Mthetho Mapoyi in The New York Times

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“Opera singer Mthetho Mayobi, 28, [is] part of a new generation of creatives from South Africa…”

Mthetho Mapoyi (or as The New York Times calls him, “Mthetho Mayobi”) has been busy this past month.  After seeing The Creators: South Africa Through the Eyes of Its Artists, The Times chose Mthetho to feature as the opening act in its “Cape Town Stories,” a short film commissioned by Belvedere Vodka as the finale for its three-part series on South Africa’s artists, entrepreneurs, and its HIV/AIDS epidemic.

“Chapter One: Mthetho” consists of Mthetho describing his life, and the role of opera music in his world, since the death of his mother:

“I sang Una Furtiva Lagrima for my mother’s funeral.  Now when I sing Una Furtiva Lagrima, I’m telling her how much I love her.  When I sing, I like to imagine that the room is empty.  There’s only one person that I can imagine there.  And I sing for her.”

Behind the scenes: my ultimate test as a new South African

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Spoek Mathambo, Laura Gamse, and Bernard Myburgh conduct an interview

It was with a heavy heart that I entered Pickwicks bar late one night on Cape Town’s bustling Long Street. I had spent seven long months scouring South Africa for musicians, searching for the future subjects of my documentary. Yet night after night, open mic after open mic, I was unable to find the perfect fit. Meanwhile, I received a proper “welcome” to South Africa’s dark underside; I had been robbed twice, received a death threat, narrowly missed getting hit by bb gun bullets and had the wheel from my rental car stolen while it was parked outside of a new friend’s home. I was in Cape Town on a Fulbright scholarship, working in the same township where previous Fulbright student Amy Biehl had been killed by a mob in 1994. Murder rates in the western cape had since increased.  As I found the last seat at yet another open mic, I resigned myself to a night of sober, solo listening.

I’m not sure what it was about me that caught Nahum’s eye. From my frazzled appearance to begrudging-the-world posture, I can’t say I was the most approachable person in the room. All I know is that a bright-eyed, emaciated-looking South African walked straight up to me and said, “Hello. What is your name?” Without any seats left in the house, I tried to make room for him on the bench next to me. As he squirmed easily into the narrow space, he wasted no time in informing me that he was looking for a job and a place to live. I mentally winced as I remembered the last homeless guy that I tried to help. That situation had led to the above-mentioned death threat: a drunken tirade promising to “bring violence” on my “American home.”

Yet as I sat with Nahum throughout the remainder of the night, I listened to his story. He was an MC from the Eastern Cape who had recently moved to Cape Town to earn some money for his fiance and the baby they were expecting in another four months. Unable to find work in the township he grew up in, Nahum moved to Cape Town (where South Africa’s rich and fashionable come to parade and sunbathe and, inadvertently, create jobs). But like so many other young people in a country with roughly 40% unemployed citizens, Nahum had no luck in his search. I was surprised when I asked Nahum what type of work he would like to do, and he responded, “Producing film and music. I am a producer and a creator.”  Resolved to ignore the nagging voice in my head that told me Nahum could be another thief or worse, I told him the truth. “I’m making a documentary on South African music.” Then, before I could stop myself, “What are you doing tomorrow?”

The next day Nahum was helping me navigate the Cape Flats — one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods — to pick up a musician for a shoot. We had met at the same cafe, Nahum holding a copy of his passport which I had asked him to bring “for insurance purposes.” The truth was that I wanted his ID in case he stole my camera. He silently complied, not asking any questions.

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Nahum at work

When we got to the musician’s gig, I taught Nahum how to zoom and focus my Sony EX3 – a camera that I had flown back to the U.S. to purchase (which was more affordable than simply buying it in South Africa).  It was also the biggest investment I had made in my life. A few weeks earlier, I had been filming in the middle of the day inside a band’s studio when a man broke down the door (not so hard to do since the studio was a shack made of corrugated metal). He charged me with bloodshot eyes, reaching for the camera as the band held him back.  He didn’t get the camera, but I got one hell of a shot.  It didn’t make it into the documentary, for reasons that will soon become clear.

