The Politics of Bling: Take that middle finger. We too can splurge.

2014-02-07 09:30

Everything else can sell, so long it has nothing to do with Black, its culture and life. Blackness can never be for a niche market. This muscular colour in its slickness, elegant shine and boldness doesn't make the cut. You can never sell this blackness and the township as having a “chance”. Never! Well, that's what “they” say. They, who claim to know what defines the “niche” would instead sell their “bling” papers, their flashy “Top-Billing”, shiny mags with pseudo-celebs on the cover and tired soapies which exhibit black folk living a life they fail to afford in real time. Township hustle and swagger will not be televised. Never! The ghetto party, despite its surrealism and over-the-top splurging nature will never be featured on the “magazine show” hosted by our own beauty queen, Bonang, who twangs like she was born in a modern day slave-ship.

Our country enjoys celebrating whitedom. Anything that is “bling”, “progressive”, a “mega-party”, “sophisticated” and “hyper-happy” we have associated with whiteness. Hence black mense review success as fleeing from the hood to buying a home in the 'burbs. A better life for us is sometimes a direct comparison to successful white folk and aims to resemble a piece of their world; in the cars we drive, the spots we hang out, the places we live in and how we talk, especially the now-middle-class who speak with a peculiar nasality imitating their white fellows. So clearly Black ain't cool...never!!!... not the way it was when Nina Simone blurted out affirmatively “To Be Young, Gifted and Black... your soul is intact”.

But then again, who are we fooling?

There is no way Ms Simone can be wrong. There is no way a kasi driven student movement in the 70s was incorrect when it embraced the“Black is Beautiful”slogan as a sort-of saving grace. Never! The sentiments of Steve Bantu Biko can't have been diminished from the time when he made reference  to African culture and “dance” affirming the greatness of Blackness: “The Monkey Jive, Soul etc. are all aspects of a modern type African culture that expresses the same original feelings... Yet when soul struck with its all-engulfing rhythm it immediately caught on and set millions of black bodies in gyration throughout the world. These were people reading in soul the real meaning – the defiant meaning 'say it loud! I'm black and I am proud'. 

So who are we fooling to say Biko's words are misplaced today? This expression is still to be find in today's modern. This expression shines bright in the Politics of Bling showcased live in the heart of township jive; Soweto, Katlegong, Vosloorus and Kwa-Thema. Here the middle-class youth gather at Chisanyama and loungy barvenues wedged between the slums of the neighbourhood:  brodahs geared in label jeans, some in sharp shoes others looking executive, the charmer boys in their golf shirts, chinos and sneakers while others retain the pantsula look. Ooh laard... the gals are fly, standing high defying gravity in their stilletos, their Beyonce-video-fashion, weaves and heavy make-up. Even the sugar-daddies and new-money boys have made their presence felt with their Mercs/Mini Coopers parked as a show-off exhibition. Booze galore; green beer bottles are code for “costly beverage”, whiskey bottles symbols for wealth, and liquors and vodka are emblems of “play”. Amateurish drag-racing may be the spectacle of the hang-out as we show off our lowly middle-class status in this democracy which has fed us, the youth, the lie we hate but believe. Here house music is the beat we bend our brown skins and bones to. This “suaveness” of the township's youth culture may not be documented by the mainstream, which prefers depicting white faces , “celebritydom” and our politricking. But, who says the lens of a young'star who lives, feels, inhales exhales, chases the life in which he himself is informed by will not reflect on the way the black middle class is living it up in the hood?

Muntu Vilakazi, who by day pays his bills by playing photographer for City Press and in the peripheral hours of his days hunts down picture stories like his breathe depends on it. His first exhibition The Politics of Bling: An Eastrand Culture Quest will be showcased at Goethe On Main, in Joburg's trendy and bizzare Maboneng Precinct from the 6th of February to the 16th of March. Vilakazi depicts this black youth culture “thing” which could be mistaken as a “wasteful”, “sinful” and a “lost generation”. But you are mistaken. The township aint all about  protesting and hungry youths living dreadful lives wihin crime-spots. If you think so, you haven't seen us dance, you haven't seen what we drive, eat and drink. You are  so wrong when you think we will live our entire lifetime without. We too have a way of life and can afford it.

And once again, if you think its all about wasting our lives with our boozing and partying. You are yet again wrong. We are just a generation that isn't afraid to spit in your face when you have asserted that we can't and you create capitalistic/white man structures that try to make sure we wont. We insist that we will get what you deem is wrong for us to attain. We don't just show off  our fashion, our music and cars to our brodahs and sistahs but we display it in style to show that if one of us can do it then we all can buy a car,  also live in Hyde Park, drink expensive champagne and dance the night away. In my view, this gathering together is what Biko asserted as “a culture of defiance, self assertion and group pride and solidarity”.

So back to Vilakazi. I've worked with him on various projects, and this photographer is not out to take pictures. He wants to experience the moment, not just shoot it. He spends weeks to months  documenting a story. It's never the easy way out. Why his work is intricate and easy to gaze at is because its unpretentious. His shots are real, not arty-farty but focused on the aesthetics. Muntu sees the mundane, he captures the obvious yet tells a story that you fail to see 'cause you take it for granted. Back in the day, Vilakazi and I worked on stories on the Lemba people and a youth movement called Evoloksion (including other unpublished works).  I would watch Muntu at a story not taking pictures instead immersing himself among the people or the scene: spending an hour or more watching, being part of the narrative and then from nowhere, sporadically, he start snapping pictures. Even between takes; he stops, lights a cigarette, watches the scene as if the shot is dependent on his watching the subject before he snaps another shot.

So the youth culture which you know little about or dare NOT to know much about is alive. It's Black yet colourful, vibrant even when suffering, it blings even in the rust of the ghetto, it parties and splurges a fee which denies its poverty. The youth of the East rand, or anywhere else in that case, is lovely, feisty, and their dance is a platform to say “I am black, I'm proud” and as if to say “Watch when I tell you  'Black is Beautiful'. Biko seems to put things perfectly when it comes to the context of Black identity. He states: “This is a culture that emanates from a situation of common experience of oppression. Just as it now finds expression in our music and our dress, it will spread to other aspects”.

Go check out the Politics of Bling and see it for yourself. Anyway, Top Billing aint gonna show it to ya.

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