The first-encounter aesthetic rush

If you’re wondering what took us so long to say something about South African rapper Spoek Mathambo’s new music video — for his cover of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” [corrected], well, we can’t make up our mind about it.

The video, above, got a lot of attention when it first came out in late February as it was directed by Spoek’s countrymen, celebrated photographer Pieter Hugo and Michael Cleary (cinematographer of ‘Not everything was cool back then‘). Hipster blogs and mainstream Western media love the video, though we don’t learn much from them beyond repeating the PR copy.

First up the positives: We’re fans of Spoek Mathambo, whether it’s his music or his far-out blog.  As for what he did to the original tune: Spoek infused a nice South African flavor into it, which makes us appreciate both songs more. The choice of cover also makes sense. Spoek has spoken about his admiration for Joy Division’s music elsewhere:

… I am into Joy Division more than rap … I went from being super into rap my whole life, to a point where I was specifically anti-rap, and then into obscure and avant-garde jazz. When I was probably twenty-one, I got 10GB of music which opened me up to this world of white music that had been hidden from me my whole life.

So people expect him to go to New York, and give his nod to hip hop. But for those of us who remember Joy Division’s gimmick-free challenge to the  landscape of 1970s Brit punk, it’s easy to see why Spoek would feel an affinity with good music from the other point in the Atlantic triangle.

Still, like most things, the video also left us with more questions than anything else.

The selling point of the video is that it depicts the world of “township cults and teen gangs.” That sounds interesting, but we don’t see much of that in the video. Instead we get kids — apparently members of a Langa, Cape Town-dance troupe (“Happy Feet”)– and Spoek. And lots of chalk-blowing. Also, we wondered whether the trance-like dancing featured in the video is really that big in Langa (or any other Cape Town neighborhood).

More generally, we’re trying to figure out why it is that the videos that generally become popular outside of (especially) South Africa and that enters popular “hipster” circles or sites based in North America and Europe, tend to be those that tick one or all the boxes of what appeals to us about our Dark Other: if it’s not poverty and the crying and dying show, Africa is voodoo, (black) magic, primitivity, and all that is inscribed within the realm of the “unknowable.” (Though not as layered, see also Die Antwoord’s latest attempt at attention, “Rich Bitch“.)

We detect Hugo’s hand in the direction of the aesthetics in “In Control”: the South African photographer, remember him for his Nollywood images, co-directed the video. His characteristic interest in creating visual links between the surreal, blackness, and the occult are rehashed here, in moving images. Here, the boys and girls of Happy Feet become cut-throat child-soldiers/zombies in an other-worldly, bombed out apocalyptic landscape, dabbling in the occult and snuff-games. The black-and-white island of order-disorder is remarkably absent of adults, and death looms as large as the Christianity offered by Spoek–the sole adult here, luminescent in white, marked with the cross. In one frame, the boys shave an initiate’s head: the wall behind is inscribed with the message: “OUT OF ORDER.”

We get it: Nollywood-surreal is a big reference and inspiration in these videos. But we question whether Nollywood retains a sustained interest amongst hipsters beyond the first-encounter aesthetic rush. While we too responded as gutturally and instinctively as any viewer — after all, we also live in the same soup of Africa-images, and find the visual noise just as arresting as we are meant to–we wonder about Spoek’s choice to pander to the base expectations. Especially when his whole oeuvre seems to point towards finding a new conversation, not type.



Sean Jacobs

Also goes by Hasan Wazan. Life President.

  1. I love this video. It's a new conversation. It’s conversation that many young South African musicians, apart from a few Xhosa women, are not having. A look at African spirituality via a more contemporary kind of music does not hurt. Why would you say that it’s pandering to ‘base expectations’? I have to laugh at that assumption because this video is much cleverer than that. This is not a part of us that needs protecting, or shielding or shying away from. If others have an interest in Africa up to and only at ‘voodoo’ as a point of departure, then they need some schooling. When I first saw this video over a week ago I was blown away. Ashes! The people I know seem to be talking about ashes quite a bit lately. (represented by the chalk, I believe) From book titles, to the yearning for simplicity and village life, and even aching to go deep into their cultures – there’s an emergence of the kinds of questions you want to ask when confronted by this kind of art. This is not a bad thing, just going inwards and looking at a return.

    The vomiting of the white substance reminds me of the ZCC 'vomiting drink' – a church about 40% of all black South Africans are affiliated with. There's the elasticity of Christianity represented here – whether it can support an African belief system or not. What wins out? Will the youth triumph over the Westernised, Christianised adult? Do they need some Jesus? Or should they twasa, go for initiation and get back to their own original belief system? Are they just lost without the control of the ancestors? Or can they control each other in a way that pays homage to what has been lost? Do the ancestors weep when they see the lives that their children lead? I'm sure they do. All this from one video! Bravo Spoek Mathambo or 'Ghost Bones' I think you've thrown the bones with clarity.

    1. @Luso: Co-sign!

      What I like most about this is the fearlessness that allows Spoek to engage with subject matter that too often people in "enlightened circles" shy away from because of the apprehension that it reinforces negative stereotypes. Yes, the media is rife with negative images, but that's no reason to make the awareness of that fact so cripplingly powerful that it inhibits the artists among us. If Spoek wants to take it seriously, make fun of it, exploit the media's obsession with it, or simply revel in the aesthetic weirdness of it all, I believe that's a good thing as both an act of appropriation and a statement of independence from fear of the gaze of the "all powerful other."

      On an aesthetic note, I love the fabulous mash-up of Nollywood, New Orleans, Haiti, South African township and Hollywood vampire chic that pervades this video.

  2. In the event you wait to have your voice heard about anything new, music, clothes, etc. you run the risk of your original intent — be it admiration or disgust — to be clouded by the culture that emerges around an object. In this case you seem to be more pissed that the mainstream has taken it over and that they digest it in ways unintended by the artist. Sometimes waiting for the dust to settle just locks you into to a match with the culture vultures instead of the artist.

    There is a fine line between a desire to show a unique vision and pandering, and it seems more that Spoek is about furthering a vision that is willing to show a view of township life that while clearly constructed is one that is in dialogue with both Nollywood and techno-dance music videos from the '90s that use the black and white aesthetic and the erratic movement for the same effect, although Hugo's work is by far superior. And if he was really pandering, there would have been color, smiling faces, and more traditional African dance, versus movements that are akin to something I've seen or will likely see in a club. Also the ending, where Spoek becomes the object of revolt, suggests that he and his minions are engaged in more than just a full scale reproduction of any number of Christianity tropes. Yes showing the township might further stereotypes, but then again, if it is something that presents a three dimensional view of this life within a 2+ minute video, that is impressive. Because that is really what we want more of, not just showing other parts of South Africa (which of course would be helpful) but showing the full complexity of the artist and their collaborators' lives.

    By the way, the name of the Joy Division song is She's Lost Control not She's In Control (maybe Spoek changed his version) And while this may have been a slight of hand which happens and not something that typically bothers me, I think this instance, it makes a big difference, especially in terms of what the song and the musician are saying and then your critique of it.


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