Sunshine in Langaby Kimon de Greef / Images by Images by Belia Oh / 25.02.2014
Sunday, 6pm. We arrive outside Gugu S’Thebe community centre in Langa for the Breathe Sunshine Unity Jam and the dancehall hits are thumping. A guard waves us into a fenced parking lot. We cross an empty tennis court into Washington Street, where taxis are idling for passengers and women are drinking Black Label on the pavement.
A large group of Rastas has congregated outside the gates, grooving to the music despite not having tickets (they cost R110 a pop). Inside are more Rastas and a much higher density of white people than on the street.
Strangely, there also seems to be an abnormally high proportion of supermodels, with girls like you’d see on Camps Bay’s glitterati strip wiggling around in tiny shorts. I ask a friend about this.
“It’s Germans,” he hisses. “All Germans are beautiful… ”
I leave him to find a spot in the crowd.
Langa and the plague
Langa is Cape Town’s oldest planned black township. It was formally established in 1927 when city officials dealt with uncontrollable slum conditions in what was then foreshore Ndabeni – now a barren industrial zone 2 km from the sea – by creating a new demarcated area for Africans to live in.
Ndabeni holds the distinction of being the first informal settlement in the country. It formed when an outbreak of the plague in 1902 scared whites into implementing stricter segregation rules, forcing black people inland from the old Native Location in the docks. Initially an isolation camp for plague victims, Ndabeni quickly grew into a chaotic and overcrowded migrant community, sowing the first seeds of the divided apartheid city that remains structurally locked in place today.
Langa, its more tightly engineered replacement, is situated remarkably close to the Cape Town CBD, just 12 kilometres drive from the Grand Parade. This is the same distance as Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and four times closer than Kommetjie. Yet in units other than linear distance, the township feels far away: Devil’s Peak looks strange from this angle, and the familiar landmarks of First World Cape Town are either obscured from view or reduced to unusual miniatures of themselves.
This can be attributed to the fact that privileged Cape Town residents, like me and many others driving to the Breathe Sunshine Unity Jam, seldom have reason to step outside the innermost layer of the city’s concentric spatial hierarchy, where we’re conditioned to lead blinkered Western lives at the foot of the mountain.
The stated aim of the concert is to confront this situation by uniting people through music. A diverse lineup has been advertised, featuring dancehall, hip-hop, kasi house, pop-folk and ska.
Tellingly, the organizers have also felt it necessary to reassure middle-class patrons that they aren’t visiting the hellish underworld they see when watching service delivery protests on the evening news.
“Langa is one of the safest and most accessible townships in the city,” promises the blurb on the Breathe Sunshine website. “If you have never been to a township before this is your chance!”
Music and unity
More fire! Stage DJ Rozanno is dropping ragga bombs and people are getting into it. A crew of models are being a little insensitive to the entire world by flicking their hair around and getting in the way, but I suppose some people don’t mind that kind of imposition.
IFani, a Xhosa rapper from P.E. who’s just cracked the big time in Jo’burg, arrives next. He dresses sharply and has nearly 70 000 Facebook fans, but the production on his beats doesn’t sound adequate for the Funktion-One rig, hissing and not pushing enough bass. His core fans get down but everyone else looks spare.
Rozanno returns with a set of heavy Cape hip-hop, showing that local crews have been pushing a polished sound for decades. Is this a dig at the up-and-coming Jozi cats? It’s impossible to tell.
Then Jeremy Loops plugs in and plays a tight set. He was expecting a less white crowd, he admitted privately before the show, but even within the broad constraints imposed by the demographics of the concert – an approximate black / white ratio of 1:1 – there’s a subtle thinning of melanin in front of stage. His crafted sing-along folk pop is, for the most part, white music, and it’s difficult to see him having significant crossover appeal in the near future. Nevertheless, Motheo Moleko, his talented hype man and high-energy rapper, revs everybody up and the trio, which includes Jamie Faull on sax, departs to generous applause.
Mighty, the freshest selecta in town, drops thick vinyl dubs for 20 minutes and suddenly it’s apparent why the Funktion-One sound system is revered by audiophiles: the bass frequencies are robust enough to lie down on and the crunching hi-hats don’t hurt your ears.
We’ve all been waiting to see Gentleman, white dancehall superstar from Germany and the headline act, and by the time his DJ and backup singers launch into their warm-up routine the crowd has packed in tight.
Now, like funk music, the blues, gospel and jazz – reggae is fundamentally black people’s music, built on rhythms transplanted to the New World by the slave trade and forged in response to decades of social and economic oppression. Rastafari ideology, its spiritual backbone, began life as a radical precursor of black consciousness thought, spitting fury at white domination. So it’s fascinating to watch Gentleman pick up his mic and kill it.
There are Rastas with dreadlocks as thick as children’s arms in the front rows, leaping in the air and saluting the singer on every pull-up. (Note for non-dancehall fans: a pull-up is when the DJ suddenly cuts a track and winds it back to the beginning, keeping the dancefloor on tenterhooks and building tension.) People are waving lighters, singing along to every line, sweating all over one another… and it’s great, suddenly, to forget about structures and history, to stop noticing the inevitable discomfort of packing unfamiliar groups of people into confined spaces, and to get lost instead in the simple shared pleasure of enjoying good music.
We leave as Jimmy Dludlu starts riffing over house beats, cross the street to the fenced parking lot, and drive back to the suburbs. It’s half-past nine, too late for traffic.
The journey home is quick.
Postscript: the prophets of love
“It’s so wicked to check the psychology behind apartheid,” Gentleman said in an interview last week. “And to recognize that things are still like that, you know? It’s sad.”
The only solution, he insisted, is love.
“I was reasoning about it yesterday with the Rastas in Marcus Garvey township. Love is the only way. We need to mix together and have a new generation to break these barriers.”
But is this really enough? Does driving to the township for a jol address the deep structural rifts that cut through this city? It doesn’t – but perhaps there’s value in stepping across them anyway, in getting loose to unfamiliar music, in feeling uncomfortable … or simply in watching the sunset from Langa and realizing, shit, it looks pretty from here too.
Just don’t fall for the high too hard, for the fleeting euphoric sense that things are okay. Because they aren’t, just yet, and it will be quite some time – and take more than integrated parties – before this ceases to be the case.
All images © Belia Oh