African cultures are mostly identified by the uniqueness of the masquerades in their regions  / Photo: Reuters

By Charles Mgbolu

It takes just a few seconds to get hooked to the energetic TikTok dance videos of vibrantly costumed African masquerades, cheered on by a jubilant crowd.

In one such video on the TikTok account of @Kru_Krou from Liberia, drummers are seen beating sheep-skin native drums and clanging iron gongs in sync to a leaping masquerade who breaks his fall with a strong twist of his foot, followed by a vicious dance routine that sees the feathers attached to his waist wiggle at almost lighting speed.

In African mythology, masquerades are seen as a physical representation of the traditional gods worshipped by traditional enthusiasts because they are seen as bearers of good fortune from the spirit realm.

 Masquerades are believed to be 'spiritual beings'. Photo: Reuters

‘’Masquerade sightings are pure and sacred,’’ says Christopher Okereke, a traditionalist from south-east Nigeria. ‘’They transform the humans wearing them into supernatural entities. They are the bedrock of African culture and distinguish us as a race from the rest of the world,’’ he tells TRT Afrika.

But western trends are fast blurring the lines, and these sacred, traditional entities once revered as gods themselves now feature prominently on social media platforms such as TikTok, mostly for amusement.

Social media views

Dancing masquerades on TikTok now have millions of views and are shared beyond TikTok's social channels, with many memes generated from the videos.

‘’You will see a masquerade publicly drinking alcohol or be in the company of dancing women. Personally, I tell anyone that cares to listen that these are not true masquerades, because no true African masquerade will ever do this,'' Okereke tells TRT Afrika.

Masquerades are increasingly photographed for social media which is frowned at by some cultural enthusiasts. Photo Reuters

His concerns appear to be legitimate, with some videos gravitating from ridiculous to outright bizarre—from masquerades prostrating before politicians and begging for money to others in drunken stupor stumbling down the road, jeered by passersby.

Some of the videos are staged in a bid to get views on social media and it has triggered a debate among cultural enthusiasts. They are concerned about whether the powerful cultural significance of the African masquerades is being swept away by the powerful currents of modern social media trends.

‘’My big worry is that the younger generation may grow up with this notion that this is what an African masquerade truly should represent, but this is such a distorted view. Masquerades never perform because they want to amass social media views,’’ he stressed.

His arguments are, however, sharply countered by Patrick Adigwe, a cultural content creator on Facebook.

Masquerades play a variety of roles in African cultural ceremonies. / Photo: Reuters 

‘’Culture is adapting to the times that we are currently in, and this is a safe guarantee that our culture as Africans will never die because it is merging with the power of social media,'' Adigwe tells TRT Afrika.

‘’It is an opportunity to meet the coming generation where they are, and that is on social media. We should be glad this is sparking their curiosity. The Gen Zs (the new generation) are now asking questions and learning more about their cultural roots, which they may never have known existed if not for social media.

''Masquerades play different roles,'' says Okereke. ''Yes, they can entertain, but you must be careful never to use a masquerade that is solely for core spiritual exercises and wear its mask for dancing on TikTok; this is where the young TikTokers get it wrong, and this is what needs to be urgently corrected to protect their cultural values,'' he argues.

The argument for and against masquarades on Tiktok is a delicate balancing act.

For cultural continuity, the coming generation must swoop and pick up the mantle that proclaims the African heritage, but they will only do so if they are spoken to in the language they understand.

However, they must firmly learn to tread with caution, as it would be useless to try to save a cultural symbol that no longer has an iota of cultural significance.

TRT Afrika