Having had the camera nearly stolen a few weeks earlier, I watched Nahum like a hawk.   I was soon impressed with his slow and gentle approach.  It wasn’t long before Nahum was accompanying me to all of my shoots.  When gangsters would stroll by with their eyes on the camera, he would stand between us and tell me what they had been hissing (“Get it from the white girl!”).

Nahum won my trust when we packed up a shoot in a particularly dangerous area of the Flats. He told me that his friend lived nearby, and offered to take me there for dinner. Cautiously, I said yes; he proceeded to direct me deeper and deeper into the Flats. We parked on an avenue I had never been to before, and I locked my car about nine times before walking to the door of a small house. Nahum knocked as I surveyed the area, mentally registering the fastest escape route.

The door opened, and I was ushered into a loudest, brightest, friendliest room you can imagine. Children ran in and out as women worked in every corner of the small kitchen with babies strapped to their backs. Nahum quickly made off with the men and I was given the task of chopping meat. I shyly offered to chop vegetables instead; “I’m a vegetarian, so I don’t—”

“VEGETARIAN!” the host cut me off, not needing an explanation. “Like Nahum!”

“Really? Nahum?” I asked, wondering why I didn’t know this already.

“Yebo, Nahum is a vegan!” the women informed me, pushing me towards a cutting board with vegetables piled on top.

That evening, I dined with the friendliest people I had met in South Africa. The children climbed all over me, the teenagers asked what celebrities I had met, and the adults told me about African Hebrews — the group some had joined as teenagers that influenced their decisions to become vegans. Nahum explained that the group had prepared him and his friends to adopt healthy and independent lifestyles, unlike many who ate the fried meat and dough ubiquitous in the townships. Eventually he left the group, preferring, as he put it, “the messiah within.” He had remained a vegan ever since.

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Ongama (Ongx) Mona on guitar, filmed by Bernard Myburgh and Laura Gamse

It’s one thing to be a vegan in the middle of Portland.  Another thing completely in the middle of a barren township in South Africa.  Impressed by the first homeless vegan I had ever met, I began to chat more with Nahum on our daily drives to and from the townships. He told me that life without a home was exhausting, and that he would be alright if he simply had a place — any place — to lay his head down at night.

I asked my English South African housemate whether Nahum could surf our couch for a week or so. His immediate response: “No.” It didn’t surprise me. Though many young white South Africans I met recoiled at the word “racist,” they also recoiled at any suggestion of interracial living. Gumtree, South Africa’s version of Craigslist, was littered with apartments posted for “whites only please.”  “No disrespect.”  Many people had suffered multiple robberies or car-jackings and used these incidents as evidence against any real-life manifestation of South Africa’s famed “Rainbow Nation.” Though no one would say it out loud, it was clear that some white South Africans felt that black people had their place: in the townships.

Nahum did not want his first born to grow up in a township. For one, the murder rate is devastating. Even after apartheid ended in 1994, the number of murders in South Africa exceeded the number of American soldiers’ deaths in Vietnam – by four times. The rate of violence against women is among the highest in the world. And the schools are falling apart, attended infrequently and often taught by untrained and undereducated teachers.

Nahum wanted more, and I could not blame him. He had been through more than those of us who live in the world’s wealthier nations could imagine. So when my housemate left on a month-long business trip, I took a chance. Against my housemate’s wishes, I invited Nahum to come stay in the empty bedroom. Nahum accepted, but would not sleep in the bedroom of someone who did not want him there. “Bad vibes,” he said. He slept on the couch.

By this point, I knew Nahum well enough to be sure he wouldn’t pillage the place. What I couldn’t have expected was the supreme peace that he brought into our home. He taught me how to bake delicious vegan pizza. I helped him write a cover letter for his college application. He laughed when my wet clothes were stolen from the community washing machine and taught me how to wash clothes “the African way” — in the bathtub.

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“Become the owner of the land we occupy!!”

