Afro-Digital Migration: House Music in Post Apartheid South Africa Vol. II


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I wrote this during layovers between Toronto and London, on my way to Amsterdam for the summer. Before I start my next voyage, I wanted to offer my musical reflections on South Africa. Three days ago (April 27, 2014), South Africa's democracy turned 20 years old. I spent much of December and January in South Africa, thanks to the support of my community of listeners, family and friends and a generous grant from The Astraea Foundation Global Arts Fund. This was my third time in South Africa; the first trip happened in 2001 and the second in 2011. The purpose of the trip was to complete the SoundTracking Our Lives Tour, a project that simulated the migration pattern of house music from the U.S. to South Africa, launching in New York, traveling to Chicago and Detroit, and finally, concluding in Johannesburg. The purpose of the tour was to document the work of women who have played a role in the evolution of house and its transmigration, and are currently active in its development. My mission was accomplished. But what I realized almost instantly was since my last trip to South Africa I have developed a new vocabulary, a new understanding of the development of house music. I have been deepening my relationship with its influences, everything from traditional African drumming, to Philly soul, to the tambourines and choral clap rhythms of gospel. Clark Sisters, stand up.
A few days before my landing in Jo'burg, Nelson Mandela made his physical transition. Accordingly, the energy on the streets reflected not only the sadness of his passing, but also the presence of many questions, particularly the politically and socially charged question of ‘progress’ since democracy. One thing that was extremely clear to me was the intricate ways that the apartheid regime institutionalized longstanding practices that until this day uphold the brutal inequalities that exists between Black and White South Africans and shamelessly so. Adrienne Maree Brown, my lover and trip companion, writes about the experience in more subtle detail here:
Still, even with the uncertainty that Mandela’s death brings, house music continues to dominant the sound of the nation. But there was a difference this time, between the house music I heard on the radio and the house music I heard on my taxi rides through the city, or in the cars passing me by on the streets. I had to admit that much of the house I heard on the radio was formulaic (a hard distinction to make with a genre of music based on repetition), and had blown up to “pop” status, losing some of its dark funk. As an outsider I can never really be sure about the politics of commercial vs. underground culture, the music industry, globally, is such a tricky beast. But I do know for sure that I felt less moved by what was most popular, most available. This is why it’s always good, as a global citizen, to seek out the underground community wherever you land. Find those cats you would roll with in your circle at home. The cats who avoid radio as much as possible and keep their ears to the street in search of that very specific sound; you simply know it when you hear it and it can be heard in so many different forms of music, in so many different places on the planet, all we know is that it’s a sound that unites us all.
By the end of the trip I had collected around 100 songs from record labels (Soul Candi), DJs, producers and general house heads. Turns out that the majority of the music I was given did little in the way of touching that little thing inside of me that inspires movement and sets the stage for the perfect mix. I narrowed down my compilation to 17 songs and some of them were tunes I had been listening to for the past year leading up to my trip. Upon returning from South Africa, I spent the winter in Detroit with my honey and during that time I set up my turntables, along with my art. I rooted myself in our shared space and went to work. It was love work, release and reflection work happening in congruence with what Detroiters said was "the coldest winter ever." I spent hours reading, writing and listening to music, doing the best I could to create soundtracks from my travel, relationship and scholarship. The result was a session of mixes titled "The Hibernation Series."
The first mix of the series, The Afro-Digital Migration: House Music in Post Apartheid South Africa Volume II, is a convergence of love stories - my love story with black music, and my love of a black magic woman. My love story of black music led me to the South African house scene, where I embedded myself this most recent trip with new questions of how, when and why house music permeates the soundscape of South Africa. This love has led me to uncover histories of migration, theories of escape, questions of origin and something even deeper: the work of pioneers like Frankie Knuckles (rest in power), in understanding the root systems of house. I've learned to stretch the roots of house beyond disco, gay clubs and the Black church in America. I had to come to understand that producers/DJs like Knuckles and his peers made music from a place of ancestral memory; they were plugged into the source, masterfully re-creating ancient rhythms using both new and dated technology. This means that rather than looking at house music as simply finding its way to SA townships from Black America, I saw that house music, in a way, repatriated to its motherland (haven’t said motherland since my early 90s X-Clan days, but its applicable here).
My love of a writer woman led her to follow me to South Africa, where we learned together about house, the endless beauty of the land, and the political climate of this peculiar place. Together we witnessed the ghosts of the regime juxtaposed against the joyful and sexually liberating sounds of house; it truly is freedom music. We were both moved to the point of creativity, her to writing:
and me to create this mix. This was an incredibly important journey for us, sometimes challenging as we were thrown into a world where post apartheid SA, like post racial USA proved to be a more theoretical concept based on the changing of the guards from white to black people in power, with the model of white supremacy, and all of its arms and legs still firmly in place and in tact. Adrienne and I were invited by filmmaker Palesa Letlaka to speak together at the Afrikan Freedom Station, which was the first time we had ever witnessed each other at work and from that opportunity we connected with South African local artists who wanted to learn more about how we were weaving afro-futuristic and science fiction themes into discussions about house music and social justice.
Overall, I can honestly say that the music for this mix came together and quite well. I am a firm believer that house music, like science fiction, provides us with the opportunity to engage and submerge ourselves in an alternative reality, for at the root of house music is deep faith and joy. It makes perfect sense that house music resonates among so many South Africans; it creates so much space for complexity. I hope you feel the call in this mix to find and follow love through its lineage, its mysteries, and its demands.
Cosmos ft J-Something - Over the Rainbow
Tonite (Original) Sai & Ribatone
Hello Blaq Soul
Hey Kojo Akusa
Mojo King Wave
Freshly Ground Namilhandzo
Sinu (feat. Kryma & Ishmael)
SoundQuest & M2 ft Mr Tee - Spiritual Desire
Withou You Sue V.Underground -
Kano's Rhythm SK95 FEAT KANO
There With Me (Original Mix) DJ Bakk3 ft Zee
Hard Time for Lovers (Soulistic Music Mix) Rocco & C. Robert Walker
Africa (Western Mix) Tc Soul Ft Gman Baainar Undaground
I'm Free (Da Capo Afro Tech Vocal Mix) GERSHON JACKSON Pres TANETTA SOUL To Win My Heart Vincemo Ft Patricia Edwards
Imihlolo (Smartology Mix) Oluhle & Ncediwe

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