Opinionista Andrew Miller 3 April 2013

The collective: terminally ill, still fighting

Hip-hop first posed the idea of the development of youth identity as a kind of war, and across the world the idea stuck. The notion of life being an essential creative battle (commercial, poetic or sexual) continues to dominate our cultural horizon. Successful culture warriors are celebrated. The defeated are mourned. The epic nature of the struggle is recognised in the art, and in the hype that surrounds it.

Naturally, the beer companies and brands try to frame their products and activities within the construct of this creative battle, or to at least claim proxy kudos for new bands, fashions, trends and beats. But even with all the chest puffing and promotion, much of the true achievement of South Africa’s young arts scene over the last twenty years remains hidden behind the front lines, unrecognised. The magic is buried far beyond the arts and culture expos and the secret location events featuring secret brand stars. 

In Jozi, as in many global urban centres, the creative battle has formed around the collective.

The most frustrating thing about the creative collective is that is a terminal condition. Most collectives die. Many of them die very fast. Some perish messily, in the thick of intense interpersonal conflict, while others die through natural fiscal attrition. Nonetheless, the collective is a defining element of our urban youth culture. They – the collectives – are everywhere, and despite the terminal challenges, they play an essential role in our society.

In Gauteng, the most revered collective arts effort of recent times was Black Sunday – a series of informal hip-hop events held in Soweto. To this day, local artists of all shapes and sizes talk about Black Sunday as some kind of greater-than-life event. As the literal apogee of the Jozi’s first generation hip-hop scene. It took place years ago, but Black Sunday still is viewed by many as a place and time that shaped worldviews, creative approaches and, of course, careers.

Black Sunday was a collective decision by a bunch of hip-hop heads to drag some speakers into a morphing location, lay down a few beats and do their thing. This is frequently the organic approach to collective arts activity. The main stage allows local poets, and later in the day/night local rappers and DJs, to express themselves and the socio-political ideas taking shape in their communities. Around the fringes of the event, all sorts of commercial activity occurs. Clothing is sold, so is jewellery and culture, in the form of mixed tapes, poetry books and general literature, some of it featuring the classic old guard (Biko and Mattera) and some of it the new generation, the new voices. The quality of the merchandise varies greatly – one can pick up a fantastic Made in Soweto hoodie, a medium quality home printed t-shirt or a book that can’t hold its spine together for longer than five minutes. It all depends on the day. The grammar and spelling in the zine (or, alternatively, the production levels on the CD) also range from perfectly acceptable to apocalyptic. As interesting as the content itself is, the context is perhaps more powerful. It is very enlightening to watch young South Africans express themselves. Often, what young people are trying to say matters as much as their ability to actually say it.

As with many collective events, the angry hip-hop veneer surrounding the original Black Sunday was misleading  – the event was actually purposefully geared to community and family as much as it was to hip-hop. Notably, swearing on stage was frowned upon. The original configuration didn’t last too long and was subject to the typical social and financial pressures of any ideologically centred creative group. The brand still exists today, holds events and revivals and so on, but does not approximate that initial mythical time and space. The idea behind Black Sunday quickly fragmented and reformed. One immediate spin-off was the Slaghuis hip-hop sessions, also Soweto-based, where swearing was embraced, ideologically and practically.

One urban culture collective that has managed to live beyond its informal ideological roots is the Back to the City Festival. Initially created by a collective led by Osmic Menoe and Dominique Soma, Back to the City began life as a smallish annual gathering of the city hip-hop tribe (who, amongst other activities, painted the pillars under the highway with graffiti art – a practice that continues today and that has been absorbed into Newtown’s general cultural identity), and has steadily expanded to a commercial venture that saw some 15,000 kids gathering under the highway in Newtown in 2012, engaging in every type of creative activity one can imagine. The Menoe / Soma partnership dissolved along the way, and now Back to the City is largely spearheaded by Menoe. Much of the long-term success of the event has relied on the organisers’ ability to attract corporate and state agency funding. Unlike Black Sunday, Back to the City circa 2013 features brands. It has also received important support from the arts funding coffers of various apologetic colonial conquerors, and of course from the South African government. Which sounds expected, but is actually a special achievement. It is rare indeed for a youth collective within Jozi to gain this kind of commercial momentum.

Street Poet Movement, a nascent collective from the East Rand, offers a current example of a newly formed youth collective. The imagery on their Facebook page shows a group of young creative South Africans working together within the philosophical and practical bounds of the township and the city. This is a group marching on a metaphysical creative mission. Their work ranges from poetry to art to fashion to generally being willing and able to get creative in an environment where many of their peers display no hope for anything, ever. The members of the collective set up shots using poses and backdrops and clothes and ideas that toy easily with the generic imagery and attitudes of the global fashion mags.

For me, fun aside, two things about the Street Poet Movement stand out, and reflect the journey travelled by similar young creative groups through the years. 

Firstly, they are urban and unapologetic. Which means there are always liquor bottles and so forth in their photos. This sounds glib, but it’s not. One of the hallmarks of formalised arts projects and ideas is that such realities are carefully culled from the imagery. Everyone self-censors, because everyone knows the rules. Youth collectives often resist this censorship, on ideological grounds. Art first, (potential) sponsors second. 

Secondly, the group is quasi-religious about its quest. I asked to meet one of the organisers, Pakiso Mofokeng, for a chat about their activities. When meeting day arrived no less than eight members of the movement were present. This is a group effort – one clearly orientated around the mission quest, rather than practicalities. Every time I tried to steer the conversation towards funding, business and logistical support, my leading questions were shrugged off. The group hasn’t had funding. They would like some one day, they would appreciated support, but their mission will go on regardless. And what is their mission? To live art. To show peers and parents what art (all art: paintings, poetry, fashion and music) can achieve in life. It truly is as broad and as inspired as that.

The mission quest is an essential element of the young Jozi street arts scene. Street Poet Movement is in fact carrying on a long established creative tradition – replicating a mythological approach to art that has been evident across Jozi’s litany of young, independent creative collectives since 1994. Interestingly, death (of the ideological and organisational variety) is a vital part of the process. When the collective collapses, it provides the ideological fodder for a new generation. People talk about Black Sunday today in the reverential terms they do because the collective spat out a generation of poetic and musical talent, but also because the idea of it remains pure in time and space, like James Dean.

Because it has survived and prospered commercially, the Back to the City Festival will never hold the ideological/ mythological clout of Black Sunday. But a visit to the event itself remains illuminating, especially from the perspective of our supposed national development agenda. Wherever you go in Newtown on 27 April you see the signs of urban commerce and entrepreneurial activity. From the kids selling mixed tapes to the zines and other publications to the madly rushing organisers, the business of hip-hop is ubiquitous. Yes, there is beer. And yes, much smoke is in the air. But few can question – as they did through all those early years, when funding was so hard to come by – that this is an event worthy of support.

There is a special kind of beauty in the isolation and the ideology of the young arts collective. The fact that our art and culture exists in a pure form, out there in the streets, and deep down in the clubs, that’s a powerful thing. But will there be a legacy? Can the underground collective challenge formal literature, fashion and theatre? 

My hope is that when the historians are pouring over our garbage, they’ll find as many slivers of output from our young collectives as they do snapshots of branded creative events. They’ll find the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz, and the MTN Bushfire Festival, of course. But it would surely be a fine, fine thing if they also got a look at samples of what the youth working on the fringes of our society have produced over all this time. DM

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