Memes, Chronotopes, and COVID-19: On the Rhetoricity of Ghana’s “Dancing Pallbearers” in Transnational Circulation

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The coronavirus pandemic is, as Blommaert (2020) indicates, “a textbook example of globalization processes.” Debates on globalization’s essence, its systemic inequalities and its future in a post-pandemic world abound (Fontaine, 2020; Friedman, 2020; Frum 2020). However, a dimension of globalization that has become even more glaring and should interest rhetoricians, cultural theorists and digital humanists is circulation. Besides the transnational circulation of SARS-CoV-2 resulting in efforts to restrict intra/international flow of people and goods, there is also the circulation of new discursive forms related to the pandemic (see Blommaert, 2020). Most importantly, in the face of stay-at-home protocols, life has migrated online with the implication that digital culture has become a primary tool for managing the impacts of COVID-19 (see Blommaert, 2020). We are now experiencing not only biological virality but also digital virality, of which the proliferation of internet memes is an example. This essay reflects on the transnational (re)circulation of one of these memes— “Ghana’s Dancing Pallbearers”—highlighting what its rhetorical and chronotopic (Bakhtin, 1981; Blommaert, 2015) facets suggest about theorizing Global Southern influences on digital rhetoric.

The Dancing Pallbearers Meme is partly based on videos and images of a relatively new Ghanaian funeral tradition in which a group of smartly-dressed pallbearers from Nana Otafrija Pallbearing and Waiting Services (dubbed “Ghana’s dancing pallbearers” by the BBC (2017) or known in Ghana as “DadaAwu” [trans: “Daddy is Dead”]) carry coffin to the accompaniment of music and elaborate dance choreographies. Videos of the group existed on YouTube as far back as 2013; however, Know Your Meme (2020) identifies three popular online videos of the pallbearers that predate the meme: the first Professional Dancing Pallbearers- Ghana was posted on YouTube in 2015; the second was the 2017 BBC feature “Ghana’s Dancing Pallbearers Bring Funeral Joy” which catapulted the group into global fame; and the third, originally posted on Facebook, shows the pallbearers mistakenly dropping a coffin during one of their routines.

The meme remixes videos of the dancing pallbearers with fail clips and the techno music track “Astronomia.” They have a typical structure: a clip of people involved in, or attempting, a risky act is followed by the dancing pallbearers. The “Astronomia” track, with its portentous opening note, gains momentum when the accident happens, and as the pallbearers are shown dancing. In other versions, an image of the pallbearers standing in a row and staring, presumably at those about to act, further foreshadows the mishap. Since its first usage on TikTok in February 2020, the meme has gone viral and it is now the subject of articles in several global media outlets: e.g., Aljazeera, Asiaone, Forbes, the Guardian and the Washington Post. The BBC (2020, May 4) recently published a follow-up feature on the group in response to the global circulation of the meme. Know Your Meme (2020, July 3) has also conducted an interview with the CEO of the group, Benjamin Aidoo.

The meme, as it (re)circulates, does important rhetorical work—with affective, political and material implications. Besides expressing the present gloominess, the meme has become a persuasive tactic for enforcing COVID-19 protocols. In Brazil, it was not only projected on a billboard educating people to abide by lockdown injunctions (see Figure 1), it has also been ironically deployed by COVID-19 denialists against the governor of Sao Paulo, João Doria, an advocate for social isolation protocols (The Brazilian Report, 2020; see Figure 2).

Figure 1: Tweet with Image of Ghana’s Dancing Pallbearers on a Billboard in Brazil; Credit: Ameyaw Debrah, 2020; Copyright Statement: Author was granted permission by Ameyaw Debrah to embed tweet in this publication (Personal Communication, July 9, 2020).

Figure 2: Tweet Containing a Video of “COVID-19 Denialists” in Brazil; Credit: The Brazilian Report, 2020; Copyright Statement: Author was granted permission from The Brazilian Report to embed tweet in this publication (Personal Communication, July 9, 2020).

