Punk vents its frus­tra­tion in Soweto

The South African ur­ban hub is host to an un­ex­pected mu­si­cal re­nais­sance,

The Guardian Weekly - - Culture - re­ports Krista Mahr

On a down­town cor­ner in Jo­han­nes­burg, Pu­leng Seloane is try­ing to get a mosh­pit go­ing. He and the three other mem­bers of Soweto punk band TCIYF are play­ing an im­promptu gig, and a group of young men have gath­ered to watch. “This is the only punk band I’ve seen on In­sta­gram,” says on­looker Masta Za, 20, film­ing on his phone. “I was like, ‘What, a punk band from Soweto?’”

Za, who usu­ally lis­tens to hip-hop, says he likes what TCIYF are do­ing. “This mu­sic is bet­ter for my gen­er­a­tion. They’re not pro­mot­ing de­pressed mu­sic … They’re just happy.”

This Soweto is starkly dif­fer­ent to the tu­mul­tuous Soweto that mem­bers of TCIYF were born into in the 1980s. In 1976, mas­sive stu­dent protests erupted in the town­ship over the apartheid govern­ment’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, spark­ing a vi­o­lent state crack­down that led to in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions against South Africa. Today, Soweto is a thriv­ing ur­ban hub, home to 1.27 mil­lion South Africans. Un­em­ploy­ment is high and some res­i­dents still lack ba­sic ser­vices, but it also has a size­able mid­dle class, malls and ris­ing prop­erty prices.

“A lot of places are bor­ing. Soweto is not,” says Thu­la­sizwe Nkosi, 29, the gui­tarist and spokesman of TCIYF. “There are no rules here.”

TCIYF are at the heart of a small but vi­brant punk scene that was show­cased at new year with Jo­han­nes­burg’s two-day Afrop­unk fes­ti­val. The band’s pen­chant for skat­ing, beer and heavy guitar riffs – rarely heard in Soweto be­fore – as well as how they are re­defin­ing punk is at­tract­ing me­dia at­ten­tion.

“Punk chose us,” says Nkosi, who sports rain­bowhued dreads, blue-tinted sun­glasses and a chain hang­ing from his skinny jeans. “It’s a call­ing.”

In keep­ing with punk tra­di­tion, TCIYF claim they make up their mu­sic as they go along. It is fast and loud, with lyrics that range from sub­jects such as their grand­moth­ers’ fix­a­tion with Tup­per­ware to get­ting drunk on wine at church and grow­ing up with­out fathers.

“The gen­er­a­tion be­fore us was very weak. I don’t know what the govern­ment did with them – what they put in the wa­ter,” says Nkosi, who has a young daugh­ter. “We’re do­ing a bet­ter job.”

Like the Sex Pis­tols, who sent 1970s Bri­tain into shock with calls for anar­chy, Nkosi and his friends say they are fu­elled by frus­tra­tion. Un­em­ploy­ment in South A Africa is close to 30%, an and young black South Africans Afric bear the brunt. Presid Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma’s go govern­ment has been mired m in scan­dal an and al­le­ga­tions of gross cor­rupt tion. TCIYF see

them­selves as a voice for dis­en­fran­chised you youth, lash­ing out at the “rob “ro­bots” of so­ci­ety and prosel pros­e­lytis­ing on life with­out a day job. “We are re­belling against the sys­tem: go­ing to work ev­ery day, wak­ing up, run­ning af­ter the bus,” says Mbuso “Moose” Zulu, 31, one of the founders of Soweto’s skate punk scene. “There’s so much more you can do.”

The scene was born in 2010 when Nkosi, Zulu and friends formed Skate So­ci­ety Soweto. They started play­ing mu­sic, too, and be­fore long founded Soweto Rock Revo­lu­tion, which or­gan­ises mu­sic and skate events un­der the motto “no pol­i­tics, no ha­tred and no bull­shit”.

The heart of the scene is Dube, a Soweto sub­urb named af­ter the first pres­i­dent of the African Na­tional Con­gress. Here, bands play on an out­door stage in a back­yard adorned with graf­fiti and mu­rals. The events at­tract a di­verse crowd, still un­usual in South Africa, who en­joy co­pi­ous amounts of beer and guitar feed­back. Through mu­sic and skat­ing, TCIYF and their friends are try­ing to cre­ate some­thing new in Soweto. Zulu says, if some­one tells their par­ents they want to go to art school, they will be told they are crazy and asked how they’re go­ing to feed their fam­ily. He wants to show the younger gen­er­a­tion that there’s “more to life than be­ing a doc­tor or lawyer. They just need a pos­i­tive in­flu­ence.”

In­spired by a 2003 doc­u­men­tary about black punks in the US, the Afrop­unk fes­ti­vals have grown into sprawl­ing events cel­e­brat­ing black cul­ture that at­tract tens of thousands of peo­ple. The Jo­han­nes­burg event was staged at Con­sti­tu­tion Hill, a for­mer prison com­plex.

“It’s won­der­ful to be in a place that has so much his­tory, so much of which we can kind of re­write,” says Matthew Mor­gan, co-founder of the Afrop­unk fes­ti­vals. “Jo­han­nes­burg feels like New York to me 30 years ago. The op­por­tu­nity is there, and I like that.”

Mor­gan says Afrop­unk has been sup­port­ing TCIYF for a cou­ple of years and the band fit well into how the move­ment has come to de­fine punk. “I’m a black Bri­tish kid who grew up in the 1970s and 80s in the UK,” he says. “I’ve never been try­ing to recre­ate a black ver­sion of white punk rock. If you’re a per­son of colour in mu­sic and you’re push­ing the bound­aries, that’s punk rock to me.”

The drinks man­u­fac­turer Red Bull has also been back­ing TCIYF, and as the band set up for an­other pop-up show at a no­to­ri­ously dodgy taxi rank down­town, a photographer snaps away. But the band don’t seem both­ered by hav­ing cor­po­rate spon­sor­ship for their trade­mark anti-con­sumerism.

They play a short, loud set to a semi-cir­cle of be­fud­dled on­look­ers amid the fruit sell­ers and minibus taxis. An el­derly woman passerby gives the band a sharp el­bow and a dis­ap­prov­ing look. They think it’s hi­lar­i­ous and play her a cheeky trib­ute.

“Thank you, Super Granny!” Seloane calls into his mic.

It’s a mo­ment that en­cap­su­lates what TCIYF are about: be­ing in­spired by punk’s his­tory but not bound to its old rules. A cou­ple of women stop to soak up the un­ex­pected sight of four guys from Soweto, thrash­ing.

“I love this mu­sic,” says Lemon Npan­jwa, 30. “It’s hard­core.”

‘We are re­belling against the sys­tem: go­ing to work ev­ery day, wak­ing up, run­ning af­ter the bus’

James Oat­way

‘Punk chose us’ … gui­tarist Thu­la­sizwe Nkosi, right, in a street gig with drum­mer Nh­laka­nipho Valen­tine Nkosi; be­low, singer Pu­leng Seloane from South Africa’s TCIYF

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