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From A to Zine: Moving Beyond Mainstream Media

Arts & Culture | February 6, 2017

“The problem isn’t that like Africa or…the global south isn’t seen, it’s just that it’s not seen accurately, and it’s not seen through the gaze of people who identify with it personally, it’s often through the Western gaze,” said Tufts sophomore Yaa Kankam-Nantwi, one of the creators of the zine Clapback. “And so that’s why it was so important to us that it was people who personally could identify with it who were writing about it— particularly girls, who in our culture are usually asked to be silent.”

Clapback is a publication that, according to its website, “is claiming the female African narrative” and creating their own narrative. The first issue was published in September 2016, packed with articles, poetry, and original art. When Kankam-Nantwi and her group of friends from a boarding school in Ghana first discussed creating a zine, “it was like a joke in a group chat,” according to Kankam-Nantwi. But as they talked about it, the group realized that a zine was the ideal medium through which they could create a space for female identifying people of the African Diaspora. Spread across multiple continents, the friends needed a way to be productive while not physically together—a zine allowed them to work via Google Docs and group chats. Kankam-Nantwi said the zine allowed them to “memorialize what we have to say, like a periodical, because we’re in school, and a website or something we’d have to keep up every day would be harder to do.” A zine offered the perfect compromise.

Zines and their predecessors have long been used for “fan groups, affinity groups, and sometimes groups who feel their art or their voice has been stifled, suppressed, or just not heard,” said Film and Media Studies Co-Director Julie Dobrow. “Even in the 18th century, people put out small runs of pamphlets or magazines that often catered to particular political groups, niche groups or sometimes marginalized groups. The more recent outgrowths, zines, started in the late 20th century.”

English Lecturer Nan Levinson linked zines to the newspapers created during the Vietnam war in protest.

“Some single copies, some with print runs as large as 3,000. They, like lots of zines, had cheeky names like Rough Draft, Star Spangled Bummer & Harass the Brass (those are the politer ones).” Levinson sees zines “as forerunners of blogs with more pictures–i.e. a place for individuals to express themselves without the funding, blessing, or gatekeeping function of the established media.” The fundamental purpose of zines has remained the same as the publications have adapted to the world around them. As Levinson said, zines, “like an underground press wherever it’s shown up throughout US history, tend toward the antiestablishment or revolutionary, and [they] usually have a limited or targeted following, generally on the young side. What changes, of course, are the technologies that make dissemination possible.”

The technological evolution of the zine is evident in Clapback’s story—Kanchelli Iddrisu, co-founder of the publication, launched a social media campaign to recruit people to submit to their publication. As Kankam-Nantwi said, “we didn’t want to just do people who we knew from Ghana or from Nigeria or from a specific part of Africa.” So, these zine creators used Instagram to generate a following by building off of existing similar accounts online, like Art Hoe Collective, an account created to share the art of queer people of color. Clapback was different, however, in its commitment to telling the African story, rather than the African American story.

Kankam-Nantwi explained, “when you think of famous Black people, it’s usually famous African American people. So, we intentionally said we were trying to center people who identified with the continent, or works that were shedding light on issues there…even if you weren’t necessarily a citizen of an African country, but let’s say you are a Diasporic African and want to write about that, you could.”

Clapback’s creators intended the zine not only as an alternate form of media, but also as a piece of art in itself.

“The cover is an Adinkra symbol, which is this group of symbols in Akan culture in Ghana that every single one means something else,” Kankam-Nantwi said.

According to Kankam-Nantwi, the head graphic designer “was very intentional about how it looked and how we presented these stories,” using the zine’s aesthetic appeal and symbolism to help relay its message.

Kankam-Nantwi was happy with how the first issue turned out, and is now eagerly working on the second issue, set to be published this summer, with the theme “legacy.” The zine has offered her a sense of empowerment through resistance of traditional media sources.

“Zines, I feel like, are very powerful because you get to create your own sort of media and tell your own story,” Kankam-Nantwi said. “Especially in England, there are a lot of zines now run by people of color who are also pushing back against mainstream media because, I want to say it’s 94 percent White…[a zine] might not be like The Guardian or CNN, but I read them more and that’s what inspired me to want other people to have that feeling of, ‘Oh, I see myself in that.’”

As homemade publications, zines refuse to buy into the traditional capitalist form of media. Kankam-Nantwi recalls sharing the zine with her family members and being asked, “‘Oh, but are you making money out of it?’ or ‘Oh, why don’t you open it up to adverts?’” In resisting the draw of money, Kankam-Nantwi said the zine retained its power to tell the stories they wanted, however they wanted.

“We felt that we wanted to be able to control what we were saying and not have to censor things, because we wanted to have conversations that are hard to have in our cultures without having any sort of like financial obligations that wouldn’t allow us to do that.” Moreover, she asserts, they did not need funders “to legitimize it because we felt that, regardless, it was legitimate.”

In creating their own legitimacy, the creators of Clapback do not define success by the quantity of viewers they reach, but by the quality of individual reactions they receive. Kankam-Nantwi notes that she “was really happy at how many people reached out and said that they wanted to join, or they were proud of us for doing it, or they were really glad it was around,” but added, “not that it matters so much if people read it, but it was nice to know that people were reading it.” The zine thus asserts an unapologetic style that stands by its mantra—“WE define who WE are.”