Soweto Punk Revolution

A punk festival comes close to what one would imagine the DIY-embracing, eccentricity-accepting and obedience-ignoring CBGB’s of the ‘70s to have been like.

Image of a performer at Soweto Punk Revolution, by Christine Hogg.

Someone told me that interviewing a punk band from Soweto–an urban settlement, the country’s largest, created in the 1930s to separate blacks from whites in Johannesburg, South Africa–is a stupid idea. “Black people playing punk? Is it mixed with kwaito or what?” I tried to explain that the ever-mutating punk mind-set is apt for anyone eager to stir things up, anti-establishment, equality and free thought, a revolt against the snobbish bourgeoisie. Hence, a dirty-riffed “fuck you” couldn’t be more fitting in a society, which lets its president get away with building a tax-funded “safety pool” when a quarter of the nation is unemployed.

Hell-bent to challenge this non-believer, I set out for Johannesburg to attend Soweto Rock Revolution–Punk Fuck III. Once arrived, local thrash punk band TCIYF (short for “The Cum in your Face”) made it clear that this has nothing to do with politics at all. It was about having a mad party, and – if one can speak about “the true spirit of punk” – this came pretty close to what one would imagine the DIY-embracing, eccentricity-accepting and obedience-ignoring CBGB’s of the ‘70s to have been like.

There might have been more sun, smiles and jah at Punk Fuck III than at blood-dripping aggro mosh pits in the colder, northern hemisphere, but the spit-hurling anarchy was commonplace. Attracting skaters, stoners and spiked hair, the music at the event wasn’t always strictly Ramones and Sex Pistols, but the attitude certainly was. R15 (about $1,50) Black Label quarts flowed like they were for free; weed was sold through the speakers; fireworks went off under Dr. Martens; microphones were ripped from the stage; band members left before sets started; guitars were stolen and spray cans were brazenly used to propagate feel-good slogans. On top of that, “the fourth wall” – dividing stage from floor – was constantly broken down, creating a welcome unity of fans and performers.

Image: Christine Hogg.

The togetherness started with Matt Vend, who announced that he would play without the amplifier if we don’t mind, when – in true punk fashion – the sound encountered problems. Sing-walking in-between eager listeners, he played a muted acoustic version until a fellow musician figured out what was wrong and kindly plugged him in again. His set was followed by Amber Light Choices, who set up on the floor completely. When TCIYF played at last, there was no more distinction between crowd and band – neither in alcohol levels nor assigned space.

Being part of the SSS (Skate Society Soweto), band members Thula (guitar), Pule (vocals), Tox (bass), Jazz (drums) and Sthe (special vocal guest) are influenced by rock’n’roll and half-pipes, but growing up there were few local outlets for their interests. They took matters into their own hands though, and organised low-key punk and skate jams in the township. The Soweto Rock Revolution, however, only really picked up after they left their home turf to play Punk Uprising and linked up with LeftOvers bassist and manager, Clint Hattingh. He had the right contacts and was able to convince Johannesburg bands to get their asses to Soweto. A small scene, possibly as diverse as South Africa’s people, was born. Our society seems obsessed with putting people in boxes like sorting socks from underpants or crayons from felt pens, yet Punk Fuck III –attended by South Africans of all backgrounds – proved that the exact opposite exists as well.

TCIYF’s show mirrored what the movement’s purveyors have in common: courage, a thirst for rebellion and a carefree nature. The Soweto punk fuckers are loud, ballsey and unabashed. But most importantly, fun as hell. “Who is drunk?” Pule screams before they rip through their songs, so boozed up that Thula slips off the stage and continues playing while leaning against it. In the meantime, a moshing mob jumps on and off the elevated concrete, surprisingly managing to keep cables and equipment intact. It was punk fuck alright, perhaps best epitomised in the drunken band’s words: “Fuck the answers. Fuck the explanations. Fuck the fear. Fuck everything. Just go ahead and just do it.”

Image by Christine Hogg.

