Monday, April 23, 2012

Swag Chronicles: Episode 2: Vashtie Kola

A Little Bit About Vashtie

This interview came about very unexpectedly. Hardy literally forced me to keep Vashtie company. I wasn't complaining. I have to admit, like with the Theophilus London interview, I didn't know much about Vashtie before Str.Crd. I'd heard about her here and there, but I didn't really know who she was or what she did. Shoot me, I'm just not that happening, boet. 

According to she is a:

"Visionary Director, Party Producer, Style Maven, Lady of Leisure, Jordan 3 Villain, TomBoy Extraordinaire, Luxury Handbag Queen, Vintage Don, Fashion Addict and Art Nerd."

Basically, she's The Queen of New York (US? Global?) Street Culture.

Not only that, but through chilling with her a bit, I would describe her as disarmingly humble and deeply thoughtful. At one point in the interview, I literally lost my command over the English language, because I was blown away by her down-to-earth intelligence.

Based on her impressive track record, it's obvious that she is a veteran of popular culture, and if there was a formal university for this shit, she'd be a professor cum laude or something like that. And as a student of popular culture; I am grateful to have had the opportunity to pick her mind and to have her guide my final thought-adventure on this blog.

The Interview

Here's a bit of the conversation we shared, just what I felt was relevant to this piece (I do apologize for my cellphone messing with the sound, but fuck, such is life):

Vashtie On Authenticity

There is a lot that could be said about what Vashtie brought up in this conversation. In fact, a lot has been said about it. The topic is authenticity, which I find difficult to define, and even more difficult to practically wrap my head around - it is one of those things that is easier to philosophize about than to practice. Ironically enough, out of all the online dictionaries, my favourite definition (for the purposes of this piece) comes from Wikipedia:

"Authenticity is a technical term in existentialist philosophy, and is also used in the philosophy of art and psychology. In philosophy, the conscious self is seen as coming to terms with being in a material world and with encountering external forces, pressures and influences which are very different from, and other than, itself.  Authenticity is the degree to which one is true to one's own personality, spirit, or character, despite these pressures."

Vashtie said some intriguing things on the topic.

Firstly, she admits that Americans are pretty ignorant to the rest of the world. In my opinion, they live in big bubble, one so big that it covers most of the world. This is American culture, but in more particular, the media-culture machine that upholds the myth of its supremacy over all other cultures - the movies, the magazines, the runways, the series, the news networks, blah blah blah. All of these media-based mechanisms keep their culture dominating the world, theirs and ours. In academic circles this is closely linked to a topic very close to my heart, culturual imperialism. But I won't harp on about that, the point is that America lives a vacuum, which can be best described as a mirror. A huge mirror. A superpower mirror! :)

Secondly, she says that New York and Joburg are very similar. She goes further to say that she got a culture shock seeing how similar they are. Obviously, it's not that shocking to me, I've heard this comparison many times - oh bru, laak, jozi is laak totally the manhattan of africa, bru, laak with all the skyscrapers and money and shit, bru. In my opinion Lagos is way more Manhattan than Joburg - okay, besides the fact that it's not as developed, but at least it's a frikking island. But I've never been to Manhattan so what the pampoen am I talking about anyway?

Thirdly, and most importantly, she says that someone in New York trying to pull off a Joburg style just wouldn't come off right, which, ceteris paribus, means that someone in Joburg trying to pull of an New York style just doesn't come off right...ouchy. But she did also say that locally people are making it their own, by infusing their history and culture into the American mould.

She concludes by saying that if we, the South African youth, stay close to what makes us us, our origins, the things that are unique about us, she sees a great power in the youth culture movement here. She recognizes the talent of our artists, and the potential energy of the movement.

But, to me, she's clearly saying that we need to come across more authentically, if we want to tap into the great power at our fingertips. And the way she said it, I get the sense that we're skating on thin ice as far as authenticity goes. Of course, this is my own personal sentiment layered on top of what she's saying, but you entered my narcissistic zone by reading this, so what did you expect? Newspaper journalism?

The Difference Between Being & Doing Authentic

Authenticity is a touchy subject.