Living with Nahum prepared me for my ultimate test as a new South African. One day I returned home to find that the external hard drive containing my documentary footage was missing. Days, weeks, months, hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars worth of footage, gone.  Six months earlier I might have broken down and asked Nahum to leave. As it was, I muffled my gut reaction. I asked Nahum if he had seen the drive. He said no. I asked the friends who had been in my room. They all said no. I locked my remaining hard drive in my closet (I had backed up half of the footage, but only half) and went out again with Nahum the next day to start shooting all over again.

I continued to live and shoot with Nahum for about two weeks before I found out what had happened. I had racked my brain over whether to trust Nahum, and racked Nahum’s brain over whether we could trust our maid — a woman who my former housemate had hired to clean the house once a week. Nahum refused to overthink it.  He didn’t pass judgement or expend breath defending himself. He just said that he didn’t know. He didn’t show any shock or indignation over the loss.  He wasn’t unsympathetic, but his silence reflected a reality I might have otherwise overlooked. The loss of a hard drive full of documentary footage is nothing compared to real loss; the type of loss that is a fact of everyday existence for South Africans who have lost their homes, families, communities and traditions.

The next week my housemate’s maid did not come to work, but the following week she showed up. Nahum and I were out on a shoot when I received a text message from her. “I found R900 under the speaker,” she wrote. “I will place it on your desk.”

“Thank you” I wrote back. I didn’t need to ask any questions. I had not left any money under the speaker, and neither had Nahum. She certainly hadn’t placed the money there as a gift — it was more than the amount my housemate paid her each month. The R900 amounted to slightly over $100 – about the amount one might receive for a used hard drive sold on the street.

She continued to stop by each week, and I told her that it didn’t feel right for her, a young mother, to clean up after me. She said that she needed the money, and we agreed that she would stop by each week and have lunch with me instead. She continued to clean the house afterwards — she said she didn’t want to accept money for nothing — but the dynamic of our relationship changed. I learned that she was a religious woman and that her son had recently been so sick she had to take him on an expensive trip to the hospital.  Luckily, she “found” the money and he lived through the incident.  She continued to express interest in whether I was able to re-shoot the scenes I needed for my documentary.

I’ll never know what exactly happened to that hard drive, but now it is the least of my concerns. I could make the choice to mistrust my fellow people, like so many have done during apartheid and afterwards, or I could invest my trust in a new future for all.

No one could have made this more clear to me than Nahum, the producer of The Creators.  After we finished the documentary, he moved into a new home with his fiancé and their four-month-old daughter. No longer homeless or jobless, he is working professionally as a producer in the South African film industry. His daughter will grow up in a new world, with the best of guides.

Ongx Mona in Los Angeles


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Ongama (Ongx) Mona, lead singer of Warongx and founder of the Khayelitsha Music Academy

Good news for LA!  The “Ashé Africa” Initiative is generously flying Ongx all the way from Cape Town to perform at Pomona College in Los Angeles County, California, after a screening of The Creators.  Details below:

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Ongx Mona, self portrait

Below, Ongx performs in front of his artwork:

Wed., Sep. 16, 2015, 4:15 p.m. 
Film ScreeningThe Creators, the story of several South African artists and musicians. Followed by a Q&A with director/producer Laura Gamse ’07 and musician Ongx Mana. – Rose Hills Theatre

Thu., Sep. 17, 2015, 9 p.m.
Art After Hours music performance with Ongx Mona, in conjunction with a screening of The Creators – Pomona College Museum of Art


RSVP on Facebook if you will be in attendance!

Following the two events at Pomona College, Ongx will perform again after a screening of The Creators at Chapman University in Orange County:

Friday, September 18, 2015, 4 p.m.

Award-winning documentary on popular music during and after apartheid in South Africa: The Creators: South Africa through the Eyes of Its Artists, on in Argyros Forum, 209 A&B.


If the music and art aren’t enough to get you there, here’s a tongue twister:

And here is what happens when Ongx gets together with Creators’ cinematographer Bernard Myburgh:

California, see you soon!