Similar to the statement above, our interview – which we managed to squeeze into ten minutes as all TCIYF members were extremely busy organizing bands, beer and blunts – was accentuated, somewhat naively, by “fucked up”, “fuck this” and “fuck them” in regular rhythms. Short, but to the point, they made it very clear what they were about.

Unlike Johnny Rotten – who TCIYF dig – all band members agree that they simply don’t care about current affairs. Avoiding all media because it “brainwashes you”, they’re adamant not to vote (some band members don’t even have IDs). “It’s not to shock or to take away any meanings. It’s about what we think at that time. It’s about life experiences,” shouts Sthe, when I ask whether the use of Jesus symbolism in their video to “Church Wine” is just as unconcerned. Insisting that “it did happen,” Jazz adds, “We went to church, drank the wine and ate the food.” I wasn’t completely convinced and wondered if they weren’t kicked out. “No, they saw us with skate boards and said ‘Jesus loves you guys.’ None of our songs are lies, all of them are true. Like ‘Touched by a Boner’ is about touching this girl on the train.”

It shouldn’t be a big deal, but given my pre-party experience, why punk music? “We’re from Soweto but kwaito was way too slow for us, hip hop was way too monotonous… so boring! All they do is say nothing. So we just wanted to do something that was powerful,” says Thula after Sthe simply declares, “Because it’s the shit.” In fact, they see no contradiction in where they come from and the music they create. “Punk was London and New York. How fast are those cities? And how fast is Soweto as a township? It’s all according to the fucking lifestyle. If I lived in Kimberley I wouldn’t be in a band playing punk. There would be no need. I’d be farming or something.”

In punk’s early stages in the US and the UK, the raw, amateur sound was a slap in the face to the commercialisation of music. If the genre had a conscience, its liaison with a capitalising industry of dry-sucking big shots would be a sweat-drenched nightmare. So when I want to know what its future holds in South Africa, Sthe says, “Nobody cares about punk here, so I think it’s safe.” It has withstood some attacks though. According to Thula, they had a contract in front of them but sent profit-making packing when they realised the deal was just about numbers on a bank account. “We were like, ‘You don’t care about punk, you care about the money. That’s why My Chemical Romance is fucked. Even Lamb of God is fucked. Big bands are fucked. Metallica are fucked a long time ago. Everyone is just getting fucked because they are taking the money and forgetting what they are doing.”

Their bling bling-condoning mind-sets fit “the requisites” of the initial movement, which – of course – isn’t new to the African continent. Late ‘70s SA bands like National Wake, Wild Youth and The Gay Marines probably had more balls than the roughest safety-pins-and-mohawk sporting squatters in Europe. And yet – although they deserved all the recognition possible – their bold, politically-charged tunes remained largely underground until Punk in Africa dug them up in 2012. In a sad way, this is somewhat positive. Like feminism bought into smoking, subcultures get scooped up by corporate brands, only to get trivialized, lose meaning and become dishonest. Maybe South African punk’s previously clandestine and currently marginalized nature is exactly what makes it so real.

What’s certain though is that while TCIYF whip out killer riffs, master crude, in-your-face lyrics and are probably the most humble act to see live, they really don’t give a fuck. Even their album, Buddha’s Cum, due December 2014, is recorded by phone. “No overdubs, pedals, mixing and mastering” and it will be given away for free. In a time of sell-outs like Green Day where hypocrisy is a trend and clubs like The Rat turn into “classy” hotels, the priggery-defying anarchy, fearless indulgence and shameless DIY are what make the Soweto Rock Revolution parties spectacular. But what’s more, while The Sex Pistols sacked Glen Matlock because he was into The Beatles, the Soweto scene is definitely less – Johnny don’t hate me! –“exclusive”. I came home with a variety of band stickers and a satisfaction that there are still musicians who hold on to no-profit principles to simply have a blast. And finally – in the cum-fuelled words of TCIYF –“part your lips” because township punk is alive and spitting.

Further Reading