Waiting For People To Stop Saying ‘Swag’by Andy Davis / 19.10.2012
Johannesburg isn’t sure it’s summer yet. The days are hot and dry, the nights still cold. There’s no proper rain yet, but everyone can feel that summer is coming. Spring. It’s a good time for a festival. STR CRD’s 3rd coming provides the impetus. The Maboneng district has been closed off, there’s a massive stage in the middle of Commissioner Street. Behind the barriers people are mooching around in the latest street wear, or making bolder fashion statements, as they bob and weave their way between the corner café (dishing out hot red Russians and slap chips, while the cool kids pump coins into their genuinely retro video game consoles – no doubt thrilled at the hipster windfall) and the installations from the street wear brands showcasing their latest gear and offering it up at sample sale prices. As I plod these streets of Maboneng in search of fresh, free beer, I ponder the great unanswered question of STR CRD… what is sneaker culture? Is this merely a huge platform for street wear brands to run activations? Or is there an underlying soul? A bonafide movement beyond the quick magnetic swipe of credit cards fuelled by the crass one-upmanship of an ever-shifting and always out of reach notion of what’s cool?
Just as I’m having my white, bald, middle-age Jewish magazine editor moment, I spot Giovanni Spokazi with two fresh Grolsch swingcaps. I want to hug him. I feel like I’m lying in a ditch on the side of the highway, and life is just passing me by, zoom, zoom. Godot in some new Air Yeezys. Spokazi hands me one of the beers reluctantly.
“Fuck you Davis.” He pops the cap.
“So what do you make of all this?” I do a circle with my beer, encapsulating everything.
“Like I said last year, it all looks like a scene from a Shabba Ranks wet dream… circa 1993.”
I look around and there is a lot of Technotronic on display. The style this year is definitely black artfag from Amsterdam in the 90s.
“And why is every black kid in Johannesburg convinced they’re from New York?” Spokazi drives the point home. “And finally, riddle me this my pot-bellied Jewish editor, who the fuck is Jesse Boykins?”
Jesus, I don’t have any of these answers. I hardly understand the questions. Suddenly, like a match lighting up the darkness, I remember the old cliché, write what you know.
“And what about the whites?” I ask.
“Ha!” Spokazi spews beer foam and spittle like a rainbow. “There are some whites here, Davis. But they’re the dregs of the Joburg hipster community… People like Liam Lynch. The last few who probably still listen to rap… like Murray from mtkdu… cool whites go wherever Eve Rakow goes.”
I just saw Eve Rakow a moment ago, so I’m wondering if he’s dissing or celebrating the STR CRD whites. He pauses to sip his beer without further explanation. I look around the streets of Maboneng, the sun is settling into a golden Jozi horizon and all the skater kids are heading home to put Dettol on their knees. Some BMXers are lazily riding the halfpipe, while people queue for expensive pap and vleis on the Western corner. Where are all the whiteys, I think and then I remember; upstairs drinking free beer with Grolsch or in the Adidas activation, being lectured on the merits of street art while looking at the new Originals range. The more things change… my snide, self-hating editorial reverie is interrupted by some cool kids talking about their mix tape.
“What up B!”
“What’s good my nigga!”
“Lo-ong time cuzzie, what’s really good dawg? What’s really good?”
“Ayo! Did you hear my shit? You hear my shit nigga?! My new mixtape’s coming out soon dawg! Real soon!”
Spokazi shoots daggers. “Wherever you go it’s the same conversation. This is like Groundhogs Day.”
I turn to see graffiti artist Phillip Botha in a crane writing his name a million times on the wall and I know it’s art, and it looks kind of cool, but I just think of that scene in the Life of Brian or Bart Simpson in detention… as if he spelt it wrong and was forced to repeat it a thousand times.
“This is like the SAMA awards for aspirant black hipsters.” Spokazi says finally. There’s definitely an air of pageantry and showmanship amongst the punters. There’s a lot of cutting edge cool on display at STR CRD, and it is hands down the freshest collection of the South African youth culture demographic I’ve ever seen collected in one place, in such large numbers.
“I still don’t understand what sneaker culture is.” I admit to Giovanni, albeit practically under my breath.
“Ja,” he nods. “They should just admit that STR CRD is a fancy flea market and scale back on all the effort. Hardy would make more money that way.” At that Spokazi snorts, downs his beer, tosses it in a receptacle and wanders off. So I navigate towards the bass.
Commissioner Street is thumping and you can see where the organisers dropped most of their budget. Kenya’s Just A Band, Kabomo, The Brother Moves On, a thing called the BLK JKS Soundsystem, Cape Town’s Christian Tiger School, the aforementioned Jessie Boykins and was that Trompies I saw late that night as the crowd on both the floor and in the Fish Eagle VIP deck shouted back their lyrics all the while bumping and grinding to those old skool, bass heavy kwaito melodies? Shee-it, the bottom of Commissioner Street hasn’t seen that much action for a long, long time.
I end the night parked in a deck chair in the middle of the street, drinking ice cold iced tea at the Bos caravan with STR CRD head honcho, Hardy McQueen. Two OGs watching the chaos unfold, while the strains of Hugh Masekela’s ‘Grazing in the Grass’ gets a reworking by the Christian Tiger School boys and hipster kids in new wave pantsula outfits dance disaffectedly while cute mixed couples argue about who has had less to drink and should therefore drive. Spokazi walks past, spots us and pulls up a campchair.
“I used to feel like I’m not black enough for Johannesburg.” He says. “But I’ve realised today that Johannesburg has no idea what this ‘black identity’ really is. All the Malcolm X types date white chicks.”
The next day Commissioner Street is once again a street. The action, this fine sunny Sunday is all centred around the Nike Street Ball competition. There’s a big grandstand facing half a basketball court and lots of very tall black gentlemen all wearing the freshest kicks. Out back there’s chicken being braai’d and the lady behind the bar is refusing to serve beer until lunchtime. It’s been 3 days of high energy street culture and everyone’s feeling it. Later there will be some more music and a slow wind down. A lot of the stalls and brand activations have come down, or are being lazily packed away. To judge STR CRD 2012 solely by the enthusiasm of the crowd, or the uniquely diverse audience it pulled, you’d have to concur that it was a roaring success. No other youth culture event in South Africa pulls young, black money like STR CRD. And for that reason alone, the festival will go from strength to strength. Because that is the holy grail of marketing segments and STR CRD are assembling and delivering the demographic in ever increasing number. Each year, more and more brands are waking up to this… especially the uncool ones with the deep pockets. But beyond the pitch perfect marketability of the crowd, STR CRD in and of itself is so brand friendly, it’s really where brand marketing and culture collide (or coalesce if you’re a brand manager). STR CRD provides the space for cool brands to showcase their edge in innovative and exciting ways… and that, in many ways, has become the show. And while the future of the festival is secure and next year, no doubt, it’ll be bigger and better, but maybe now’s a good time to reassess what really underpins STR CRD. What is the cultural nucleus that holds all these brand activations together? Can a sneaker have an existential crisis? Hell maybe I’m just old and have unrealistic expectations about the role of brands and the independence of culture, the separation of church and state as it were… Or as Spokazi puts it, “if you push the brand activations too hard, you risk alienating people so much that it’s like visiting a city of albinos.”
*All images © Paul Ward.