Opening with a twangy guitar pulled out of the ether from some lost kwela-avant-blues recording, the song Journey begins to build, reverberating against the koppie from Wesley’s Dome Stage.
If you’ve seen Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness before, or BCUC as their fans know them, you will know their songs take a while to reach a hysterical thrashing brew of soul, hip-hop, rock’n’roll, blues, jazz and maskandi.
They build and build, until you are lost.
BCUC guides your spirit forth in a state of trance, thumping your feet into the ground, hands aloft, drunk on this band’s awesome power.
Think Otis Redding fronting Malombo and you’re getting somewhere.
Then stir in a guitarist seemingly raised on equal parts Chuck Berry and Philip Tabane.
Add a dash of a vocalist who has a voice so angelic it’s mesmerising and a healthy dose of percussion that could fuel the dance floor all night long.
This is BCUC, one of the best damn bloody bands in South Africa.
And lead singer Jovi Nkosi knows it – you can see it in the way he drives his band to impossible heights during the performance and how he leaves the stage with nothing left.
A few months ago I witnessed a starstruck fan telling Nkosi that BCUC were the best band in South Africa.
“I agree,” he said laughing.
Then turning to me he played it down chuckling disbelievingly, “That nigga said we are the best band in South Africa”.
But the fire is burning in Nkosi and his band mates. They are making “future pop”, as they often repeat, the music South African radio stations will be playing when they finally catch up with them.
So today, the Saturday at Oppikoppi on Wesley’s Dome Stage, when Nkosi tells the crowd that the band is about to, “make you ours”, you believe him.
This band means business.
BCUC earned their slot on the main stage because of their electrifying Oppikoppi debut last year on the much smaller Skellum Stage. On that day, 100 or so Oppikoppi punters danced their asses off to the band. Today there are closer to 1 000, all fired up on BCUC.
The song Journey is chugging along and the crowd is grooving in the afternoon sun. The band begin to sing in unison.
“We walk / It’s hard sometimes, but we walk”
Nkosi starts chanting, “It’s a journey” over and over again; the band step in and begin responding with “we walk” to every soulful cry from Nkosi.
Nkosi is now in church; he is delivering the sermon with gusto and venom.
“It’s a journey of a million steps / They are marching / They are going forward / They are never coming back,” he repeats.
The song winds down with a call to black consciousness.
It’s powerful stuff and I can’t help thinking about this large, mostly white audience and what they are thinking about as they stamp their feet into the dust.
For South Africa is on it’s own journey.
As my colleague at The Con, Zimasa Mpemnyama, so aptly put it in her article about blackface recently, we should stop looking for the “quick-fix” and expecting the “miracle of integration and transformation to just fall from the sky”.
Spaces like Oppikoppi should be at the forefront of that transformation.
But BCUC is singing about racism, oppression, injustice and black consciousness to a mostly white audience.
Why is this audience still so white?
Because of the price, which has been steadily increasing every year as more and more international bands make their way to South Africa to play the festival?
Because of the bands that are picked to play, which has to be fair been getting more and more representative every year, although there is still a lot of work to do?
Is it because of the racism many black South Africans experience when they venture to the koppi?
A quick survey of my friends rendered some horrific stories of racism by dumb, ignorant white kids.
Is this why black kids stay away from the event?
It’s coming to the end of BCUC’s set, and they are on fire.
Nkosi softens the band with a hand gesture and addresses the crowd.
“BCUC sets are normally two hours, three hours long, but this is Oppikoppi,” he says. “So do you want us to jam the fuck out of this song we are playing, or do you want Mr Van der Merwe?”
The crowd roars at the mention of the song – hardly any have probably heard it, but hey, it’s named after an Afrikaner.
Much like Tidal Waves’ frivolous ditty Lekker Lekker Dans, it gets a huge response at Oppikoppi because it addresses the Afrikaans language.
The band begin the song slowly, just a wandering guitar riff.