The pallbearers, capitalizing on their ethos as Covidic grim reapers, have added their voice to the COVID-19 campaign, admonishing audience to “stay at home or dance with us” (Aidoo, 2020). Despite its humor, the meme’s reception, just as reception of the pallbearers in Ghana, is complicated and one case, involving Puerto Rican nurses’ enactment of the meme with a patient’s corpse, attracted social outrage.

Like all circulatory texts, the meme is rhetorically transformed as it is mobilized for other discursive actions in politics (e.g., Donald Trump’s campaign ad against Joe Biden), protests (in Lebanon), social commentary (e.g., Kim Jong Un’s alleged ailment; falling oil prices), business etc. For instance, the marketization of the meme appropriates everyday discourse for neoliberal capital. A dancing pallbearer mask goes for $13.53 on Redbubble (see other items); pallbearers serve drinks in a Taiwanese nightclub; Paulmark has created a dancing pallbearers card; miniature figurines of the pallbearers are selling in Hong Kong; and there is a dancing pallbearers video game. The pallbearers are also motivated by a postcolonial desire for transnational visibility: they seemed to have now joined Twitter and are considering a global expansion post-COVID-19. Despite the transnational circulation of their image, unequal geopolitics implies that the pallbearer’s Global Southern locatedness may limit their physical/corporeal mobility and if there is a connection between physical mobility and socio-economic mobility, the pallbearers are less likely to gain high profit from this circulation. Thus, this case calls for not only “iconographic tracking” (Gries, 2018, p. 009), which accounts for circulatory alterations and effects, but also critical reflections on questions of power in digital rhetorics.

Even more crucial is how the meme’s recirculation creates chronotopic (spatiotemporal) entanglements and their attendant interdiscursivity. The meme has been linked to the Danse Macabre of the Dark Ages, reinforced by its medieval versions (see Figure 3, for example) which calls forth a comparative reading of COVID-19 and the Black Death (Schindel, 2020). The Ancient Egyptian version has inspired humorous references to Biblical narratives and Egyptian mythology. Ghanaian netizens often pair the meme with another corona-inspired hashtag “byjunede3” (trans: by June [Akan focus marker]), a shorthand for “we will all be dead by June [from the coronavirus]”. While the hashtag is a social commentary on Ghana’s responses to the pandemic, the specific reference to June chronotopically links the recent development to traumatic experiences from earlier timespaces in Ghana’s postcolonial history (Moshood, 2020). Interestingly, Ghana’s COVID-19 situation has since worsened and people now deem the June prophecy fulfilled.

The @DadaAwu that often accompanies the memes on Ghanaian social media results in other cross-chronotopic entanglements. In Ghana, fathers are central to the family and often their death means the loss of livelihood for some. Since the elderly is heavily impacted by the COVID-crisis, the name of the pallbearers (DadaAwu; Daddy’s dead) takes on new meanings. At a personal level, “Dada awu” was my sister’s statement when she called me about my father’s death last year. Thus, the term carries me to a different chronotope that evokes negative pathos. Within this entanglement, any positive affect engendered by this meme is completely lost on readers like me.

Figure 3: Medieval Version of Dancing Pallbearers Meme; Credit: Anno Domini 1250, 2020; Copyright Statement: Author was granted permission by Anno Domini 1250 to embed video in this publication (Personal Communication, July 10, 2020)

The pandemic has shown that not only can a virus originating from an elsewhere significantly disrupt lives anywhere and reshape communicative rituals on a global scale, it can also, despite our fixedness in local contexts, mobilize a transnational public. As the meme travels, its original Ghanaian influences become fragmented even as aspects of Ghanaian culture shape transnational digital culture. If the circulation of SARS-CoV-2 and the “Ghana’s dancing pallbearers” meme is to be taken seriously, this will confirm calls for complex theorization of context (Gries, 2018, p. 008-009) and cultural perspectives (Sano-Franchini, 2015) in (digital) rhetorical studies. The viral speed of COVID-19 and the dancing pallbearer meme interrogates the Western emphasis in our field and thus, requires a postnational critical praxis in which the Global South is no longer peripheral to our disciplinary concerns.

