hit in February, they sparked a viral phenomenon that has since taken over the world. Zimbabwe's most famous human rights lawyer recorded a version of the dance. A team of Romanian firefighters and a few dozen socially distant flash mobs around the world.
To date, "Jerusalema" has been streamed more than 96 million times on Spotify and is one of the world's leading searches on the Shazam music identification application. It reached the top five charts in Belgium, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Switzerland and was number 1 on Billboard's global Billboard charts for digital songs in mid-September.
The song owes much of its popularity to the weird internet alchemies of 2020 - when a global pandemic forced creative forms of entertainment at home and internet trends bounced across regions and oceans. But on a continent where culture has often been repackaged by outsiders for Western audiences (think Louis Vuitton models walking the catwalk in plaid scarves and shirts “inspired” by Kenya's Maasai), "Jerusalema" also reversed this cultural script.
"It's common to hear that someone has made something they saw on the continent into a global product," said Moky Makura, executive director of Africa No Filter, who studies how Africa is represented in regional and regional representations global media. "But it is rare that a global movement like this starts here and then the world emulates it."
In fact, a 2019 study by the University of Southern California's Norman Lear Center found that Americans are more than twice as likely to see a negative depiction of Africa on television as a positive - if they see any depictions of Africa at all. Viewers were seven times as likely to see references to Europe on television as they were to Africa, and nearly half of the references to the continent on television were for a nebulous “Africa” rather than a specific country.
"Jerusalema", however, can be traced back to very specific roots. In December, the South African DJ Master KG called singer Nomcebo from his recording studio in Johannesburg late at night. He had just written a new track and wanted her to sing the vocals. She came immediately and the next morning the two had a rough cut of the song.
"Jerusalema" became a hit in South Africa in the summer of the southern hemisphere. But it wasn't until after the Angolan dance studio Fenomenos do Semba recorded them dancing to the song as they had lunch in February that the song began to go viral.
Sung in Zulu, the lyrics are Protestant. "Jerusalem is my home / guide me / take me with you / don't leave me here", Nomcebo sings in the first lines.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that among the most enthusiastic takers for the "Jerusalema" challenge were people with fabric. There were “Jerusalema” dances by the Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal and a group of novice nuns in rural South Africa. In September a Swedish Lutheran church announced that it would end the service with a song "that says something about our longing".
"So let's not just go, let's dance in peace," proclaimed a voice as the track began to pump out of the church speakers.
But perhaps the dance has its strongest influence in South Africa itself, where “Jerusalema” was born. In mid-September, the country's president, Cyril Ramaphosa, spoke to the country on live television, as he had done more than a dozen times since the coronavirus pandemic began in March.
As the number of cases continued to decline, he said the country would keep reopening, lifting large gatherings and opening its borders. But that didn't mean the pandemic was over. With a holiday called Heritage Day the following week, he urged his South African compatriots to stay home with their families "to reflect on the difficult journey we have all made".
"And there is no better celebration of our South African ancestry," he continued, "than joining the global phenomenon that is the Jerusalema dance challenge."
For Ms. Makura, the expert on global perceptions of Africa, moments like these are important not only to change the way the world sees Africa, but also because they are slowly helping to change the way Africans see themselves.
“Negative stories reinforce negative narratives, and these narratives have a real impact on young people growing up on this continent. The world tells them that they are helpless and eventually they believe they are helpless too, ”she says.
“But here you see an African song that has caught on worldwide. It didn't depend on anyone else for its popularity. "
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