I was willing to give Young, Famous & African, which debuted on Netflix on March 18, a chance. After all, it's an original reality show from the streaming service, it's set in Africa — and the premise seemed fun. It follows a group of African A-list stars and media moguls as they look for love, build their careers and enjoy a lavish lifestyle.
But the constant flaunting of wealth from the characters – among many other annoyances — grated on my nerves. Does South African actress Khanyi Mbau really wake up to someone playing The Godfather theme song on piano every morning? Does Tanzanian musician and businessman Diamond Platinumz really take a private jet every time he flies the 5 hours to Johannesburg, South Africa, where the show takes place?
Sure, the series is a global sensation. But if there was room for a second season of this reality show, here's what I'd change.
The pan-African cast hails mostly from the entertainment industry. In addition to Khanyi and Diamond Platinumz, the show features Ugandan socialite and entrepreneur Zari Hassan; South African-born, Zimbabwean rapper Nadia Nakai; and Nigerian actress Annie Macaulay-Idibia and her husband, megastar R&B musician Innocent "2Baba" Idibia, among others.
Speaking of 2Baba, he is way too accomplished to be in this series. At 46 years old, he's one of the biggest music exports from Nigeria and has been active in the music scene since 1994. He's recorded multiple albums, has his own record label and is a regional ambassador for UNHCR, the U.N.'s refugee agency.
2Baba's seat should have been given to an up-and-coming influencer instead – perhaps someone who is making a positive change in Africa. Like Babatunde Onakoya, the Nigerian chess coach and founder of Chess in Slums, a program that teaches the game of chess to poor and disadvantaged children in slum communities across the country. Or Vanessa Nakate, a climate justice activist from Uganda. According to the U.N., she spearheaded a campaign to save Congo's rainforest, which is facing massive deforestation, and is working on a project to install solar panels in Ugandan schools. She is a young leader for the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and has spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, among other global events.
There was so much gossip and bickering on the show that it felt like I was watching The Real Housewives of Johannesburg. In the first episode, rapper Nadia accuses Khanyi for choosing a "colonizer"-like venue for her upcoming ball. And in episode 4, Zari talks about her prior relationship with 2Baba in front of Annie ... at a party to celebrate Annie and 2Baba for renewing their wedding vows.
The show producers instead should have focused on Africa's ubuntu spirit. It's a treasured Bantu word that roughly translates to "unity" – an idea that the community matters more than the self. And it's a value that many Africans prize. Episode 6 was the perfect opportunity to show that. Zari invited the whole cast to take a trip on South Africa's luxurious Blue Train, but the members kept getting into arguments — and split into two factions. Nigerian celebrity stylist Swanky Jerry tried to intervene and get everyone to make peace, but he ended up shouting and making even more drama.
Although the cast comes from different parts of the continent, most of Young, Famous & African was filmed in a wealthy district of Johannesburg. To me, that pushes the narrative that Africa is a country. That's like looking at all of Europe from the view of Paris. Africa is so diverse in its culture, traditions and people that it's impossible to give a true picture of what we're all about without representing multiple countries.
For that reason, I wish the show mixed up the filming locations. Instead of filming Annie and Swanky Jerry arriving to Johannesburg from Nigeria, the producers could have filmed the two leaving Lagos, just so viewers have a chance to see parts of the city, especially the notorious Lagos traffic leading to the airport. They could have gotten some B-roll of Diamond Platinumz enjoying the white sand beaches of Zanzibar, a world-class tourist destination in Africa. After all, the series is not called Young, Famous & South African.
Yeah, I know, maybe not a great plot point. But as a COVID-19 vaccine equity advocate, I always look for opportunities to inspire eligible Africans to get their COVID-19 jabs. This is because less than 16% of the adult population in Africa are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the African CDC. It would have been great if the cast of Young, Famous & African used their influence to inspire young Africans to get vaccinated.
Not everything was terrible about Young, Famous & African. I did delight in the cast's outfits, particularly those of Swanky Jerry. In episode 2, he looked like an African king in his glittery coat, gold chains and shiny white hat, which looked like a diamond-studded crown. As we Nigerians say, "he made me feel proudly Naija" – the pidgin word for Nigeria.
Dr. Ifeanyi Nsofor is a Nigerian physician and the senior vice president for Africa at Human Health Education and Research Foundation. He is a senior New Voices fellow at the Aspen Institute. Follow him @ekemma.