South African music videos are getting better every day. There are talented directors behind the scenes, and a bunch of creative minds are creating the coolest visuals for some of the best local beats. Between Spoek Mathambo’s eerie and edgy video for Control to the rougher-around-the-edges visuals for Sedge Warbler’s Codeine, artists are using urban spaces in ways that reflect the best this country has to offer.
But somewhere along the line, things started to become uncomfortable. Sprawling panaromas of townships and laughing kids became more frequent, and although some videos use poor urban settings in a tasteful way, a lot of what we see in these videos is gratuitous, insensitive and just downright racist. Poverty porn is becoming a trendy gimmick, and we need to pause and take stock of what it is, what it means, and how we get rid of it. This isn’t about poor black people or being insensitive – it’s about whether we treat people as homogenous groups or as individuals.
Scholars, artists, musicians and a slew of other creative industry professionals have spoken out against generic depictions of the African experience. Most notably, controversial writer and public figure Binyavanga Wainaina mocked the ostentatious exoticism so ingrained in representations of Africa in a pithy piece entitled ‘How to write about Africa’. Now, I’m not suggesting we should window dress the issue and assimilate Western images and all those techniques that make local music more appealing to international music palates, but there has to be a line. Even some of the most forward-thinking musicians in the business are falling into this trap, which is sad, because the people depicted deserve attention, but not under these circumstances.
I’ve been particularly affected by Haezer’s music video for the song Minted.
The video invokes images magical witchdoctors and grown men wrestling in muddy water, and shows the Joburg underworld’s dirty urban slums overrun by rats, tsotsis and foreigners. But of course, because of director Wim Steytler’s undeniable talent with a camera, this all looks provocative, edgy and cool. Never mind that when the director calls cut on this video, the reality continues for those who must endure these conditions daily.
Of course, the European panel that gave Steytler an award for the video lapped it up – it is, after all, a parade of all the things that pander to European fetishes about Africa. I spoke to Steytler about this a few months ago, and although he assured me the video was made with the best intentions (and I believe him), with no context for his involvement and no sense that Haezer himself has any clue what is going on, we can’t help but see it in an unfortunate light.
Then there’s the newer, less overt strategy of filming ‘real life’ but making it pretty. In some instances, this means doing things like placing trendy filters over scenes of municipal workers collecting rubbish, and zooming in on happy black faces waving at the camera. Casper’s video for Gusheshe, one of my favourite videos to come out of South Africa in recent times, strays into this territory. While we may be ready to hang Steytler up to dry because he is a white man making videos about black suffering, the same critique must be levelled against artists who claim to speak from within a particular community.
One of the most worrying examples of this is Die Antwoord’s video for the song Cookie Thumper. Yes, I get they’re trying to keep it real and promote zef culture, but a video that shows a school girl seduced by a member of the Numbers gang is just a bit perverse. Are all young Afrikaans girls in poor settings into gangster guys, and are all coloured males released from jail hellbent on gaining the affections (and more) of young, adoring women? While I’m sure some girls might be into that, is it a story we should be telling and normalising in the process?
These examples exist in the South African reality, but they also set a dangerous precedent in terms of how we look at ourselves and how we let others see our society. It is one thing to use art to uncover social ills, but it is an entirely different thing to glorify suffering for the sake of a good shot.
An important part of this is a clear and mutual relationship between artist and director. A video director may have some emotionally charged vision for the perfect video, but a musician, to my mind, needs to be fully part of the process. The artist is who the audience has a relationship with, and it is the artists who need to safeguard the audience, many of whom are exactly the demographic being pimped out for the sake of a cool vid.
In The Dream’s music video for the single Black, Langa township is used as a springboard for a slew of uncomfortable stereotypes. White soldiers are toting guns, keeping residents in fear, and a young boy is depicted as a child soldier throughout. The video strings together a schizophrenic mix of causes that are seemingly close to The Dream’s heart – one minute it’s activism for the LGBTI community, then it’s support for protesters in Venezuela, and just because it’s so goddamn provocative, it’s back to the child soldier thing.
Some of these images simply hold no base in reality, and yet, because poor urban spaces have come to be seen as a backdrop for musical activism – or whatever it is artists are telling themselves – it seems anything goes. At what point, did we, as South Africans, allow our country to become some sad mise en scène to be used and abused, and to quietly disabuse people of the notion that suffering is real, tangible and important?
When we represent ourselves in this way, we give license to international artists to do exactly the same. And while it’s good that South Africa gains international exposure, it should not be under these conditions, pandering to deeply ingrained tropes that many generations of Africans have tried to unhinge.