What makes you you? And who has the right to tell anyone else who they are or who they're not?

In my opinion, being authentic is a private affair. You have to look yourself in the mirror at night and feel connected to the eyes you're staring into. It's about harmony - alignment between your mind, body and soul; your past, present and future. Nothing complicated, it's a feeling inside you of connectedness.

However, when it comes to doing authentic; to creativity, to expression of self, to art, to culture, to fashion, to film, to design, to artpreneurship - the whole equation changes, because the creative process results in something bigger than oneself; it enters the public domain, it is in fact created for others, and therefore becomes a representation of self. This is where it gets complicated, and this is the part that matters to culture.

Inspiration vs. Referencing

In the act of creativity, there are two major forces at play - inspiration and referencing. Inspiration is a metaphyical thing that can't be controlled; I am told that it can be harnessed and tapped into through practice, but it can't be controlled. Referencing on the other hand can very much be controlled.

In the past, artists would study and collect references. The research process was a much more difficult, deliberate and time-consuming process. And most of the time, an artist would be limited to his/her personal travels and experience to draw reference from; and a few books or stories told by others.

Nowadays, we are bombarded with information, with imagery, with sounds, with styles. It's easy to lose control of one's referencing process. In fact, most people disregard it entirely - who needs to research when we already know so much? A reference is a reference, whether it is consciously referenced or not - you can hear when someone is referencing Scarface (the movie), whether they purposefully chose it or whether they just got caught up in the hype.

Our generation is one that is used to the instantaneousness and accessibility of information, due to the vast internet and interlocking social networks. It's a double-edged sword because access to information may be empowering, but knowledge is power, not information, and information is different to knowledge.

Knowledge is information that has been processed by the mind consciously in order to understand and comprehend it's significance and meaning. Information is potential knowledge that has not been processed; it is nothing, empty, soulless.

Conscious Referencing As A Route To Authenticity 

The art of creating something that is original and authentic is all about the selection of references.

Referencing is the choice of the palette of things that already exist from which your idea will stem, it is the source of the creation. It is a research process, something that happens before creating anything. And because of the great influx of information in this age, we need to be very particular and deliberate about what we reference, or else we get lost in endless waves of nothingness - the same, bland, homogenized global culture.

What Vashtie is saying is simple: reference what is closest to home, it's the greatest gift your creativity has been given, and it will make you stand out and it will give you the power you need to do what you need to do. That's how I choose to interpreted it anyway.

The Role of Creatives In The African Renaissance 

I'm not sure where this thought ends. African intellectuals have been debating this idea since before the end of colonialism. The brutal process of colonialism created an identity dilemma - generations of Africans were taught that their culture was worthless, and the stains of this carry through to today. Many attempts have been made to arrive at a New African Identity - to get back some sense of what makes us unique and important - without being antiquated. Wearing african print doesn't mean that you don't look down upon the khoi-san as unevolved, premodern human beings. The hegemony runs deep.

If Africa is to stand up against the economic forces of the world - the Anglo-American forces who continue to exploit our raw materials and sell it back to us at a 1000% profit margin; or the Chinese who want our natural resources in exchange for cheap electronic products - we need to first declare our self-worth, to be able to say: we will not be fucked with.

The people who can make this statement are the creatives. Film and photography place dreams in our minds' eyes. Fashion stitches our hearts to our sleeves. Design creates our experiences - from graphic to product design through to architecture and urban planning. And music is our mantra.

Creatives are the dreamweavers of culture. Recognize your power and responsibility, and use it for the good of those without a voice or a hope for the future - and create new references for those who follow.

This wave has already long begun, and many local creatives have been doing this. It's nothing new, but we need to fight to make it mainstream, instead of being the fringe. It has to be a populist movement if anything is ever going to change.

There is so much information-waiting-to-become-knowledge right under our noses, on the street corners and in the places we run away from, because they taint us fitting into the global mould. These gems are sitting, waiting to be exposed to the world, but first we have to see them as gems.

