Rock For Lightby Sean O'Toole / 31.07.2009
It starts, predictably, with a photo. Let’s count them: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, perhaps eight, maybe nine hip kids in ecstasy. Their bliss taunts us: Saturday night will never be so good, nor has it ever felt so far away.
The photo I’m talking about was made by Musa Nxumalo, recipient of the 2008 Edward Ruiz Mentorship at Joburg’s Market Photo Workshop, a talent factory for new photographic talent. Like his subjects, rock-obsessed black kids from Soweto and elsewhere, Nxumalo is a tattooed hipster. Three stars decorate his right forearm.
“So what’s the fascination with rock?” I ask him.
“That’s the thing, you know, there is this energy about rock music,” he responds.
We’re standing in the middle of his award exhibition, Alternative Kidz, the outcome of a year-long trawl through the spaces and places where South Africa’s newest tribe congregate. Turns one of the central venues is an old gogos house in Pimville, Soweto.
It here that local punk rock outfits like Organised Distortion and Rebirth play to audiences of up to 100 swaying hipsters. Now a regular event, this free monthly congregation of the faithful is known to its followers as the “rock therapy sessions”.
“People just come and get boozed up,” says Nxumalo. And really, it is no more complicated than that.
Let’s pause here. For some, there may be something novel about seeing twentysomething black kids sloughing off the constraints of their assigned identities – Zulu, Xhosa, kwaito, hip hop, BEE, choose your prejudice – and doing things differently. Yes, it is pretty interesting, but remember this: back in the late 1980s, when Caspirs full of cops raided downtown nightclubs, it was not totally uncommon to see young black Goths from Soweto getting down to Bauhaus, Crass and the like at underground music venues like Club Images.
As it stands, collectives like Bad Brains and Death, two US punk bands staffed entirely by black members, helped lay down the template for this thing we call punk rock. “Ahead of punk, and ahead of their time,” Jack White has said of Detroit outfit Death, active in the mid-1970s.
For his part, Nxumalo listens to Joy Division, The Wombats, Desmond and the Tutus and Fokofpolisiekar.
“What about the Blk Jks?”
“I’m not sure, I hardly even listen to their music,” responds Nxumalo. “They are hardly in the spaces I talk about. I don’t think we are in the same scene.”
Like his musical preferences, Nxumalo’s photographic influences are equally eclectic. Mentored by photographer Michelle Loukidis, in conjunction with workshop regulars John Fleetwood and Lester Adams, Nxumalo trails off a long list of names. They include the now-now-super-super-hip American Ryan McGinley, obviously, also Annie Leibovitz and Larry Clark, the latter photographer’s book, Tulsa (1971), an insider’s record of sex and drugs, lots of that, also some rock ‘n roll. Liam Lynch also gets a positive nod.
“So it is all these kind of references, I just pulled them together.”
Although still early days for the Soweto-based shooter, who works as an assistant at the workshop, I wonder out loud what sort of feedback his photographs have prompted.
“Somebody asked me, ‘Do you think these are kids just exploring with rock music? You guys are just loosing your African heritage.’” He laughs.
“What did you reply?” I ask.
“We know about African culture. We’ve done kwaito and hip hop, we know it. We’re not saying stuff it. It’s not that we’re not into that anymore, we’re just exploring what fascinates us.”