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Culture, Jiva

Popping and Locking for Freedom

by Lindokuhle Nkosi / Images by Filipa Domingues / 09.04.2013

The Creators is a documentary set in South Africa, filmed and produced by Canadian Laura Gamse. It chronicles the work of a number of South African artists, like Faith47 and Warongx, with a heavy and over-played sub-theme on the role hip hop played in combatting apartheid. In it, a South African b-boy suggests that the spread of hip hop in South Africa was somehow a cultural protest against the oppression of apartheid. You know, like he couldn’t sit on a certain park bench because the colour of his skin, and so he decided that the revolution would be a series of suicides and a 720 head spin.

Emile Jansen (scene from The Creators) from invisible sessions on Vimeo.

Unfortunately, this is a widely held and popularised idea that reaches far back into our historical narrative. The concept that hip hop, and jazz before it, were bonafide anti-apartheid and revolutionary activities, not simply the currents of cultural influence and appropriation. I imagine it was part of the struggle spin machine; linking the fight against apartheid to the global coolness (and sub-political messaging) in predominantly Afro-American culture. Brand any black artistic product with a pre or post-apartheid stamp, couple that with swelling music and grainy images of protest and you’re sure to garner sympathetic interest and international attention.

The problem, however, is that this hip hop Mandela-ism was not spoken by the foreign filmmaker, but a local b-boy. This apartheid fluffing has existed, and gone unchallenged, for so long that it has now become an assimilated national ‘truth’. And while there certainly were hip hop crews back in the day, like Brasse Vannie Kaap, Black Noise et al, who challenged apartheid oppression, it certainly was not the broad-based resistance movement it is presented as today. In truth, hip hop only really landed in South Africa in the late 80s and early 90s, and only became truly popular after 94, when the cultural boycott ended.

Cut to the Joseph Stone Auditorium in Athlone, Cape Town. I’m speaking to a group of young female krumpers and hip hop dancers who’ve just auditioned for the Red Bull Beat Battle. In addition to Krumping for Krist, they also seem to be under the impression that hip hop rose as some sort of resistance culture, not to oppression in general, but the oppression of apartheid specifically. And they’re not the only ones. In fact the vast majority of dancers who have auditioned for the Beat Battle have represented the more globalised interpretations of hip hop culture. Their numbers have far outstripped the more original styles of ispantsula and sbujwa.

And we all need to feel locally relevant and so the hip hop as apartheid resistance culture myth is pervasive. They think this, because their mentors and leaders in dance, told them so. Hip hop is not seen as an artistic movement born in the American inner cities and ghettos in the late 70s early 80s and seized upon ever since as a global cash cow, a weapon of cultural imperialism espousing some of the most stupid and negative messages (from sexism to a shallow and rampant consumerism). Instead they see hip hop as a weapon of culture, with local heritage, combatting the evils of apartheid and other forms of oppression.


And who informed these hip hop mentors who continue to support and expound this narrative of the great anti-apartheid hip hop movement? Where do they get this notion from? How did we completely discount the hold that American-led globalisation has held over so many developing countries, specifically in Africa? As early as the 1940s strands of American culture have weaved their way into what we watch and listen to; affecting the way we dress, how we speak, how we view ourselves in relation to our environment, issues and society and even what we name our gangs and how those gangs behave.

The way that we have been represented, without our consent, has now become how we represent ourselves. In failing to find accurate ways to depict ourselves, in creating our own styles, languages and narratives, we’ve slipped into and adopted the global clichés that strip us of any real cultural identity.

Our art is curio. Our real culture is stunted at the grassroots. And so we pretend to pop ‘n lock for freedom.


*Additional reporting by Andy Davis. All images © Suicide Monkey / Red Bull.

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