Punk vents its frustration in Soweto
The South African urban hub is host to an unexpected musical renaissance,
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’
‘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