References

Aidoo, Benjamin [@nanaotafrija]. (2020, May 5). From NANA OTAFRIJA to all the doctors in the world (emoji) Thank you (emoji) Mention (emoji) all the doctors out there with your country flag. #COVID-19 #CoffinMeme#benjaminaidoo#nanaotafrija#CoffinDance#Doctors. [Tweet]. https://twitter.com/nanaotafrija/status/1257536612969390084

Anno Domini 1250. (2020). Astronomia or Coffin Dance in Medieval Version. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDmB76y7jFs&feature=emb_title

Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays [trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist]. Austin: University of Texas Press.

BBC (2017, July 27). Ghana’s dancing pallbearers – BBC Africa. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EroOICwfD3g

BBC (2020, May 4). Ghana’s dancing pallbearers: life after becoming THE meme of Covid-19 – BBC Africa. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6zubJt-BzY

Blommaert, Jan (2015). Chronotopes, Scales and Complexity in the Study of Language and Society. Annual Review of Anthropology 44: 105-116. https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-anthro-102214-014035

Blommaert, Jan (2020, May 6). The Coronavirus of 2020 and Globalization. Diggit Media. https://www.diggitmagazine.com/column/coronavirus-globalization

Debrah, Ameyaw [@ameyaw112]. (2020, April 16). From Ghana to Global Superstars: The Dancing Pallbeaers from Prampram. https://ameyawdebrah.com/from-ghana-to-global-superstars-the-dancing-pallbearers-from-prampram/ [Tweet]. https://twitter.com/ameyaw112/status/1250777365128581121

Fontaine, Richard (2020, April 17). Globalization Will Look Very Different After the Coronavirus Pandemic. Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/17/globalization-trade-war-after-coronavirus-pandemic/

Friedman, Thomas L. (2020, May 30). How we Broke the World: Greed and Globalization set us up for
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Frum, David (2020, March 27). The Coronavirus Is Demonstrating the Value of Globalization. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/dont-abandon-globalizationmake-it-better/608872/

Gries, Laurie E. (2018). Introduction: Circulation as an Emerging Threshold Concept. In Laurie E. Gries and Collin Gifford Brooke. Circulation, Writing and Rhetoric (pp. 003-024). Logan: Utah State University Press.

Know Your Meme (2020). Coffin Dance/Dancing Pallbearers.
https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/coffin-dance-dancing-pallbearers/photos/trending/page/2?gallery_cache_key

Know Your Meme (2020, July 3). Benjamin Aidoo Of Ghana’s Dancing Pallbearers Shares His Experience With Inspiring The Coffin Dance Meme. https://knowyourmeme.com/editorials/interviews/benjamin-aidoo-of-ghanas-dancing-pallbearers-shares-his-experience-with-inspiring-the-coffin-dance-meme

Moshood. (2020, April 28). June in Ghana. Medium.
https://medium.com/@omodudu/june-in-ghana-e3290f8140ba

Sano-Franchini, Jennifer (2015). Cultural Rhetorics and the Digital Humanities: Toward Cultural Reflexivity in Digital Making. In Jim Ridolfo and William Hart-Davidson. Rhetoric and Digital Humanities (pp. 49-64). Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Schindel, Dan (2020, April 23). The ‘Dancing Pallbearers’ Meme Is a Danse Macabre for the Time of COVID. Hyperallergic. https://hyperallergic.com/558071/ghanaian-pallbearer-meme/

The Brazilian Report [@BrazilianReport] (2020, April 13). VIDEO: Supporters of President Bolsonaro were seen on São Paulo’s Paulista Avenue mocking the fatal victims of the disease. A group of #Covid19 denalists paraded with a fake casket and cursed SP Governor João Doria—Who has been an adamant supporter of social isolation measures. [Tweet]. https://twitter.com/BrazilianReport/status/1249689420678270977

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Ameyaw Debrah, The Brazilian Report and Anno Domini 1250 for granting me permission to embed their tweets or video in this post.

About Author(s)

Nancy Henaku holds a PhD in Rhetoric, Theory and Culture from Michigan Technological University. Her research is situated at the intersection of rhetoric, politics and culture (broadly defined) with particular interest in the transnational resonance of Global Southern rhetorics.

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