‘MTV Shuga’ is a messy millennial edutainment series educating African youth about sexual health
'Shuga' uniquely provides a nuanced take on everything from sexual identity to teenage pregnancy.
by Kathleen Anaza
Drawing in viewers with juicy telenovela-style drama, star-studded casts and curated soundtracks, MTV Shuga has become a favorite among the scandalous and socially-conscious television viewer on the African continent.
Over five seasons, Shuga has operated as three self-contained miniseries, each set in a unique country and with a distinct cast. The stories have traveled from Kenya to Nigeria and, most recently, South Africa.
Each arc explores negotiations of culture, tradition and family through African millennial lenses. You won’t find any of the “Feed the Children” or National Geographic imagery or motifs here. No, it focuses on the realities of interpersonal relationships in modern Africa.
With various storylines and character developments, the show also addresses sexual education, holistically and without bias.It explores experiences of navigating education, establishing a career, finding love or just having fun, presenting the characters as both likeable and relatably-flawed.
Through this, the players in the stories become accessible and relatable to youth around the world, but Shuga still centers African people and African culture. It is refreshing to see characters like these completely humanized in entertainment media and in stories that address sexual health in contemporary Africa.
Shuga’s relatability is due in large part to the African talent working behind the scenes and at the forefront of the show’s storytelling ventures. Their presence is evident in the cultural references and social issues presented.
Director Teboho Mahlatsi initiated a discussion on transactional sex in Kenya during the first two seasons, which featured Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o. The following directors have similarly addressed the subjects of sex and sexual health within their respective countries.
Shuga Naija head writer Kemi Adesoye and director Biyi Bandele brought the “Runs Girl” experience (a sex worker who typically uses social media to seek out clients) to life through the characters Sophie and Princess. During the South African season, MTV Shuga Down South, the blesser/blessee dynamic (essentially a Sugar Daddy and Sugar Baby) was woven into the dramatic story line of Tsholo.
The series accompanied this storyline with a documentary style episode, “MTV Shuga In Real Life: Episode 1”, which exposed what a real life blesser/blessee relationship looks like, while Part Two of this documentary episode followed the lives of a “Polar Couple” (a HIV+ and HIV- partner).
Shuga is not only a guilty pleasure with soap opera drama, but it is also a cultural gallery for all things African millennial. This status is cosigned by its presence on MTV Africa/MTV Base. Shuga writers fuse English with Swahili, Yoruba, Hausa and Xhosa to create an international vehicle of African pop culture, highlighting communities in a way that makes it highly attractive to millennial viewers.
They utilize African music, fashion, slang, and nightlife to represent the African millennial experience, with music being one of the driving forces of the show. Some of the biggest musicians on the continent from Tiwa Savage, Vanessa Mdee, and Avril have demonstrated their acting chops in supporting roles on the series. Guest performances from artists Wizkid and Kwesta help to provide an exciting backdrop for various scenes. In these ways, African creatives are able to utilize Shuga as a platform to expand their audiences, merge regions of the continent, and display their talent.
From my vantage point in the diaspora, Shuga has helped me stay connected to African youth culture in a way my parents stories of “back in the day” have not. I get a taste of Africa that is not dated in the 1980s or 1990s experiences of my parents.
Shuga is like your cool cousins who put you on to game, live back home, but can’t make fun of your accent or “foreignness.” It has a quality that may not be apparent immediately, but context matters.
During my teenage years, television options were fairly limited shows like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars. While some of these still remain classic guilty pleasures, they did not even remotely represent me. Shuga is major transformation from those days, and as a young adult drama, it uniquely provides a nuanced take on everything from sexual identity to teenage pregnancy.
The combination of unique storytelling and socially-engaging multimedia content is having a real-life impact on African youth. A 2017 World Bank study revealed that “after six months of watching MTV Shuga, Nigerian viewers were more than twice as likely to go to centers to get tested; and the rate of girls with chlamydia who watched MTV Shuga was 58% lower than those who didn’t.”
Its influence is now set to expand. The show is broadcasted in 61 countries, on two continents, and on 179 channels where it can hopefully have similar impacts. Upcoming seasons set in India and Egypt, with Hindi and Arabic respectively, are scheduled for release by 2020, each addressing localized issues of sexual health and relationships.
According to CDC reports, the United States has seen a decrease in new AID/HIV infections and increased quality of life for those who are positive. However, that decrease has been uneven among specific communities. African-American and Latino communities have seen increased infection and diagnosis rates, especially for Black “male-to-male” contact. U.S. media outlets simply do not produce content that comments on sexual health because it is seen as a largely unprofitable discussion.
National HIV/AID initiatives effectively targeted white communities in the 1990s and 2000s. Today, those communities show decreasing rates of infection and diagnoses. Communities of color in the US, are not receiving this kind of targeted education, awareness, or edutainment during their time of epidemic. Shuga presents an opportunity to serve these communities in a way that U.S. media is not.
You can catch up on five seasons of drama and dialogue at www.mtvshuga.com before starting Season 6, #mtvshuganaija, which is currently airing both online and on MTV Base/MTV Africa platforms.
Kathleen Anaza is a storyteller, activist and international educator currently based in Brazil. Her work examines global power dynamics through the cultures, arts, and resistance of the marginalized. She loves music, travel and critiquing international development. Follow her cultural explorations via Instagram @misskallday