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!