What does ‘African’ mean? An interview with Damon Sajnani

By Kathryn Mara

(Part of our “Get to Know us Better” series.)

I walk down the familiar halls of the fourteenth floor of Van Hise Hall, poking my head in the doorway of 1410 to say hello to Toni, the African Cultural Studies department advisor. Indicating the office next door, 1412, I ask her if Dr. Damon Sanjnani is in. She tells me that she thinks so, but she says that he could have stepped out without her knowledge, as he often takes the “long way around,” inadvertently bypassing her office. Toni encourages me to knock on his door.

I turn my attention to Dr. Sajnani’s door, but as I do, he turns the corner near the A.C Jordan Room and immediately greets me and invites me into his office. He asks me a few questions about my studies, before I am able to re-focus the interview on him.

Eventually, I begin by inquiring, “How long have you been teaching in our department?

Dr. Sajnani starts, “This is just my second year that I’m beginning.” He further clarifies, “My appointment started last August. I started teaching last September, but I had the second semester off, so this is actually only my second semester teaching.”

“And what kind of courses have you been teaching or do you anticipate teaching in the future?” I promptly follow up.

“I’ve been and will continue to be teaching courses on hip hop, in general (African 220, African 233), and global and African hip hop, in particular (African 669).” He goes on by stating, “Then beyond that, I’m teaching courses that relate to race (African 605), critical theory about race (African 405), social construction of race and intersections with social justice, race and social justice, class, gender, social justice, that kind of stuff.”

“And what is your particular research project right now?” I ask.

“I’m working on two books,” he replies. “The first is a book tentatively called The African Hip Hop Movement: Youth Culture and Politics in Senegal. That’s a revision of my dissertation. That’ll be my first book, and it’s about the politics of hip hop in Senegal and particularly the youth movement, Y’en a Marre, which led to the defeat of Abdoulaye Wade in 2012. Then my second book is called Critical Hip Hop Theory, and that’s more generally about the politics of hip hop- What are the politics of hip hop? Is there a productive sense in which the notion of hip hop authenticity motivates social justice movements?” I can hear the excitement in his voice.

“Is there any kind of research you’d be interested in supervising from graduate students?” I ask.

Dr. Sajnani pauses, trying to collect his thoughts. “The catch is that, as non-tenured faculty, we’re not encouraged to advise any PhD students.” He regains momentum, however, stating, “In general, in the future, certainly, I’m interested in advising students who are working on any of the things that I’ve mentioned, but particularly the politics of hip hop, anywhere in the world, Black communities wherever, but particularly in Africa, or more broadly, popular culture and social justice movements. Right?” He asks rhetorically, before continuing, “We have a lot of students who are interested in hip hop in different parts of the world, right? In East Africa, you know, South Africa, that kind of stuff.”

I nod, thinking of my graduate school colleagues whose research might align with his. “So, then, might you have any advice for current graduate students in our department? Or maybe prospective students?”

“Advice with regard to what?” Dr. Sajnani clarifies.

“In regard to their progress as scholars or…” I trail off as he jumps in.

“One of the courses that I taught last semester, and I will teach again, probably in the fall, of next year is African Diaspora: Theories and Tropes (African 901),” he responds carefully. “And I think that will probably become a core course of our graduate curriculum, and the idea is to have people thinking critically about what identities such as ‘African’ mean, right? So, to go beyond the assumption that we all know what ‘African’ means, and then go from there, whether it means continental, whether it’s some kind of cultural definition, what the implications of race are. What are the different and contradictory historical understandings of the term ‘African’?” He explains. “Being now the Department of African Cultural Studies, there’s also a connection to the legacy of Black Cultural Studies from the Birmingham School, and all this relates to, again, critical theory and critical takes on what these kinds of identities mean. Identity politics and that kind of stuff, right? So, my advice to students is, whatever aspect of African culture you might be studying: to not take for granted that you know the terms of analysis before you interrogate them,” he concludes.

I make a mental note to critically reflect on the terms that define my research. As I do, however, I change gears. “You’re new to Madison, as new as me, I suppose. Any favorite spots? Either to eat, to go to, to do something?” I inquire.

Dr. Sajnani pauses, drawing out a degree of suspense. “There’s two food trucks that have these super big spring rolls. Have you seen them? Have you had one?”

“No, I haven’t. I’ve seen the trucks, but not the rolls.”

“The spring rolls are amazing,” he insists. “So, in all my years, travelling all over the world, I’ve never seen spring rolls this big! And we pride ourselves in Toronto, where I’m from, of having a lot of multiculturalism, a lot of diversity, and really good food and really diverse food, much more so than here in Madison. However, the one thing that I encountered in Madison, food-wise, that I have never encountered before is these mega spring rolls! And they’re really cheap, and they’re huge!” He explains enthusiastically.

“Mega spring rolls. Got it!” I say, borrowing his term, amused by his zeal. I turn my attention to his shelves. “I see these Transformers,” I observe out loud.

“Yes, yes, you do,” Dr. Sajnani concedes.

“Okay. What’s the significance of the Transformers?”

“There’s one over here too,” he says, directing my attention toward his desk.
“They were my favorite toys growing up,” he explains. “And I actually still have my Transformers collection from when I was a kid, my original 1980s, what we call G-1, Generation One Transformers.”

     “Then recently, I’ve started collecting what are called Masterpiece Transformers. So, these are for collectors, men my age, who, you know, have this nostalgic memory of Transformers. They are bigger, super highly articulated versions of the toys that we had, and they’re vehicle accurate, right?” I don’t know what that means, but he explains, “So, they’re like mini-models, and they have, like, a hundred points of articulation, way more than the actual toys. If you gave this to a kid, they’d break it, like, in a second. These are like high-level models.”

“So, what appealed to you as a kid about Transformers?” I ask, pushing him further. “I mean, it stuck with you. You definitely hung on to them,” I say a little more boldly.

“Yeah. I mean, it’s how I learned about good and evil in the universe,” he says, smirking.

I laugh, unsure how seriously I should take his response.

“No,” he adds. “If you want to talk about the politics of Transformers, we can do that.”

    “Okay,” I respond, intrigued by his shift to a more serious tone.

“You know, some people don’t realize that Optimus Prime, who you’re familiar with-,” he begins.

“I am,” I state proudly, happy to be knowledgable on a subject in which a professor is interested.

“Of course, right?” He continues nonchalantly. “You know, Optimus Prime is an illegal alien who is persecuted, but really is doing a lot of good for us. So, these Transformers are illegal aliens that we can’t dispense with, but yet, are demonized by certain forces in our government or certain kind of, you know, conservative politics that don’t recognize the interconnectedness of all life.”

I’m impressed with the interdisciplinary connection he forged on-the-fly.

He permits me to take his photo, with that of his Transformers. As I leave his office, I am encouraged by Dr. Sajnani’s scholarly applications to subjects that are perceived as less than academic, and I feel inspired to pursue, perhaps casually, my more “nerdy” passions and my academic aspirations at once.