Reading List: Xavier Livermon

Livermon’s new book explores how South African kwaito artists, Lebo Mathosa and Mandoza, pushed against the boundaries of gender and performance in their music.

Kwaito musicians on stage during Mandoza’s funeral in September 2016. Image credit GovernmentZA, via Flickr CC.

In my book, Kwaito Bodies: Remastering Race and Subjectivity in Postapartheid South Africa, I examine kwaito music and culture as a freedom space for South African youth. Kwaito emerged in the early 1990s alongside South Africa’s political transition. The genre’s early practitioners took globally circulating house music styles that could not be purchased in local record shops and made cover versions, at times adding their own ad-libs and sonic textures rooted in South African popular sounds. At some point, these sounds ceased to be cover versions and became something distinct in their own right. Kwaito quickly became a soundtrack for South Africa’s post-apartheid youth, influencing a number of cultural practices beyond music. Its major stars include Mandoza, Zola, Lebo Mathosa, Trompies, and M’du, to name just a few. I contend that kwaito laid the groundwork for much of contemporary South African youth culture and mediated black people’s entrance into and attempts to gain more control of South Africa’s culture industries. An interdisciplinary study combining fieldwork, archives and cultural criticism, the book considers the numerous political possibilities inherent in the rise of kwaito culture. I was particularly interested in the embodied aspects of those possibilities and what they signaled for those at the margins of gender and sexual propriety.

What I found was a nuanced and complex cultural practice that consistently tested the limits of what freedom meant in South Africa and noted that visions of freedom in post-apartheid youth cultures represented an in-between space which could not be easily articulated to existing conceptualizations of the relationship between aesthetics and politics. As a result, the politics of kwaito often existed outside of and defied the somewhat shopworn binaries of resistance and cooptation in ways both contradictory and fascinating. The book was an exercise in accepting these contradictions and finding within them what might be instructive for contemporary and future freedom dreams in South Africa.

An eclectic mix of sonic, visual, kinesthetic, and textual material animated the before (my years of fieldwork in Johannesburg’s party scene), the during (the years spent in writing and revision), and are present now that the book is out. Space here limits me to highlighting five “texts” that informed my writing practice. These works enhanced my understanding of cultural politics, diasporic intimacies, embodied research and their connections to the contemporary South African youth culture scene.

Avtar Brah’s Cartographies of Diaspora: Contested Identities is a particular influence. In this text, Brah works to rethink theories of diaspora away from historical, linear, flows, and strict divisions between “home” and diaspora. While understanding diasporas as material, she argues that it is equally important to consider diasporas as theoretical concepts. She also brings a geographic framework to her concept of diaspora space, speaking of diaspora as a space that is imagined and inhabited “not only by those who have migrated and their descendants but equally by those who are constructed and represented as indigenous.”

Brah’s idea critically informed my analysis of Afrodiasporic space and allowed me to account for relations between Africa and its diasporas as circulatory, continuous and polyphonic, which was well suited for thinking about the birth of new music and new youth cultures in contemporary South Africa.

Samuel Delaney’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue was a text that I had read many times and enjoyed thoroughly, but had not imagined would be so transformative of my thinking in this book project. Delaney’s text examines the (il)licit spaces of sex between men in the late 20th century primarily in the then-ubiquitous and much maligned adult film houses of Times Square prior to most of them being closed down. Delaney argues for the political importance of these spaces as opportunities for particular kinds of cross-class contact and suggests that the drive to eliminate such spaces is a loss to urban conviviality. He deftly weaves his own experiences of cruising Times Square with his observations regarding the violent erasure of what he identifies as critical spaces of freedom.

In doing so, he reminded me of the importance of spaces of ill repute in thinking through urban spatial politics and the freedoms made possible through such encounters. Furthermore, he provided me with a method for contemplating my own experiences of nightlife and its illicit nature in the city of Johannesburg. Like Delaney I tried to center my own performing body in relation to the city and my encounters with the people of Jozi.

What’s a book about kwaito without the music? Two kwaito artists who gave me an opportunity to think about gender and performance in kwaito are Lebo Mathosa and Mandoza. In the book, I argue that they each charted a path that both worked with and pushed back against received notions for black gendered performance in South Africa.

In the spirit of an imaginary Verzuz-style “battle,” I put these two artists in conversation in a playlist, picking some of their most memorable hits. This list is by no means exhaustive and is limited by what is widely available on accessible and free platforms. You can listen to the playlist here:

In Kwaito Bodies I argue that kwaito creates new and alternative political vernaculars for imagining South African freedoms and futures. Keguro Macharia’s blog posts on his website and writings for The New Inquiry helped inform my language of political vernaculars and the need to imagine political freedoms untethered to the state as sole agent and manager. His new book, Frottage, is an encapsulation of the questions of diaspora, embodiment, queerness, freedoms, and futures that I explore in my work.

In many ways, it also seems a fitting text to bring together the concerns expressed by the previous offerings on this list. He offers frottage as a method, a way of reading and thinking differently about points of disjuncture and discomfort. The text, much like mine, is an attempt to read locally-specific African contexts into mappings of diaspora. Macharia alights upon the productivity of the ways that diasporic blackness rubs up and against itself, to ponder the irreconcilable nature of blackness and queerness, and to consider seriously how the intimate and the sexual inform our understandings of black being.

Lastly, this list would not be complete without a recognition of the writing that black South Africans are undertaking to inscribe kwaito into their collective memory. Born to Kwaito: Reflections on The Kwaito Generation by Esinako Ndabeni and Sihle Mthembu engages in the necessary social history of reconsidering kwaito in black public cultures. It also represents some of the most urgent creative writing about kwaito, eschewing standard categories and offering a performative memoir that places the embodied experiences of the authors in conversation with critical reconsideration of the expansive impact of kwaito. Unfortunately, this title was released after I completed final revisions to my manuscript. However, given the similarities of our concerns to rethink the politics of kwaito, I was eager to sink my teeth into it and now that I have it on my bookshelf, it is a text I look forward to engaging repeatedly.

Further Reading