Faith47 Paints Warwick Triangle

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On Warwick triangle, Faith47 says, “I’m specifically interested in exploring this notion of the informal economy.
I was struck by the potent energy of this area.  The paintings are portraits of some of the traders in the area,
a tribute to the everyday man on the street.”

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“So much of our shared space and our city architecture is alienating to the individual.
Interventions within public spaces allow for a visual gap in which people can breathe and feel again”

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A Letter from Emile YX?


My Dear Brothers and Sisters

On the 26th & 27th July, help me fill Artscape Theater with 1500 kids who can’t afford going to the theater  Buy a R 60 ticket or 2 to BREAK & Break the norm that fuels the Cape Flats societal ills storm.

I’m trying to fill the Artscape Theater for this HIP HOP DANCE THEATER production called “BREAK” with kids that can’t afford to and never have attended Artscape Theater. We are asking people to buy tickets that we will give to kids that we work with from Blikkiesdorp, Khayelitsha, Lavender Hill, Lotus River, Manenberg, Mitchells Plain, Ceres, Atlantis etc … Tickets are R 60 each. Please forward my request to others who may be able to assist. Link to compu-ticket to buy it online. Send us the confirmation when you have purchased the ticket. I am trying to get 150 people to assist us to get 10 friends to buy a ticket each for themselves or for the kids that we or they work with.
emile jansen2
People from outside of South Africa have been finding it hard to buy BREAK tickets for kids from compu-ticket, so please Electronically Transfer your donation to:-
Name:- Heal the Hood Project
Bank:- Standard Bank
Branch:- Blue Route
Branch Code:- 025609
Account #:- 072055065
Swift Code:- SBZAZAJJ

Bringing Revolutionary Experiences Awakening KidsFirst we took them by bus to Worcester and Manenberg with “Hip Hop by Bus” and “Project Breaking”, then we took them on a walk up Table Mountain, with “Up the Rock”, then we took them surfing with our “Learn to Surf Day” and NOW, through “B.R.E.A.K” we will bring youth from the economically poorer areas to Artscape Theater to watch the Hip Hop Theater Production called BREAK.

I initially created the concept “Mixing it Up”, a Hip Hop Dance Theater Production in the hope of creating work for dancers. Last night I asked myself the question, who will they be performing for and who will be impressed the most by seeing the young dancers in this space?

Emile jansen3I suddenly realized that with “BREAK”, I also wish to create new spectators and sense of responsibility among our global community. Most of these dancers in our production have never been exposed to Hip Hop Dance Theater before, because Hip Hop and our “streets”(economically poorer communities) are seldom able to attend the theater. We now also want to break the cycle of economic exclusion that fuels the hopelessness, violence and crime on the Cape Flats. We can do this  by asking others who can, to buy tickets for kids who can’t.

Not only will “Break” be a break from the norm, break of peoples perception of what South African Hip Hop Dance is, break from stereotypes of who we are and who we have to be, but we have decided that break should also be an acronym for Bringing Revolutionary Experiences Awakening Kids. So, keeping that in mind, we are getting local and international friends and family to buy tickets and pay for transport for kids from Khayelitsha, Manenberg, Delft, Lavender Hill, Mitchells Plain, Scottsville, Bonteheuwel, Hanover Park, Hout Bay, Ocean View, Cloetesville Stellenbosch, Blikkiesdorp, etc to come and watch our creation.

We have already had purchases of tickets from the USA, Sweden, Cape Town and I have purchased 10 tickets myself to challenge others to stop complaining and take action. I ask that others also “Be the change they wish to see in the world” by buying a ticket of R60 for a kid and we can change our reality. This is not giving a man a fish, but giving them an experience they will never forget and which might change their lives forever.

“Change starts with me, my family, community, city, country, continent, world.”

Love and Light to you all,
God Bless
Emile YX?

