Exploring the contours of digital diaspora: An interview with Reginold Royston

by Kathryn Mara

I find Dr. Reginold Royston tucked away inside his African Cultural Studies office, 1466 Van Hise Hall. He informs me that he is expecting another student doing a profile on him for a personal website. Hoping not to interfere, I begin my interview without further ado.

“How long have you been teaching in African Cultural Studies?”

He interprets my question differently than I intended it. Dr. Royston considers the question before responding, “I’ve been teaching in African cultural studies since 2010 as a graduate student at UC-Berkeley. I was a TA for courses on African history and a TA for courses on performance studies and African American cultural studies. So, the Ph.D. program I was in was a combined African and African American Studies program.”

“So was my masters at Michigan State,” I add, happy to identify a surprising commonality.

“Yeah. And the Ph.D. is called African Diaspora Studies,” he continues. “But certainly, they have people who are working on the continent in the program.”

“How long have you been teaching in this department specifically?” I try again.

“I started teaching in 2017,” Dr. Royston states confidently.

“And what kind of courses do you teach in the department?”

“I teach courses on technology and media studies and the African and African Diaspora relationship to technology and media,” Dr. Royston succinctly summarizes his teaching repertoire, including such classes as African 405: Africa and the Internet, African 605: Sound & African Modernity: Digitizing the Body and Soul of the Nation, and African 905: Oral Culture & Africa in the Digital Era.

“And are there any other courses that you envision teaching later that you might not now?” I ask.

“Oh, sure,” he proclaims. “I’m interested in a course on pop culture, on anthropology and Africa in general, and, of course, methodological courses. A lot of my work is moving in the direction of digital humanities, so how to use tools that are kind of germane to statistical social science or digital creative practices and seeing how we can use those in the inquiry into African culture, as it’s always a dynamic relationship.”

“And what does your research specifically deal with?” I ask, building off his last comment.

“I look at technoculture in Ghana,” Dr. Royston responds. “Specifically, I look at the relationship between web developers and tech entrepreneurs in Accra to Ghanaians who live in Diaspora in the Netherlands and in Chicago and other places. I look at the web culture, so digital diaspora, which could be conceived as not simply the people who live abroad who are emailing, texting, or WhatsApp-ing each other, but those digital spaces like Ghanaweb or OMG Ghana or the digital practices like Azonto music and dance culture, as well as other forms of social media organizing that are their own spaces online. Those can also be considered digital diaspora, where you have, theoretically, a collapsing of the space between diaspora and homeland. And so, what I am investigating is the contours of those spaces and the role of technology and the discourse about technology that takes place in those spaces.”

Changing the topic, I ask, “And what sort of graduate student work would you be interested in supervising?”

“I’m interested in looking at people working on contemporary African Studies, so people who are working on African media, on African social science, anthropological projects or particularly qualitative research projects that examine contemporary African culture and that include the framework of diaspora or some kind of cosmopolitan analysis of African life. So, that includes my interest in anthropology, in which I have an undergrad degree. I’m also into Afrofuturism, not simply as a literary practice, but as a social imagining or re-imagining of a Pan-Africanist aesthetic. And I’m teaching courses right now on the role of oral culture in contemporary African digital practices, so I am interested in pursuing the analysis of oral tactics or performance as a primary mode of communication on the continent,” Dr. Royston explains eagerly.

“Do you have any advice for either current or incoming graduate students to our department?”

“Sure,” Dr. Royston begins. “I would say, get to know the professors, you know, soon. And take advantage of all the Africanists and African Americanists and other Black Diasporians who are doing research either on or from a colonial/post-colonial perspective or who are looking at the kind of cosmopolitan aspects of African life, because they inform research on specific countries, specific communities. And think broadly about your methods, so not simply close analysis of literature or discourse analysis of content, but interweaving the two, as well as ethnographic practices that reflect life on the ground. Extremely important,” he adds. “And then the advice I always give to students, grad students in particular, is that they should keep a copy of their application that they submitted when they were accepted and take a look at it once per year to gage, for themselves, where they’ve been, where their thinking was, but also whether or not their current research interests are mapping to their original reason for being in graduate school. Sometimes, it changes. Sometimes, it doesn’t, and we need to be reminded of it.”

I let out a small laugh, thinking back to my original statement of purpose. “Do you still look at your UC-Berkeley application?” I ask.

“I have looked at it in the past couple of years. It was quite interesting,” Dr. Royston admits, before adding on to this advice. “And then get to conferences soon at all costs and present at them. Don’t wait.”

I change the topic again. “If you had to recommend any book, reading, article to all African Cultural Studies students, tell them ‘You have to read this,’ which one would it be?”

“That’s a good question,” he says, thinking about his answer as he does. “The one that comes to mind that I really like is—,” he starts before trailing off. “I’d say Africa in Stereo by Tsitsi Jaji. She does a really interesting historical reading of sound on the continent, pop culture, and music. It is an interdisciplinary cultural study, as well as an African literary and historical analysis of sound practices through Pan-African discourse around pop music particularly. Very sophisticated and interdisciplinary. A good model of how to do research across sites and across time. The other book I would recommend is The Predicament of Blackness by Jemima Pierre, where she studies race in Ghana from an ethnographic perspective. So, she does provide qualitative data from interviews and participant observation, while describing the various kinds of racial identity forming practices that take place from the identity of Peace Corps volunteers to the phenomenon of skin-bleaching to the various Pan-African rhetorics that shape Ghana and the post-colony in general. And it’s a squarely anthropological book. Very good book.”

I listen to his suggestions intently, nodding my head, before asking, “What are some of your favorite things to do in Madison?”

“Oh. I have so many,” Dr. Royston admits. “Favorite things to do in Madison. I like to go to the lake. Lake Mendota. I really like being close to the lake, being close to the water. And we’ve got a great restaurant selection here in Madison.”

“What are some of your favorites?”

“Oh. Do I have a favorite restaurant? I don’t have one. But I like to go to the square and see what’s new,” he states non-committedly before returning to my original question. “So, what do I like to do? I participate in capoeira, which is an Afro-Brazillian martial arts dance, with FICA-Madison (Fundação Internacional de Capoeira Angola) community here. So, I spend a lot of time with that, because my kids do it as well, and, you know, it’s a cultural form of dance and music practice that we kind of enjoy as a family.”

Changing the topic once more to an object that captured my interest in Dr. Royston’s office, I observe, “I see this microphone here. Is this just for show, or do you do something with it?”

“No. No,” he responds, dismissing my initial guess. “I’m writing about podcasting right now, and there’s a couple of reasons why I have all this equipment. One, I produced a class, an online class, called Code and Power, that is offered in the Information School. I’m dual-appointed, so I teach one class in the Information School and one in the African Cultural Studies department each semester. In that class, we talked a lot about technology, but I also teach online, so I record some lectures, and so that’s what the microphone is for. I’m also helping to build resources. Hopefully, we’re going to have a podcasting lab at the I-School student library. It’s called the I-School Laboratory Library. And so that’s why I have these routers, mics, in addition to producing my class. And I also DJ, and so this is part of my sound practice, which I am also investigating with sound as an epistemic category. So, sound as a way of knowing.”

I thank Dr. Royston for his time, and we discuss my brief stint as the lead participant in the African Studies Association Podcast (ASAPOD) before I leave his office, day-dreaming of podcasts, African Studies, and diasporic connections at UW-Madison and beyond.