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Celebrity or just popular? Identifying the Zambian celebrity and
their display of economic and political power
The University of Zambia
Research paper presented at the
International Association of Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) Conference,
July 2014, Hyderabad, India.
The field of celebrity studies continues to generate a lot on interest and debate. Since
becoming recognized as an area of academic study, firstly following the publication of
Star in 1979 by Richard Dryer, the study of celebrity has grown and continues to attract
more and more interest. This is perhaps due to the field’s fascinating, multi-faceted,
dynamic and interdisciplinary nature. While most scholars in the field, particularly those
from the west, grapple with decriers that see this field as being irrelevant or as being form
of fixation or a ‘guilty pleasure’ (Marshall, 2006), the situation for poorer countries such
as Zambia the situation is certainly different. Part of the challenge is in accepting what
celebrity means in this part of the world.
For Zambia, the idea of celebrity has been in contention and is often left to interpretation.
Whereas the understanding of who is and is not a celebrity is commonplace in the
developed world as well as their role in media economy, and sometimes politics, the
‘who?’ and ‘why’ in Zambia is imprecise, and their role, if any, in the media economic
and political landscape is largely unclear. This study asks questions such as: what in terms
of characteristics qualifies one to be a celebrity in Zambia? What power (if any) do these
individuals’ have in shaping public opinion? what role do celebrities play on the economic
and political landscape? The study is part of an ongoing study and presents some
preliminary results of initial survey work that is yet to be scaled.
Drawing from various ideas in celebrity studies and using quantitative and qualitative
methods in data collection such as structured interviews, media monitoring and review of
literature, this study seeks to provide the answers to the questions raised in the hope of
identifying the Zambian celebrity and their display of economic and political power.
The study also wants to show if Zambian celebrities do demonstrate possessing political
or economic power in Zambian society. The study, in addition to identifying and
understanding this emerging social phenomenon, seeks to provide a sound foundation for
future research in celebrity culture in Zambia and open doors to perhaps defining a unique
brand of ‘celebrity.’
2.0 Literature Review: Defining Celebrity
There are indeed several ways of defining celebrity. A common definition by Boorstrin
(1971:58) says a celebrity is a person who is well known for their well knowness. This
definition emerged as part of Boorstrin a critique of contemporary American culture.
Boostrin’s account was first published in 1961 and showed that there has been significant
culture change in western society. The celebrity is who they are due to the presence of a
wide array of institutions and resources that exists for this purpose and maintaining it.
They are a product of the various fame-generating institutions (Harmon, 2005: 102).
While there exist several approaches to the study of celebrity, there are some perspectives
that have stood to explain this phenomenon for years and rest as a foundation to the
modern perspectives. Among them is Richard Dyer who in the book Stars (1979) sought
to develop this intellectual aspect to the study of celebrities from the study of film stars.
Dyer, according to Turner (2004) describes the film stars he examines as socially
grounded, over determined by the conditions within which they are produced, conversely,
he also gives due weight to the contingency and specificity of the meanings generated by
the particular star in relation to their audiences.
Another important perspective to our understanding of celebrity is that of P. David
Marshall. In “Celebrity and Power: Fane in Contemporary Culture” (2007) Marshall
contends with the power that celebrities have as institutions in structuring meaning,
crystalizing ideology and providing interpretative tools for understanding culture
(Harman, 2005: 100).
Marshall also makes a case for the need or importance of differentiating the different
kinds of celebrity considering the media that reproduces them or from which they have
done emerged. He also goes on to argue that these differences will also generate different
meanings. This leads to one of his works profound implications. According to Turner
(2004: 27), if Marshall’s description of celebrity as one of the fundamental mechanisms
for constructing and maintaining discursive linkages between consumer capitalism,
democracy and individualism is right, then it has a very important ideological function.
Celebrity in Zambia
Research into celebrity tends to focus on western perspective which are often based on
the template forged by western media and celebrity creating institutions such as
Hollywood and the recording industry. There is need for more research from the global
The concept in Zambia, and perhaps other parts of Africa, is one lost in interpretation.
Whereas who the celebrity is or is not seems easier to define, and what their role is in the
economy, in politics, or in society at large is seems to be well articulated in literature.
Celebrity in Zambia seems to be a problematic. Firstly, there is the very problem of
defining it within the Zambian context. Secondly. those that some may consider to be
celebrities in Zambia may themselves decline to be called as such. This is similar to the
finding of Dan Brockington who in his work has found that many public figures would
not want to call themselves as celebrities. Brockington’s work examined the work of
fame, celebrity and public figures in international development. Lastly, there exists very
little scholarly interest in the field, making the possibility of even better understanding
what celebrity could mean in Zambia even more challenging.
Knowing full well the different cultural dynamics this part of the word, it becomes
important that perhaps a better and localised understanding of the concept is formed.
3.0 Objectives and Research Questions
The objectives of the preliminary study are as follows:
- To understand who in the Zambian context is a celebrity and examine the rise of
celebrity culture in Zambia
- To understand the power that these celebrities have in the economic and political
spaces in Zambian society.
Drawing from the objectives of the paper, the following are the key questions for the
- What makes one to be a celebrity in the Zambian context?
