Yes, Pop Culture Teaches Us Life Lessons, But It Doesn't Have To

I was raised on a diet of Nollywood and High School Musical – who says we get just one set of stories?
FG Trade via Getty Images / Isabella Carapella

You’re reading My Black History, a series of personal reflections from Black women in the UK on the meeting point of history and life lessons.

I’m five and High School Musical is playing on the TV in our front room. You know the scene when Sharpay and Ryan are singing, ‘What I’ve Been Looking For’? Well, I’ve taken it upon myself to play Sharpay, of course, while my younger sister, more or less my sidekick, is doing Ryan’s bits of the song.

My time at primary school definitely sowed these seeds. Growing up in Dublin, I was always performing in a school show, whether it was Annie, Grease or Hairspray – and if not a musical, a nativity play. Now at 20 and studying in London, I’m on the constant hunt for tickets to the latest West End production. The feeling of being in a fancy theatre during a stellar performance is unmatched, particularly after Covid forced them to go dark for so long.

Storytellers are the touchstones of society – they’re what keep us active and running. I’m Yorùbá and my ethnic group is originally from West Africa, a region that is home to storytelling in all its forms, be it literature, theatre, dance or the arts. In West Africa, our stories have been kept alive by the tradition of the griots. In simple terms, a griot is a storyteller, musician, poet or singer.

I grew up watching Nollywood with my family and old Nollywood has my heart! From the fashion, how quintessentially Nigerian the films were, the chaos and, of course, the hilarious plots. Watching Nollywood while getting my hair braided was a major staple and Girls Cot was one of my favourites, featuring the A-List Nollywood actresses, Ini Edo, Genevieve Nnaji, Rita Dominic and Uche Jombo.

Returning to these films today is a nostalgia trip – for my childhood as much as for my Nigerian roots – and while it’s lovely to see how much the industry has evolved, the old Nollywood canon still remains superior, at least in my mind.

It’s by no means perfect. Many films have an underlying misogyny (nothing surprising for Nigerians) that I probably didn’t recognise as a child. But Old Nollywood made a positive impact on me, too, representing women with a variety of skin tones and of all different shapes and sizes. I feel I connected to these films because they were, and still are, unapologetically Nigerian.

However, I’ve never limited myself to Nollywood and Anglophone pop culture. Who wants to consume just one set of stories? As the Golden Globe winning director of Parasite, Bong Joon Ho, said: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

As a teenager, by then living in London, my diet ranged from Korean historical dramas like My Country: The New Age to Mexican telenovelas like Rebelde. I loved indulging in these varied tales and learning about other people. Being a sociology student and history enthusiast definitely contributed to this, too.

I’ve always wanted to swot up on the socio-historical context, to understand why certain customs and traditions are sacred to specific societies. Equally, I’m aware a lot of these shows are as heavily dramatised as Nollywood and don’t always reflect the reality of women who live in different parts of the world.

Devi and friends in Never Have I Ever on Netflix.
Lara Solanki / Netflix
Devi and friends in Never Have I Ever on Netflix.

And my favourite genre of all time: well, what is pop culture without teen drama? My current Netflix staples are the Mindy Kaling produced Never Have I Ever and the South African series Blood and Water. Both constantly leave a smile on my face. It’s the chaotic nature of their respective protagonists, Devi and Puleng, that keep me wanting more. They are messy and, so what, they’re teenagers.

Whether we’re rooting for ‘Benvi’ or ‘Daxton’, ‘Kuleng’ or ‘Pulade’, the romantic storylines keep us on our toes and could teach other shows a thing or two about diversity on screen. Nor do they shy away from tricky topics – whether child trafficking in Blood and Water, or Devi navigating grief after losing her father in Never Have I Ever. It’s here I’ll add that the pop culture we consume doesn’t have to be a teachable moment. It’s ok for it to be vacuous.

But what a time to be a fan. We’re able to critique the shows we loved when we were younger and now we’re live-tweeting the remakes: the Teen Wolf movie, Pretty Little Liars and of course, Twitter’s favourite, the Gossip Girl reboot. And the growing number of young voices in the pop culture space – though there could be so many more – is something to be celebrated.

We’ve grown up in an age of Letterboxd and Goodreads, of YouTube and TikTok, each in their own way democratising criticism by creating space for people who are traditionally underrepresented in the field. The authority on pop culture has well and truly passed to Gen Z, with our opinions constantly sought out, though I sometimes wonder if this is because the old gatekeepers value what we think or just want to sell us another product – probably the latter.

Never mind them. We’re a generation that doesn’t stick to watching – or doing – what we’re told, and our own stories will be all the richer for it.