Freedom of the Cityby Ts'eliso Monaheng / 06.05.2013
April 27th, Freedom Day in South Africa. Approaching Mary Fitzgerald Square from the West, the stark contrasts of this country are laid bare before my eyes. As the pungent smell from the dirty water by the roadside intensifies, upmarket vehicles drive past in quick succession. Cool kids in customised vintage regalia rummage through the squalor of the semi-abandoned industrial complexes, announcing their presence in these Jozi streets via Air Force Ones pounding endlessly atop the dislocated pavement blocks. I walk by a guy huddled on a makeshift bench, almost camouflaged in the darkness of a garage-sized store labelled “CASH 4 SCRAP” in bright red colours. Capadonna’s “Black boy” can be heard in the distance; it feels like ‘97 all over again; Wu-Tang Clan, Gangstaar, and Nas are once more relevant – or at least the deejay’s blends, my soundtrack as I trek towards the entrance, will have me believe.
People look restless as they wait in line at the entrance; an announcement is made over the PA system. Tux’s name gets called out, and if Tux does not report backstage, everything is going to be put on hold for longer. So I linger, first towards the Bassline where the queue of ticket collectors would stretch as far back as the Sci Bono centre were it not snaking over itself in certain parts. I listen in on rap cyphers happening at two spots outside the enclosed area. ”Yo, yo, yo, shhh… time out! You aren’t rapping, you are conversating. Fuck this shit, you are hogging shade!” Shouts a disoriented guy who stumbled mid-way during the second cypher. A skating rig has been set up on the side of the Sophiatown restaurant. I overhear some journalist asking a group of designers why they don’t sell their merchandise in big shops, “so that more people can have access to it?” I find his linear thought pattern repulsive but resist the temptation to intervene and tell him so. There is, after all, plenty to see.
Clothing stalls, food stalls, beer gardens, makeshift toilets – even the air feels lighter here, a ‘festival fragrance’ if ever there was such a thing. There’s a ‘street’ aesthetic at Back To The City, a manicured facade sold to ticket buyers as hip hop, packaged for prime consumption by those who can afford to buy; “so you understand, I’ll never change the concepts/ but I’ll never pay a 100 bucks to enter in a concert!” Proclaimed one rapper in a freestyle. There’s also an element of cool about it, but a cool which aligns to the dictates of the myriad of brands seen displaying their logos all about.
It would seem Tux eventually showed up backstage because the square eventually filled up.
For me, the real culture resides in-between the Red Bull stage and the food area. Tanner of Two by Two art gallery is responsible for coordinating the graf artists painting the pillars below the M1 highway overhead. He tells me of how, sensing a decline in the quality of pieces which were being painted over the past years (Back To The City is now in its seventh year), the organisers relinquished control of that part of the festival to him. “Instead of just painting during the festival, I made it that you can start painting two days before.” He informs me. There also used to be an R8000 prize for the best piece, but this used to make other participants unhappy. This year, everyone involved gets something, and the winning crew gets an extra prize.
The Red Bull Stage not only hosted the Johannesburg qualifiers for the Red Bull BC One championships, but also paid homage to beatmaking culture through a showdown which featured producers such as Thirteen and Esphee, an emcee battle competition and an extended joint performance by Dirty Paraffin, Big FKN Gun, Bhubesii, and Choclate. Against the backdrop of the skating rig on one hand and a corner-side fast food joint where Ritual Stores used to be on the other, it was the area that held the most appeal for me.
The main stage was a horrendous, an ill-conceived exercise that tested the limits of patience. Several layers of incompetence, encapsulated within the ever-ubiquitous and within-arm’s-length excuse of ‘technical difficulties’ were laid bare for the high-top-faded, ganja-jaded, rap-intoxicated audience to witness. Even the better-off performers – Spaceman, Future History – crumbled under the weight of a sound system that refused to ‘sound’ right. Tumi Molekane’s Motif showcase did not work out, leaving him with no other option but to utter the words “I would never cuss or disrespect Osmic but his product is garbage” on his twitter account. Neither was Masta Ace of the headliners EMC impressed: “The hiphop fans of South Africa deserve better than that… #BackToTheCity needs a partial refund on that sound system… #thatsmyword“, he tweeted.
This was my first Back To The City. I harboured no expectations; I’d heard of the infamous sound, the organisers’ favouritism regarding artists who get booked, and their less-than-savoury attitude towards some of the other performers. But that was not my focus; the main stage hardly impresses at any other festivals anyway. The meaty parts exist on the fringes, on the walk-ways which turn into fashion showcases and impromptu street dance sessions; the weed peddlers and buyers who provide a modicum of ‘freedom’, if only for the night. In those respects, the festival’s pros far outweighed the social media bitching which swarmed the organisers throughout Saturday and Sunday.
Irrespective of how much support Back To The City has garnered over the years, hip hop in South Africa has consistently failed to reach critical mass? Why is a now-forgotten Pitch Black Afro still the only rapper to have gone platinum (50000 copies in his heyday, now the bar has been lowered to 40000 and still no one can reach it)? The people need answers, and true freedom in hip hop shall not be achieved until a concrete answer is given.
* All images © Ts’eliso Monaheng