Faith47 Fragments of a Burnt History Exhibition Extended


Faith47’s Fragments of a Burnt History, showing at David Krut Projects Parkwood from 8 November 2012 until 9 February 2013,  is comprised of an installation of found objects and artwork created in the artist’s studio, as well as a new series of monotypes produced in collaboration with the David Krut Print Workshop.

Image Image

Rowan Pybus, one of the talented cinematographers who shot The Creators, released these photos as well as a video of the exhibition. Starting in a forgotten and dusty letterpress studio and moving through the installation, the short gives the viewer a deeper understanding of this new body of work.

“[Faith47’s] sensitivity to the environments through which she moves (and to which her gallery audience most often does not have access) allows her to present observations and critiques of the realities of existence on the streets without sensationalising the very real positions of the anonymous characters that emerge in her work. Fragments of a Burnt History presents many elements of living in South Africa thatcarry with them long lists of weighty connotations – of establishment, security, spirituality and the fragility of political and ideological devices of control, often disconnected from the people they are designed to govern – the people on the streets. The installation of work communicates the emotion that Faith47 experiences in the streets, which tell her ‘a real, hard and beautifully sad story.’ The nostalgic architecture of the city is present in the work, and the sense that the ‘history of the city is etched deep into its streets’ – the works are fragments of this history, containing signs of the dynamic transition that has been, at times, reeling and painful, but has also been honest, allowing itself to be offered up for comment and consumption. The voices of the people that occupy this symbolic South African city, incorporated into Faith47’s own voice, allow her work to function as a penetrative look into the psyche of the spaces that we communally inherit.”- Jacqueline Nurse, September 2012

More photos and information on


Mthetho Mapoyi (“Maphoyi”) on the BBC

Mthetho Maphoyi

“The music was alien to him and the language incomprehensible but for Mthetho Maphoyi the chance discovery of a CD by Italian opera singer Luciano Pavarotti led to a life-changing experience.”

The BBC chooses to spell Mthetho Mapoyi’s last name with an “h” – it’s not entirely arbitrary, as it’s a mistake made by those who processed Mthetho’s passport years ago.  He’s filed for a change, but he’s not holding his breath – in the meantime, surely the passport is more reliable than Mthetho himself, right, BBC?

Tedx Teen took their artistic license a little bit further, with “Mteto Maphoyi.”

Not to be outdone, The New York Times added their own twist on his name: “Mthetho Mayobi” – it has a nice ring to it, no?

Unfortunately our western media’s clumsy fingers make Mthetho fairly difficult to track down – hence a good number of kind-hearted philanthropists can’t find him (Google “Mthetho Mapoyi” and you get over 500 results – Google “Mthetho Mayobi” and you’re left with nothing but the Times).  Many reach out to us here at The Creators documentary, and many more undoubtedly give up.  Hopefully this post will help steer future Googlers in the right direction.

[Yes, journalists, we will connect you with Mthetho, but you have to promise to do three things in return: 1) spell his name correctly, 2) pay him adequately for his time and 3) include his contact details in your piece.  As wonderful as it is for Mthetho to feature in an oversized ad sponsored by Belvedere Vodka, it’s a lot more wonderful for him to have food on the table and a roof over his head.]

Mthetho Maphoyi at TedxTeen: Cape Town to New York City

Mthetho blew the audience away at the 2012 TedxTeen conference in NYC.  Check out his performance below:

And watch Mthetho’s TedxTeen Talk, “The Power of Listening,” here:

(Mthetho’s name was spelled “Mteto Maphoyi” at TedxTeen…it was mistakenly spelled that way in his passport.  Mthetho himself spells his name, “Mthetho Mapoyi.”  BBC chose to spell Mthetho’s name as a combination of the two – “Mthetho Maphoyi.”  Our SEO experts advised we follow suit so that googlers can find him, and Mthetho says he doesn’t mind.)


Die Antwoord raps:


…Or 2012.  South Africa’s latest census, released October 30 2012, has a few points to make on the racism question:

To avoid playing the blame game, we’ll throw in here that according to the 2010 US Census, white families in the US make 168% what black American families make on average (and according to a recent Brandeis study, white families in the US hold an average of $95k more total wealth than black families — a gap that has more than quadrupled in the last 23 years).

