Defend Truth


No word from the underground

Andrew Miller is a poet and freelance writer. He is also a founder of Unity Design, a socially orientated arts space operating in Newtown, Johannesburg.

The throwing of custard is a particular flourish of the Izikothane movement, where local youth gather to theatrically burn the symbols of consumer culture. It's fascinating, but it's also, sadly, one of the few true acts of arty rebellion happening among our creative youth, who appear to have pressed pause on the revolution, for now.

I have swum blindly through ironic pop culture waters for most of my life. As we all do, I guess. I had no idea that revolutionary YFM would turn into uber-corporate Rosebank Y. Nor that Wadkin Tudor Jones would turn into The Ninja. Nor that Rodriguez was alive and well and working in construction in Detroit. Nor that that 5FM song from the early nineties – Mr Ebeneezer Goode – was actually a fudged rave drug lyric from the UK that went “Man, these effin E’s are good…”

Maybe this sense of cultural blindness (as well as the accompanying joys of sudden cultural “discovery”) has something to do with why the concept of the rebellious arty underground has such strong commercial pull. The cloud of narrative and cultural mystery that surrounds pop culture is alluring to us all, no matter the age, no matter the context. And, without fail, running through the middle of the cloud is the golden emotive thread of rebellion. The Warhol Factory years. The Drum Offices. We carry mythological snapshots in our hearts about what our rebellious creatives get up to underground, and these ideas feed very strongly into the mainstream brand / celebrity cycle.

Brands understand this all very well, of course, and in today’s market, the rebellion often is the brand. We knowingly buy the product, the tailored brand experience and a sense of rebellious self in the same packages. The purchase seems to thrill us, even though we know the stories about what the product means or where a lyric or an idea or a campaign or a beat actually come from are wrapped into a single, often apocryphal, ad agency-created sandwich. We wolf it down regardless.

In South Africa, after the powerful yet short-lived youth rebellion that was YFM and Kwaito (when Arthur sang “Don’t Call Me Kaffir”, when Brothers of Peace remixed those struggle riffs, when Dadaman read the news… it really did feel like some kind of revolution) a lot of our creative youth turned, for a while at least, to so-called conscious hip hop, and to the spoken word. This was at the turn of the century, after the global marketing machine had fully consumed once-edgy dance culture, and was about to feast on hip hop. Even after dance died and YFM moved to Rosebank, morphing from a collective youth effort into just another brand, many new thoughts and ideas were still being delivered, in new places. Venues like Jungle Connection birthed an entire generation of Jozi poets (and fine artists), while the nascent hip hop scene took shape around venues like Le Club, and then through collaborative township sessions like Black Sundays and Slaghuis. With the momentum of the nineties still strong, our youth narrative was aggressively styled and often – though not exclusively – socially orientated. Poets preached. Rappers did too. People listened.

But it was brief. While some figures like Waddy Jones and Tumi are big names today, many of that Jozi scene’s foot soldiers have ended up running call centres, designing brand strategies or performing scripted theatrical content at corporate events. So it goes with art revolutions.

In 2013 it is hard to find the signs of a genuinely rebellious youth movement in Jozi (or in London, or New York, for that matter), other than as a marketing / brand construct. Now, the underground is simply the place where artists don’t get paid properly. Yes, there’s still vomit on the stairs and a dealer round the corner, but the conceptual vigour is largely absent. The primary challenge among so called underground artists at the moment appears to take the form of a personal quest to establish a revenue stream.

A key factor here is the fact that our broad cultural landscape is now largely built on a foundation of brands. This is a very different context to that of fifteen years ago, when brands were just waking up to the fact that youth culture was good business. One is forced to question, as a result, if our current crop of young creatives are learning the ropes of brand-centric interactions at the expense of true self-expression? Are, in other words, the talent shows our new creative underground?

The X Factor. HHP and the deodorant ads. Nike Run Jozi. The Puma Social club. Red Bull Magazine. The Lance Armstrong Bracelets. The Play Griffen Sessions. Lead SA. The Parlatones and KFC. Rolling Stone South Africa. Mandoza and Nathaniel selling wors. Idols. Absa L’Atelier. DJ Fresh and the Tropikal Island of Treasure…  702 Walk the Talk. Tiger Woods and Nike. SA’s Got Talent. The Standard Bank Gallery. FNB Stadium…

Interestingly, when our professional recording artists attempt to articulate socio-political thought, they tend towards large branded groups, such as the Danny K-led Shout SA. In re-purposing Tears for Fears lyrics via the channel of branded group effort, are our “name” musicians tacitly telling us that the subject matter is just too big for their own creative brains? That they would love to kick creatively against a serious socio-political issue like crime, but really they don’t know how, or even where, to start?

There are flickers, thankfully, of something other. Strong stuff still rises. South Africa has had a vigorous underground comedy scene for a long time, and many of our once-obscure comedy figures have risen sharply in recent years. Take Loyiso Gola and his crew at eTV’s Late Night News. They don’t get it right all the time, but they have given birth to a genuine political satire TV show – a show which actually plays, and rightfully mocks, clips from parliament. A show with a puppet who swears at our leaders. Long may it last.

Musically, acts like The Brother Moves On are doing something powerful and different with their creation of a unique kind of African Rock Theatre, which draws equal influence from the global indie  scene, hip hop and indigenous music and oral culture. They, too, are rising to prominence after several years of underground sweat.

Then there’s the more curious stuff. Last year a colleague SMSed me on a Friday night to tell me about the custard being hurled around his part of Soweto. Custard was literally landing on his walls and windows. The throwing of custard is a particular flourish of the Izikothane movement, where local youth gather to burn theatrically the symbols of consumer culture (custard is hurled, expensive jeans are burned, so is money) to publically establish their personal ability to buy and burn anything they choose. This series of pop culture rituals is a conceptual challenge the likes of which Damien Hirst have worked a lifetime to meet. I’m not saying that the Izikothane trend is likely to rise to mass market level, but it sure is rebellious. And creative. And intriguing as social commentary made real.

Also notable are the fashionistas of the townships, who live a kind of deep aesthetic rebellion that defies the brand package. The Street Poet Movement is one example among many. Their Facebook page tells a visual story of a bunch of young artists who seem to be on some kind of zen-fashion higher purpose mission. The creative rebellion in their ghetto fashion shoots is tangible.

But these are exceptions to a global status quo, where young art seeks to do good business above all else. The evidence points to the fact that the true South African rebellion in 2013 is happening in the literal underground – deep in the mines, and down on the farms. And in areas like Sasolburg, and many others, where our youngsters routinely choose to simply burn it all down in an attempt to be heard. Artists are patently not involved in, and nor do they currently reflect, this movement.

Creative rebellion is an organic process, of course. It cannot be forced or simply decided upon. Young groups of kids do not throw custard around by design. A complex mix of circumstances, politics and people is at play. Indeed, at the moment rebellion is an exceptionally tricky business in all parts of South Africa. It is hard for anyone to genuinely know what to fight against, or even where to aim.

Maybe that’s why we’re in a bit of a creative lull. Maybe it’s just general South African confusion that sees many of our young artists creating to live, rather than living to create. 

Or maybe I’m just getting old. DM


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