Kgomotso Mokone starts singing a beautiful melody over the top of the gentle percussion as the band fall into a call-and-response behind her.
Then Nkosi steps to the mic and tells the story of a farmworker begging a white farmer for wood.
“Mr Van der Merwe,” croons Nkosi. “Have you got any wood?”
The response from the farmer is, “All you get is 50 bucks. No 40 acres for you”.
The land is “for the lions and the cheetahs and the elephants and the rhinos in the game farms”.
Nkosi continues, “That’s why people are leaving the farm. They run to the city looking for a better job. All they find is a job in the mines for 50 bucks.”
The song openly speaks to the failure of the negotiated settlement to restore land rights to black South Africans and how the land is still in white hands, and is now used for white entertainment as game farms.
Or farms that host music festivals, I think to myself.
After all, this farm is white-owned and once a year is turned into a hedonistic playpen for a mostly white audience.
But the land issue is so much more than just the physical land, as Nkosi often explains to BCUC audiences.
It’s about the resurrection of black self-esteem, freeing oneself from the grips of white supremacy.
Standing just behind me is a group of black girlfriends dancing up a storm.
Earlier in the day when I had visited their campsite, they had regaled me with the acts of intimidation and bullying they had faced by a bunch of Afrikaans punters in their twenties who refused to let them camp anywhere near them.
The girls stood their ground and the youths responded by threatening them and taking down their tent late at night.
Their campsite still stood there erect on Saturday morning in defiance of the white youths who, with no sense of irony, were yelling, “This is our land”.
I heard other young white people making derogatory comments towards the girls, implying they were selling sex.
All of this is happened just that morning at Oppikoppi, and here stands BCUC singing about the land and how it is used for white entertainment.
It’s a poignant moment, created by one of the best damn bands in South Africa.
There is another moment from last year’s Oppikoppi during Dirty Paraffin’s set that resonates as I write this. As some booming bass reverberated against the side of the koppi from the Red Bull Stage, Okmalumkoolkat began to spit.
“I’m a spitting cobra,” he repeated, his arm gesturing like a serpent to the crowd.
A young Afrikaans poppie, who couldn’t have been more than 20, turned to me and asked, “Do you like this?”
Her muscular jock boyfriend stood nearby looking irritated, his biceps threatening to rip his shirt open.
I could tell by the tone of her voice that she did not.
“I love it,” I replied.
She screwed up her nose and her lip curled in disgust.
It was as though I could see hundreds of years of generational racism worming through her body to that curled-up lip.
“I don’t,” she said. “It’s too repetitive.”
I shrugged my shoulders and turned back to the stage.
Behind me two young black guys in their twenties were jumping up and down; overcome with excitement, they sang along to every lyric.
Next to them an American couple was transfixed, desperately trying to find a South African translator to help them decipher the performance on stage.
As vocabulary was shared, they smiled and began to dance too.
It was clear that electro-rap outfit Dirty Paraffin was a hit with some of the Oppikoppi revelers but not with all.
Some people stood staring, their bodies lifeless, the confusion evident on their faces.
Confronted with this musical spectacle that was dripping in Kasi slang, references and tone, they were othered and, unlike the Americans, they could not deal with this phenomenon, especially on home turf like Oppikoppi.
On stage Dirty Paraffin broke into the song Bigbootyholic (Pt. II) from their DPEP EP.
The crowd was starting to dissipate; punters had stopped dancing and were talking among themselves, some with their backs to the stage.
The black kids at Oppikoppi were still dancing up a storm, but it was clear Okmalumkoolkat was losing this audience.
I watched him grow agitated on stage.
“Yo stop the beat, stop the beat,” he yelled into the mic and Dokta Spizee obliged.
“Yo you gotta bring it,” he yelled at the crowd. “Listen to what I’m saying.”
He began to repeat the lyrics with no musical backing, but the crowd wasn’t responding.