- What power do these celebrities have in the economic and political spaces in Zambian
The study draws from various concepts in celebrity studies and will employ various
methods for data collection. A sample of about 150 respondents is targeted for a survey
with semi-structured questions. A total of 20 mostly students from the University of
Zambia have so far been survey. Much of the date in this presentation is based on the
results so far. Further, I continue to conduct reflexive media monitoring and review of
5.0 Research Findings
5.1 What makes a celebrity in Zambia?
The respondents gave various responses on who the thought a celebrity was. The
following are examples of the responses:
R1 An outstanding person who has excelled in one or more areas/fields and
are out in the public for everyone to see and learn from either by
themselves or by their fans.
R2 A person whose famous due to not only one particular thing they do but
other things that also contribute to their popularity. Or in short someone
who is both popular and famous.
R4 Somebody who can acquire audience or be noticed in more in more than
R4 Famous individual who is accomplished and recognised internationally or
nationally especially in the entertainment circles.
R5 A celebrity is an individual who is recognized as a role model in society
due to popularity gained over a period of time. This can be based on
various aspects such as fashion, movies and even the not so nice manner
such as sex tapes and nude pictures.
R6 Someone who is famous for doing good or bad things.
R7 A celebrity is a person who has achieve something in life either past or
present and is an inspiration to people. Someone who has direct influence
over people and maybe a social figure, a mentor or an icon.
This is reflective of the fact that celebrity is not a fixed concept like many fields in the
social sciences. It is a multidimensional idea that is dynamic and evolving. While there
are common themes and elucidations from literature and the survey, how celebrity is
understood is also influenced by context and personal inclinations. The common themes
of what constitutes celebrity from the interviews were that of fame and recognisable
When asked what line of work they think produced the most celebrity, work in music
and television scored higher. Political and business did not rank as highly. See table
5.2 What has given rise to celebrity culture in Zambia?
There are a few factors affecting the rise of celebrity culture in Zambia. Preliminary
analysis from interviews and literature, one of the key factors has to do with is the growing
media landscape and entertainment media. Due to current media development policies,
there are more media houses, and these are key in the creation of celebrity (Makungu,
2003; Banda, 2006a; Banda, 2006b;)
Additionally, celebrity culture has been on the rise due to increased access to the world
through the internet. More and more Zambians are accessing the internet and are able to
connect with the celebrities on social media platforms (Mambwe, 2014). Social media
platforms have also contributed to the creation of celebrity. For example, other than
through directed interaction (46%), many of the respondents, (53.3 %) admitted that they
had communicated or interacted with a celebrity via social media.
5.3 Display of Economic Power:
The influence of celebrities in the economy is on the rise. There now more celebrity
endorsements and entrepreneurial celebrities than ever before. Despite this, only 10
percent of the respondents have stated that they had bought products or services because
of the influence of a celebrity. This shows that while celebrity endorsements are becoming
widespread, people seem to make decisions on purchases independent of who appears in
From the respondent’s views, the wealth or economic value of a celebrity appears not to
be a problem. This is mostly because the financial standing of Zambian celebrities is not
public knowledge as it would be in the United States or United Kingdom.
Zambia is seeing an increase in ‘celebrepreneurship’ as more celebs diversify or venture
in business sectors. This is observable in the West as well and speaks to the need for
diversification on income sources. Some have nigh clubs, media production companies,
creative studios, retail outlets, and many others.
5.4 Display of Political Power:
Just as there has been an increase in economic activity, more and more celebs are being
using their fame and notoriety to influence. Interestingly, 12 of the respondents stated that
celebrities have had not had an influence on their views on any matter, and 8 said that
celebrities had influence them. This is all an indication of the potential for political
influence that celebrities could have. For example, musicians have become popular
features at campaign rallies. Some politicians have co-opted popular musicians in their
parties and given then opportunities to write songs that reflect the cause. The 2011 general
elections in Zambia are an example of how musicians are brought into the political arena
because of their songs. The then opposition Patriotic Front (PF), led by populist Michael
Sata, used the song by musician Wesley Chibambo, popularly known as Dandy Krazy, to
rally audience towards its messages (Mususa, 2012; Kasoma, 2013). The PF were
victorious in that election year. President Sata rewarded Krazy with a national medal the
More and more Zambian celebrities are using their social media platforms to give
commentaries on many issues, including politics. Social media posts are ways that some
Social media interaction
with a celebrity
In person interaction
with a celebrity
political themes are expressed. Social media will most likely continue to be a platform
where celebs engage in activism and other civic engagement. It will be interesting to see
just how platforms such as Facebook and Twitter will be used for such engagement.
6.0 Discussion and Conclusion
The idea of celebrity, while it exists, cannot be viewed in the same way as it is generally
seen in most other places around the word.
Defining who a celebrity is in Zambia is still complicated as it is generally influenced by
many factors such as context of the person being asked and their personal preferences.
The definition of who the celebrity will most likely include a perception related aspect
based on the persons moral disposition and the nature of influence they exert, mostly
In the future, it will be important to increase the scope for such a study to make it more
generalisable to address more issues of concern for celebrity scholarship in Zambia. It
will also become increasingly important to understand the celebrity creation processes in
Zambia and perhaps crucially and urgently, to interrogate the role that social media has
played in celebrity-fan relations in Zambia.
There is need for more research in this area in Africa so as to establish regional framings
of the concept and better understand its spatial implications on social, economic and
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