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MK Awards 2011

Some of my Best Friends are Afrikaans

by Roger Young with Andy Davis, images by Mark Reitz and Sean Brand / 03.03.2011

By now you all know the news. The production value at the 2011 MK Awards show at the CTICC was significantly under par. The presenters and bands were barely audible while the sound barreled and boomed. For the music channel to use a venue that is not conducive to great sound makes me wonder where their focus is? But bad sound and a badly rehearsed show that ran half an hour over schedule, are minor problems when compared to MK‘s apparent identity crisis. Will the music channel eventually descend into some kind of alt-rock laager around Die Taal or will it be able to embrace the new paradigm of a more inclusive South African youth culture? The question those who run the channel need to ask themselves: is MK a South African youth music channel or is it a commercial entity that makes it’s living off Afrikaans culture fetishists?

It is no secret or surprise that MK is predominantly an Afrikaans music channel that caters to an Afrikaans audience. But the inclusion of English and international acts brings the channel into a different cultural space. Over the years, on the back of the Fokof founding fathers, they’ve explored and exposed a new generation of South African musicians. And now they find themselves at an impasse. Is their responsibility to drive the consumption of new original South African music, or do they merely pander to what the audience demands. These issues invariably played themselves out during the MK Awards revealing what I perceive as a veiled isolationist stance.

MK Awards

Taxi Violence kick things off with that old song about the devil and the six gun.

While it would be terrible if they become a bloated award show with too many sub-categories like the SAMAs, it would also not hurt for MK’s programming directors to cast around beyond the stock standard Afrikaans rock and pop music. It also might just have enlivened the pace of the show, which literally trudged along. You couldn’t hear anything in the seating or standing in front of the stage. It felt like it had been staged by someone who had only seen a youtube clip of the 1992 Grammy’s and extrapolated from there. There were large pauses while winners made their way from the seating to the stage. Zebra and Giraffe’s Greg Carlin descending from the ceiling on wires was laughably amateur. The dude from the Tuindwergies was stopped by security on his way up to receive his award because he wasn’t recognised. The fact that the radically popular mainstream Afrikaans acts, Bobby Van Jaarsveld and Snotkop (The former Tswana rapper Lekgoa, who obviously saw where the cash was) couldn’t be bothered to collect their many awards in person demeaned the whole process, especially seeing as they accepted them from picnic blankets and swimming pools in the day while we sat in a convention center at night. And then of course: Mr X, (the electro alter-ego of the late MK presenter Herman Pretorius). His collaboration with Die Heuwels Fantasties swept the awards but there was very little mention of who Mr X was. We were just expected to know. Even more confusing was how such an unspeakably bad song and music video could win any awards at all. Why would anyone vote for a music video that looked like it was made on MS Paint?

But the biggest confusion of the night was still to come. How did Prime Circle win the Best Breakthrough International Act, while Spoek Mathambo and BLK JKS, who both had significantly bigger break though years, did not even get a nomination. This, let’s call it an oversight, spoke volumes about the protectionist nature of MK’s playlisting, nominations process and general indicated towards an under-estimating of its audience. How is an audience meant to vote for anything decent if it’s not even nominated? Surely Spoek’s many mentions in The Fader, Pitchfork and Dazed & Confused, not to mention countless North American, South American and European tour dates qualify him for a nomination in this award?  The fact that Die Antwoord, by far South African pop music’s biggest export of 2010, were nominated but did not win, speaks volumes about the orientation of MK‘s voting public (one that has the disposable income to send countless SMS votes), and makes perhaps the strongest argument for the channel to actively involve themselves in driving their audience towards relevant culture instead of merely placating them with the mediocre pop rock schlock that sells.

Then please also tell me what the point is of an award for an international act and then suffering the ignominy of having a rep from the local record company accept it by pre-recorded message in a way that makes you know the trophy is destined for a boardroom cupboard, forever?

Then, the most cringe worthy soundbite of the night was this backstage clip that includes an interview with Die Heuwels’ Pierre Greef in which he says: “We make Afrikaans music because we are Afrikaans, that’s why we do it. And if that could be our outlook and other people can see that, then beautiful. And if that can inspire an Afrikaans speaking person to make more Afrikaans music, then so be it”. In this regard pounding on about Die Taal just seems to be the easiest way to disguise poor musicianship and I feel this way primarily because the music represented by the list of winners is shamelessly bland and uninspiring. When a band is only successful because they record in Afrikaans and not because they have any real musical value, then you have to wonder what good it is doing for “the culture”.

Now you may argue that MK is an Afrikaans music channel, but the fact is that they have long ago begun to expand into other cultures; I mean, they gave Eminem and Prime Circle an award and they had JR in there as a presenter, even though they don’t regularly play his music. Which kind of lends credence to the term “token”. How much of this expansion is, like the coloured models in the promo video, just window dressing?

Right now MK have a monopoly on locally produced rock and indie music. They might feel it’s necessary to put on a veneer of inclusive cultural responsibility and inclusion in their representations but they certainly have no real need to actually pursue this. The Afrikaans stuff obviously takes care of their audience numbers. I can’t help but think that a bit of competition would sharpen their minds in terms of production, representation and the overall positioning of the channel. In much the same way that if you produce music in Afrikaans you really don’t need it to be that innovative or interesting at all; you already have a captive audience, ready to consume. This is, of course, not to say that ALL Afrikaans music relies on this condition; it’s just that the bands that break the mould mostly do not feature on the nominations list.

And because MK doesn’t see itself from the outside it continues to spiral musically inwards towards some kind of flatline of shitty indie synth. The terminal problem with MK’s stance is that there is a new, large and looming generation of Afrikaners that is exploring other musical avenues; if MK loses their grip on that generation, eventually the channel will become as irrelevant and myopic as Steve Hofmeyer.

MK Awards 2011

The other Wynand and his lady

If MK want to become a truly original music channel then it’s time for them to start representing original South African music outside of the “genre” created by the MK founding father bands. They need to push the boundaries; to start driving the culture rather than pandering to the established consumption patterns of the audience. Or maybe not, maybe we shouldn’t put too much weight on their shoulders, they are after all a pay channel that is paid for not so much by its audience but by its audience’s parents. Perhaps, from a business standpoint, MK is wise to tread lightly.

But the net result of the Awards is that it gives the impression that MK is not concerned about the music but only by profiting off the “Trots Afrikaans” demographic. MK have, to their great credit, amassed an enormously committed local rock audience in a way that no other local music channel has been able to. It’s an audience that is passionate about music and culture and an audience that they have a massive influence over.

I’m no longer interested in debates about race or cultural protectionism. What I am interested in is innovative new music and the gene pool among the MK winners seems to be about as varied (and as likely to tend toward retardation) as a royal family.

*Images © Mark Reitz and Sean Brand.

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