Anything that you don't currently see or hear in the media is a gem, because it has the potential to captivate the imagination of the world in ways we cannot currently fathom. The soil under which gold rests looks like ordinary soil, until you dig a little.

Through these authentic references, and the self-esteem they will foster, the wealth, diversity and dynamism of Africa's cultures will overflow into the world, and we will conquer the world for once, instead of always being the conquered.


P.S. Yes, in hindsight, I feel a lot stupid for calling this thing Swag Chronicles. Die Khronicles of Kwaai, would've been so much kwaaier. Ah live and you learn. 

PEACE. & Happy Birthday Vashtie!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Lagos: The City of Dreams

This is the unedited, emotionally-fueled very first draft of an article that appeared in Mahala 4, 2011. After reflection, this piece is just what I was feeling at the time, most of which I still feel, but can't be taken as a factual depiction of Lagos or Nigeria - I was only there for three days and therefore my explorations were very limited. Rather than seeing it as a critique of others, I see it as a projection of my own inner battles onto the subject matter.
I was tired. We’d barely slept three hours when we landed in Lagos at 10:30 AM local time. There was a raving lunatic of a praise singer on the plane who burst into full song halfway through the flight, and continued despite the side-eyeing. My boss pointed out a burnt out carcass of half a Boeing on the runway. It’s time like these that I wish I were Catholic so that I could grab for the instant comfort of a rosary.  Alas, all I could do was suck it up and be a man amongst giants.

There was an awkwardly nervous energy in the customs queue. I could hear the thoughts running through all of our minds – basically, “we’re fucked.” All my papers were legit and yet I still feared the worst. A plain-clothed Nigerian guy walked up to a sheepish looking Indian guy (probably from Kolkata by the look of things) and whispered some instructions. “Dodgy,” I told my boss. She shrugged. We walked past the duo in the lobby and I overheard the Nigerian guy asking, “How much did you pay?” – it wasn’t all in my prejudiced imagination.

Once we got out the airport, the aura became much more relaxed. For the three days I spent in Lagos, the government officials, policemen and military troopers scared me the most – with their rifles and cold eyes. Nigeria has been and still is a quasi-military regime. The ordinary people are warm, welcoming and friendly except when I whipped my camera out – perhaps they fear the authorities just as much and probably assumed I must have been a spy: dubbel-0-ses-en-twentig: Ho$h Sonop! No. I am a communication strategist here to find out more about Nigerian motivations – what’s all the hype about?

Lagos is a city of over 10 million people and its pretty evident – there are people everywhere. It’s a flat city with few high-rise buildings and no mountains in sight. Lagos is actually a series of islands connected to The Mainland. Victoria Island (V.I. as the local hipsters call it) is like Manhattan City in the 19th century (in terms of infrastructure), with cell phones, SUVs and all the other markers of so-called modernity.

When MTN took the big gamble on the Nigerian economy in 2001, they struck a jackpot, allegedly selling SIM cards for $200 a pop, or something crazy like that. The Nigerians, desperately seeking ‘civilization’ and access to the global world, lapped it all up. Rumour has it that MTN Nigeria not MTN-anywhere-else sponsored the World Cup in 2010, we’re talking about big-boy money here.

Ever since the MTN success story, Nigeria has become seen as a goldmine, for anyone brave and smart enough to make it work. The same applies to the residents who flock to V.I. in the hope of getting their hands on their portion of the riches – building a makeshift community on the lagoon using rubbish to reclaim the land from the ocean. The entrepreneurial spirit is more than alive in Lagos; it has found a new home here.

From the okadas (motorbike taxis) to the event promoters to the street hawkers – everyone is on a hustle. Moët is the most popular drink in clubs and it is drunk like cooldrink – like Slovenian bar manager said: “Nigerians have no respect for Moët.” Entertainment and fashion are the hot industries to be in, with Lagos being more about the music, whereas Abuja is home to the massive Nollywood industry (now bigger than Hollywood and second to Bollywood), or so I’m told. Lagos is about who’s-who, what’s the hottest trend and how much you spent on that bottle of imported liquor. It’s much like Johannesburg, in many ways, and any other big city for that matter, but it’s just a lot more visceral here.