It was clear the young white kids could not relate to the Kasi slang and the township beat that are so central to Dirty Paraffin’s music, which they define as “primustof music”.
But in my mind I was thinking about how this little drama that was playing out was a metaphor for the ever-confused state of interracial communication that is the South African democratic experiment.
Okmalumkoolkat and Dirty Paraffin are the zeitgeist of contemporary urban South African culture, and when confronted with this zeitgeist, white kids turned up their noses and ignored it.
They can’t understand it and don’t have any interest in doing so.
Instead, they probably trekked back down the koppi to watch some white band from Pretoria acting like they invented blues-rock or a band from Cape Town prancing around the stage as if their American-influenced indie-rock is the real deal.
If they had just stopped to listen for a second to what Okmalumkoolkat was saying, they would have realised he was rapping about things that are relevant to their lives too.
Which twenty-something male in South Africa doesn’t get the line, “Get a betty, get a wettie, get a bankie”.
Which young South African doesn’t understand songs about going out on a Friday night with your mates, cruising the town, going to a club, eating some fast food and making out with a beautiful girl?
But do you think those white kids were hearing Okmalumkoolkat when he spat the Dirty Paraffin song Papap! Papap!?
They’ve never been to a shisa nyama, but they braai every weekend.
They drag race in Boksburg but can’t listen to songs about doing donuts in the township in a BMW 325.
What will it take to get South Africans to all dance to the same beat? And is that the point anyway? And if it were would it actually happen at Oppikoppi?
This year at Oppikoppi, there were moments where a common cause could be imagined. If you had stood in the crowd and witnessed the rousing welcome Oppikoppi gave Bra Hugh, you would have seen it.
You would have seen all races in South Africa celebrating as Bra Hugh played Stimela; the enormous multiracial crowd that invaded the Red Bull Stage to watch a very late Casper Nyovest would have impressed you.
But all of these moments mean nothing if black South Africans are experiencing racial abuse at the festival – that’s a surefire way to make sure the festival doesn’t transform.
One story of racial abuse from a friend had a rather hilarious ending, where a bunch of Indian South Africans, not the target of the racial abuse themselves, were incensed enough to defecate in the tents of a bunch of white racists who had been hurling insulting language across the campsite the whole weekend.
When they got back from the bands that night their wives and girlfriends made them pack up and leave; the tents remained behind.
Disgusting – but hell, they deserved worse.
In another incident this year, a black punter invented a character called “Chicken George”, a runaway slave from the American South who was determine not to get caught by the “Koppie Klan”, in response to all the white males cruising the dusty streets in their bakkies looking at the “darkies” suspiciously,
It was a funny but uncomfortable moment.
The young punter was using his humour to critique the situation he found himself in, but the tension in that situation was not imagined, just exaggerated.
Now I know that the organisers of Oppikoppi can do something about the ticket prices and the band selection, but they can’t really control situations in which racist assholes bring their bigotry to the festival.
So what do we do about this?
Does this then become about all of us, all of us who love Oppikoppi?
Do we need to stand up together and say no when bigotry raises its head?
And it will over and over again.
Is it up to us to enforce a zero-tolerance policy for racist assholes so Oppikoppi doesn’t just become another institution marred by hatred and bigotry?
We need to be brutal with these racists so we can reclaim Oppikoppi and make it the kind of festival where all South Africans can have the best party of the year.
But if that’s not possible, we’ll walk away, claim a new space and begin to build our own damn party.
Main Pic: BCUC’s Jovi Nkosi by Madelene Cronje
Other Pics: Hugh Masakela at Oppikoppi 2014 by Madelene Cronje
Check out this gallery from Oppikoppi 2013 titled Afri-Koppi by The Con’s Tseliso Monaheng. Monaheng says he aimed to document the growing number of black South Africans attending the festival as mainstream newspapers still report on Oppikoppi as if it is a white gathering – Click on one image to see them in slideshow form.