While statistics like these can be daunting, we need not throw our hands up in despair.  Complicated policy arguments can distract us from a basic solution that the majority in every country favors, but neither South Africa nor the United States invests enough money, political pull or airtime in: education.  Anyone who doubts that basic education is dysfunctional South Africa need only pick up a copy of Catherine Besteman’s Transforming Cape Town:

“Of fifteen secondary schools in Khayelitsha in the year 2001, only forty-three learners from a matric group of nine thousand attempted maths as a requirement for university entrance.  Forty-three out of nine thousand. Only six people in the whole of the Western Cape — I’m talking about African language speakers — managed to get above 60 percent for maths and science.”

– John Gilmour

But enough statistics.  Here are some options for action.

For South Africans:

– Get involved with Heal the Hood (founded by The Creators‘ Emile Jansen)

– Help build The Khayelitsha Music Academy (founded by The Creators‘ Ongx Mona – more from him below)

– Volunteer with Khayelitsha’s own Baphumelele orphanage 

-Donate your bike.  The Abahlali Bikes Initiative repurposes old bicycles as pedicabs (providing much-needed jobs in the townships) and donates the rest to Baphumelele.

For those not living in South Africa:

Connect directly with any of the artists in The Creators to get involved with their current projects:

  • Emile Jansen (Emile YX?) is the founder and director of Heal the Hood.  They have programs based in the Western Cape that operate in townships throughout South Africa around the world.
  • Ongx Mona (lead singer of Warongx) founded the Khayelitsha Music Academy.  The school was recently robbed and is in the process of relocating to a safer area now.  No better time to get involved.
  • Black Pearl just released her full length album, Against All Odds, and works based in the Cape Flats as well.
  • Faith47 just opened her first solo exhibit, Fragments of a burnt history, at the David Krut Gallery in Joburg
  • Mthetho Mapoyi is studying opera at the Black Tie Ensemble in Pretoria.
  • Sweat.X continues to tear it up aurally on Bandcamp

-Donate to one of the charities recommended by The Life You Can Save.  Measure the direct impact of your donation using their Impact Calculator, developed by producer/director of The Creators Laura Gamse.

-Help build libraries in South African schools

For the faint-hearted (or shallow-pocketed):

-Donate your bike.  The Abahlali Bikes Initiative repurposes old bicycles as pedicabs and donates the rest to Khayelitsha orphanages.

– Give The Creators DVD as a gift.  75% of net proceeds go to the artists featured in the documentary and the South African crew who made the film a reality.

– Check out what the one and only Vusi Mahasela (whose music was removed from the international release of The Creators, despite the artist’s own wishes, by Sony Music earlier this year) has to say about education in South Africa.

For everyone else, here’s a deleted scene from The Creators, featuring our favorite man Ongama “Ongx” Mona:

P.S.  One last word on Die Antwoord.  Their lyrics now fit in well with the global top 40, but hopefully their master plan involves infiltrating mainstream media in order to bring billions of rands back home and start schools all over South Africa.  Let’s hope.  In the meantime, check out Waddy Jones’ much more lyrically substantial, aurally stimulating and less financially successful former project, The Constructus Corporation (which he made along with Marcus Wormstorm of Sweat.X long before The Creators was a glint in our eye).  Read the lyrics below if there’s any mystery why they’re not big on Gaga.


I don’t know if you noticed, but your planet is uh, sorta like, pretty fucked up.
Now the severely chaotic vibration caused by the slaughter of innocent sentient beings has led to this current situation.
Now unless you’ve been blessed with the ability to manipulate your destiny, stick your head back in this hole.
Part of me is like, “Pardon me, sorry to disturb your little comfort zone,”
and the rest of me is like “WAKE THE FUCK UP FOR GOODNESS SAKES!”
Don’t let you children pay for your mistakes.
The human race cannot evolve so long as they consume flesh.
Question: does your world resemble heaven or hell?
The demon people have got you trapped in their voodoo spell
We weren’t designed to exist like this
It was created in the image of an almighty compassionate entity
So it looks like we’re gonna have to rearrange things a little
So we can experience this shit like it was meant to be.