I went to Lagos with a romantic notion in my mind, the rush of the hustle and the potential of Africa to rise to the top of globe. I had a secret wish to become an overnight Nollywood star and leave my somewhat average life in South Africa behind me. I foresaw palatial regalia, as Montle would say.

And this there was, everywhere. Everything from the shower to the carpet of our guesthouse was palatialised – in the tacky sort of décor sense that you find at hotels like 15 on Orange. However, all of this regalia is smack-bang in the face of a crumbling, uncared for, polluted city with an open sewer system and very little being done about it. They say Abuja is much nicer, more organized and well-planned. Apparently, the government in Lagos is different to the national government so Lagos gets no love or money. Fair enough. But with all the money in Lagos no one can tell me they can’t find a way to at least clean the streets. The classic collective action problem: everyone waiting for someone else to do something about it.

I’m not attempting to demean my Nigerian brothers and sisters (for lack of better vocabulary); they only showed me what seems true for the whole of Africa – because they are the most extreme example of what I have come across in most of my travels. The lesson I learnt is nothing new, I studied the modernization theory at university but the academics missed the point slightly. The issue is first psychological and then manifests itself economically and politically.

The psychology of Africa is that of a kidnapped person who ends up loving and needing the kidnapper. West Africa was the primary source of African slaves to the USA. The strongest of its people were shipped and sold to American businessmen. The decedents of those slaves carried the African beat into their music – blues, jazz, rock, hip-hop – but they infused it with the American credos, losing their own culture (through ritualized abuse and torture) and ultimately bowed down to the dream of ‘becoming the Master.’ And now, Nigerian artists and youth are looking to the music video kings and queens for their inspiration – the vicious cycle of identity poverty.

Everyone is so intoxicated by the music video lifestyle that they seem to ignore reality, or at least act as though it doesn’t exist. The reality for Africa is that we still need to get the basics right. We need to build sustainable cities before building flashy hotels. We need to value our culture and heritage – not in antiquated way but in a relevant and progressive way – or else we suffer the worst form of poverty, lack of self-worth. We’re rushing to live the first-world life but all this leaves us with is the instant gratification of luxury products – Moët next to a pile of shit.

 A dream too big can blind the eyes.

Trying to be someone that you’re not is the classic symptom of low self-esteem, and narcissism is the usual response of the psyche to trauma. It is seems to me that as a continent we have still not yet addressed the trauma of colonization and the continued trauma inflicted by our own governments who basically followed in their footsteps, almost literally wearing the same suits – like my favourite local poet, CaCo said: “It must be kak confusing to go from being the abused to doing the abusing.”

This narcissistic disease, present globally but most destructive locally, is the reason our politicians feel comfortable sleeping and making jokes in parliament, getting fat and living removed from reality behind the safety of their estates – the DA included in case the liberals got all excited for a moment there. It is the reason our business people feel no pain in continuing to treat mine workers as technical slaves, units of production in the profit maximization equation. And it’s the reason we all (myself included) sit on the sideline bitching on twitter, but going on as if we have nothing to do with it. I fear that we need to put our music video dreams aside and deal with reality, before the reality deals with us.

I feel as if we need to recognize the wealth that lies in African humanity. I was inspired by the warmth, tenacity and positivity of the people in Lagos – their approach to life is full of power and potential. All we need to do as a continent is channel this energy toward the real things that really matter – health, community and human development – all the basic tenets of the mythical African way; it is not something of the past, it is the future. The Anglo-American sociocultural model of hyper-individualism and materialism is on the brink of collapse; let’s get smart and stop following them blindly into self-destruction.

I met a guy from Accra on my last night in Lagos who called himself Rolex. When I told him how much I love Ghana, he promptly responded: “I love money. That’s why I’m here, in Lagos.” If we continue to love the money, cars and other meaningless items more than ourselves then we are destined to an eternity of slavery to the neocolonial project; our downfall, and their victory. Our debt, their profit.

Hell, we’ll probably drink a bottle of Moët to that too!

Thoughts, words, fears, hopes, insecurities and photography by Takezito.