Your meme is a radical act

Johannesburg - The phenomenon may have started in the West, but local meme creators are embracing this digital form of art to create an internet that is more reflective of their race, culture and language. Sihle Mthembu chats to some of SA’s most popular meme creators.

When you meet David Thapelo, you wouldn’t think he’s internet-famous. The reserved father of one works a full-time job as a software developer, he’s a part-time deejay, and caps and hats are his signature style item.

David, under his Instagram moniker @black__cart, is also something of a meme god. Chances are, if you’re a South African who frequents the social network, you’ve seen his page on the search tab, been tagged by a friend on one of his sometimes contentious but often hilarious posts, or someone on your timeline has re-posted one of his images.

“I got tired of other people’s recycled memes,” he tells me. “When I make my own memes, I tend to not make them too obvious. I always love it when people don’t get it the first time, then come back hours later laughing.”

David really likes memes, so much so that he’s posted almost 10 000 of them since he started his account, and now he’s part of a contingent of young South Africans making a name for themselves as professional meme makers.

The meme is emerging as the chief art form of the fourth industrial revolution. It’s a unique type of creative output that merges the fields of comedy and digital art. According to 
24-year-old Ndivhuwo Muhanelwa – the man behind @nochillinmzansi – relatability is the knot that ties a meme to its audience.

“I started creating memes using pics of my close friends just to tease them. I’d share them on Facebook, but I noticed other people were liking and even commenting on them, even though I thought it was just going to be relatable to my friends,” he says.

“I don’t just create memes for people to laugh, I also strive to educate, update and remind South Africans of our cultures and other activities happening in our country.”

Our contemporary definitions of a meme are constantly being stretched by the new ways in which meme makers and artists are using innovations within social media as part of their work. For instance, the new multi-upload function on Instagram and Twitter has birthed the subgenre of meme stories – where multiple memes are used to tell a single story, and are stretched for humorous effect.

According to social-media analyst Owethu Makhathini, however, meme culture in Mzansi is still reactive.

“Meme culture in South Africa is minimalistic and it is function over form. It follows popular culture; it does not lead popular culture,” she says. “It is heavily influenced by US culture, much like other forms of South African entertainment.”

Increasingly, memes are becoming a vehicle of sharing information, not just as funny reactions or out-of-context remixes of popular images.

The @TabloidArtHist project, for instance, juxtaposes moments in contemporary popular culture with high art to showcase the eloping nature of life and art. In this way, Beyoncé as the sun during her Grammy performance earlier this year lives easily side by side with a sculpture of the weeping Madonna.

The meme also feels like a form of expression distinctly suited to the African context because it’s born of open-source sharing and remixing – layering in which old elements are not discarded but treated as the foundation of something new.

Memes making money

As history has proved, monetising black humour is a precarious undertaking. Brands are yet to recognise meme makers as the influencers they are. Additionally, most meme makers are only able to monetise their work through flipping – essentially, they build an audience for their meme account and later sell it to the highest bidder. When an account has rabid active users, it can be sold for up to five figures.

Muhanelwa tells me how he has had to turn down lucrative offers because of the brand he’s trying to build.

“Some people want me to promote their brands, music and their business. Others just want to buy my page and own it. I’ve been offered up to R300 000 for the page, but I turned it down because it’s my IP [intellectual property],” he says.

The other part of what makes monetising memes difficult is that very notion of intellectual property. Copyright is nearly impossible to enforce on the internet. It’s easy for other meme pages to take a meme that has already been created by someone else, remove the watermark of the original creator and repost it as their own. Add to this the fact that the meme makers themselves don’t own the images they use, and things get a little thorny.

“Copyright issues should be adapted and shared, and widely understood in the context of usage. The responsibility falls dually on the content creator/meme platform and the lawmakers,” says Owethu.

“All content producers should own and display their content on their own platforms with clear disclaimers around usage.”

Luu Khumalo – @innluu – admits that this unchecked sharing has been a source of frustration for him.

“I don’t have any problem with people reposting my memes as long as my signature is there, but I feel disrespected when someone takes my meme and covers or scratches my signature off and posts it as theirs,” he says.

“I feel it’s disrespectful and distasteful to the person who created the meme. If you like a meme created by someone, post it as it is and give credit where it’s due.”

A democratic medium

Beyond the money, memes are one of the cornerstones of democratising the internet. They are able to transcend cultures, and they are powerful in that they can be culturally and regionally specific. In this way, minorities can see themselves reflected in an internet that can often be alienating and aloof. The use of indigenous languages in memes allows for a specific type of ownership that is more powerful than the mereness of universality or generic use of English.

According to Khumalo, this crusade to see people like him reflected on the internet and rally against the joylessness of online life is at the core of why he makes memes.

“Meme-making needs one to have nothing but humour and patience because we’re dealing with people’s emotions, and what you post might not excite or make the next person happy. It’s all about understanding and making sure you reflect people’s lives and put smiles on their faces.”

One of the biggest criticisms of online comedy in general and memes in particular is that they engender sexist, cishet-male views of the world. And these accusations are not invalid – often, memes can be crass, exploitative and, at their worst, downright misogynist. They can be created and shared by sexists who can hide behind the comfort of online anonymity and social media terms of use that do little to protect victims of online hate.

The widespread nature of this type of tactless material feels like a reflection of the people on the internet, and it ends up being noninclusive.

I ask Muhanelwa how he feels about some of the negative feedback he gets about his memes.

“I totally understand why. There are those people who get the joke and there are those who catch feelings. If I post a meme and the majority of people are complaining, I immediately take it down, but if, out of 10 people, only two are catching feelings, I go by majority votes. I track the feedback from the people by checking comments and likes.”

Siyabonga Mbele – @cyabonga_gnius_mbele – confesses that he has sometimes gone too far.

“It was when Bonang was trending with her book. For us who make memes, we make jokes over things like that. So I made a couple of memes about it and she ended up blocking me – I think I went too far there,” he says.

Memes are often misunderstood because they are seen as an objective stand-alone art form. The audience does not engage with a meme as a piece of work mined from the creator’s own life, the way they would a poem or a song. But if we view memes as an extension of the personal, we are able to view those crass, problematic memes as existing not in just a vacuum, but rather as a reflection of our increasingly strange and cold world and the people who inhabit it.

In her New Yorker essay on photography’s view of devastation and death, Susan Sontag points out: “The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs.”

Perhaps this adage can be updated to reflect that it is true now more than ever that we remember through memes. The power and danger of the viral lies in the absurdity that ensues when things are shared without context. The danger of the single meme is that it dislocates memory.

But, right now, thinking too much about that kind of responsibility seems a little daunting for guys such as Luu and Black Cart. For now, meme makers just wanna have fun.

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