How come I can’t fly or breath under water like I can in my dreams?
Or like, communicate with animals like Adam and Eve?
These and many other exciting questions will be answered
When the power hungry uglies controlling this realm get blasted
By their own reflection
Calm minds provide protection
Neglection of your health is the best way to get swayed
Manipulated by blood spells
You eat food containing fear that’s why you’re scared
And I’m prepared for the transition from Pieces to Aquarius

I’m on a mission, steady
Hitting pressure points with pinpoint precision
‘Til they take the carrots of their fuckin’ ears and listen


I don’t really think anyone’s that different from me
We rock individually and connect invisibly
The Thunder cats on the track never skipping a beat
Fresh like an early morning skinny-dip in the sea.

“Do you hear that humming?
What are these strange tracks in the sand?
There’s something coming! Come on man, let’s get back in the van!”
Said Jim to his good friend Dr. Spock but when Spock disappeared Jim was like “What the fuck!”
He freaked out — whipped out his face and started looking around.
Little did he know that Spock was safe with us under the ground,
“Relax doctor this won’t hurt, please don’t panic!”
The beat started banging, and we began the reprogramming.
I told him not be nervous, we’d fucked with his head on purpose and sent him back to the surface with Jim
“*bah* Spock my heart!”
“Sorry captain.”
“Aw it’s fine man, what happened?”


“Sir, um why do have those two carrots stuck in your ears?”
“Uhhh, I’m sorry I can’t hear you, I’ve got these two carrots stuck in my ears…”

The Creators in OkayAfrica

The Documentary, The Creators, focuses on the different types of culture — such as break dancing and inspirational music — that boomed out of apartheid in South Africa. We were given the opportunity to talk with producer and editor of The CreatorsLaura Gamse to find out more on the movement.

Okayafrica: What goals did you have in mind when you conceptualized The Creators?
Laura GamseThe Creators was initially focused on artistic activism in South Africa. I wanted to explore whether the arts sustained a level of public consciousness that was stifled through the Bantu education system, or apartheid’s forced mis-education of the South African black and coloured (mixed-race) people. This view became complicated because some of the artists in The Creators didn’t identify with the activist label, especially after the very overt political activism South Africa became known for during the 1990s. Some artists told me that the worst crime apartheid committed was creating a society in which it was not alright to address anything besides social inequity with art; others felt that art was one of the main tools that could be used to unify a nation divided by apartheid’s segregation tactics.

The graffiti artist Faith47‘s son, Cashril+tells a story at the beginning of the documentary about a man who hunts a werewolf every day for 20 years, only to wake up in his own trap. Cashril+ was 11 at the time we filmed him, and he had a dream of this story. The metaphor of a hunter unknowingly hunting himself – or the darker aspects he embodies as a werewolf each night – could be mapped onto so many realities within South Africa (colonialism, apartheid and the creative process, for starters) that it sets the stage for the documentary in a way which acknowledges the many psychologically and physically contrasting realities portrayed in the film. In the end, the film still shows many activist artists, but the focus is on the layered realities these artists live in and actively create, and their impact on the future of South African society.

OKA: Many people view apartheid as a dark time where creativity seemed to stop. Can you further explain the importance of music and art throughout the apartheid era?
LG: There are a few songs those people should listen to which would sort them out ;). We’ve all seen debates between people from opposite extremes of the political or socio-economic spectrum. They rarely resolve differences, eh? It’s more likely that each party becomes more deeply ingrained in their own ethos. In my view, music and art lubricate what can otherwise be abrasive confrontations between opposing parties. In apartheid-era South Africa, an extreme minority of South Africans dictated the racist policies which oppressed the majority, and systematized segregation and mis-education kept most white people oblivious to the harm which was being inflicted on their fellow South Africans. Music like the Xhosa/Zulu protest song “Senzeni Na?” (“What have we done?”) and theatre like Adam Small’s Kanna hy ko Huistoe crossed the boundaries which humans were barred by law from transgressing (in the case of Small’s play, that he was barred from attending the performance because of his mixed-race identity).

The music and protest art during apartheid played a major role in establishing the humanity of those within the township to those who never brushed shoulders with them (both whites in South Africa and the international community), leading to the protests and economic sanctions which eventually fueled the transition to democracy. In modern South Africa, many artists and musicians act as the “culture-keepers”, preserving the history of South Africa pre-apartheid and pre-colonization. These history lessons were removed from school under the Bantu Education Act of the 1950s, so without music, art and the oral tradition, they might be lost.

OKA: What is the most important/interesting scene to you in the film?
LG:One of my favorite sequences is the montage of forced-segregation footage accompanied by the apartheid minister Hendrik Verwoerd‘s voice describing apartheid as a policy of “good neighborliness”. Vusi Mahlasela‘s song “Kuzobenjani Na?” (“How would it be?”) plays next over scenes of South Africans running from the bullets and tear gas of the apartheid police. In “Kuzobenjani Na?”, Vusi is imagining how it would be tomorrow if he and his lover were married, “separated only by death” — so the sequence juxtaposes two men from opposite extremes of South Africa (one the architect of apartheid, the other oppressed by its policies) hopefully imagining two beautiful futures, neither of which will materialize as a result of the reality of apartheid-driven violence and dehumanization.

It sounds complicated but the actual sequence goes by so quickly, few audiences (and probably only those who speak Zulu) catch it. You can watch it in the middle of the historical section of the film. Ironically, the apartheid footage is owned by some nameless figures who ran apartheid state television, and the footage is prohibitively expensive to buy for an independent film like The Creators. And though Vusi himself and his manager agreed to include “Kuzobenjani Na?” in the documentary, Sony Music recently sent me a demand that I discontinue its use in the film (and send them a profits statement, of course. Luckily we have no profits!). So this scene probably won’t live to see distribution.

OKA: What is the most unexpected thing people will discover about the township through your film?
LG:Hopefully audiences will discover incredible music and art that they didn’t know existed, coming from what some might consider the least likely of circumstances.

OKA: Did apartheid stunt, or evolve the arts in South Africa?
LG:I would say that the arts evolved during and as a result of apartheid. I don’t know if there is anything that can cause art to regress (though I know some regimes have given artists solitary confinement as an attempt to stifle creativity). Had apartheid not existed, the arts in South Africa would have evolved in a different manner. The most apparent difference might have been instrumental musicians (choir music was vivified by apartheid, you could say, because musicians in poverty can’t afford instruments but everyone has a voice). We’ll never know what sort of art and music (and technology and inventions) would have come out of a South Africa without apartheid. I guess we’re exploring that now.

OKA: How does the legacy of apartheid influence today’s younger musicians? Like Spoek Mathambo, featured in your film.
LG:In so many ways, it’s not possible to generalize. You can see Spoek riff on the stereotypes in stuff like his H.I.V.I.P. mixtapes with Sweat.X. Spoek answers this question directly in The Creators, so let me not put too many words in his mouth. Some approach the issues directly likeEmile YX?: (“We completed black schooling, or should I call it black fooling? The cherry on the cake was giving us token black ruling.”) and others choose to ignore or talk around them (like Watkin Tudor Jones, better known nowadays as half of Die Antwoord). Some kids who would otherwise be prodigies don’t own instruments or art supplies. Others with no talent inherited extravagant amounts of wealth and have thriving careers.

OKA: The film has won many awards and has received positive attention, where do you hope to take it next?
LG:We’ve just been picked up in Europe by EastWest distribution, which is exciting. Still looking for North American distribution. My favorite screenings are in schools and universities. I’d like to get more of those going on, in the townships and prisons, community screenings in places where you might not expect to see the film. This Sunday we’re screening at Madiba restaurant in Brooklyn – I’d love to do more events like that.