Adam Haupt
Adam Haupt

Youth culture’s double negative

Last week, a youth culture archive named Staticphlow went live two days before Youth Day. I joined heads with some scholars, activists and hip-hop DJs and MCs to finally do something about our complaints that youth culture is both exploited and neglected.

You might say that youth culture suffers from a sort of double negative. On the one hand, corporations act as ‘merchants of cool’ to co-opt aspects of youth culture (e.g. rapping) in order to sell branded products and effectively monetise forms of cultural expression that are developed by young people – either a means of rebellion, or to push aesthetic boundaries. Either way, these forms of cultural expression are soon turned into symbolic and economic capital by corporate players who have the means to reproduce these expressions on a larger scale – but not without first watering down its rebellious or critical content.

On the other hand, corporations give very little back in return to youth development initiatives, especially in socially and economically marginal communities (such as Mitchells Plain and Khayelitsha where Afrikaans and Xhosa hip-hop took root, respectively, or Soweto, where kwaito was born). In effect, uneven relations of power between marginal youth and ‘merchants of cool’/’cool hunters’ become apparent when examining tensions between mainstream commercial and marginal youth cultures.

To add insult to injury, a great deal of negative news media coverage of ‘troubled’ township youth reinforces negative self-perceptions. Ironically, it is hip-hop that has affirmed negated identities and has developed levels of literacy in spaces where schools have failed. Linguists, like University of the Western Cape’s Quentin Williams, have spent a great deal of time studying MCs’ clever wordplay, for example. Williams takes his cue from other scholars, like Sami Alim, who have conducted similar studies elsewhere.

That said, there are clearly encouraging shifts that are well worth celebrating. Many would agree that the music scene changed substantially since 1994 and we have seen an explosion of new artists and genres. The birth of a new generation of jazz musicians along with kwaito and ‘vernac’ hip-hop artists is a truly positive sign. We have also seen new independent music labels and producers enter the game.

In Cape Town, Afrikaans and Xhosa (spaza) hip-hop capture the imagination of many hip-hop heads, thanks to the support of community radio, for example. Key shifts in technology have also made the production and distribution of music far easier than it was before the digital revolution – especially thanks to social and mobile media.

But, despite these changes, we have yet to see a more diverse set of South African musicians take the African continent or even the world by storm. We now find ourselves in a context where four major holding companies dominate about 80% of global market share; the playing fields are not level by a long shot. We have yet to see those artists positioned as ‘historically disadvantaged’ break straight out of the townships onto the global stage without having to compromise politically or aesthetically.

We have also yet to see public policy that acknowledges the power of the arts to address many of the social and economic ills that plague South Africa – that is, a realisation of the power of the arts beyond its utilisation for party political objectives or for nationalist rituals on public holidays or official state events.

We have yet to see a successful, co-ordinated national strategy that supports the arts in terms of funding, education and support mechanisms so that aspiring musicians can pursue sustainable careers without having to seek the patronage of corporate sponsors, who – in keeping with their pursuit of the bottom line – are more concerned with profits than they are with the public interest.

The arts, in other words, have to contend with market forces, on one hand, and with the expectations of party political players, on the other hand, who themselves may place the interests of their parties above the public interest or the needs of artists. Where does this leave artists – whether they are musicians, visual artists, dancers or film makers? How do we ensure that artists are positioned to play a key role in our democracy, not merely as praise singers for corporate or political elites, but as independent, critical and creative voices that push both civil society and the elites to play a more constructive role in making many of our paper rights a reality?

Staticphlow cannot possibly presume to offer solutions to these issues. What it can do is to draw attention to the efforts of artists, activists and scholars who are working at grassroots level. Staticphlow positions itself as an archive that hopes to map youth culture, with a focus on largely hip-hop.

Why hip-hop? Hip-hop has played a key role in facilitating young people’s creative and critical engagement with language – beyond the formal confines of the schooling system, which has been the subject of much critical discussion. It has also been a significant platform from which they have explored racial, gender and class identity politics. In the case of many MCs and poets – like Prophets of da City, Brasse vannie Kaap, Godessa, Black Noise, Isaac Mutant, Tumi & the Volume, Zubz, Lebo Mashile, Driemanskap and Ben Sharpa, to name a few – hip-hop is a means through which they are able to reflect critically upon their social and political realities. Their work is therefore interesting to sociologists, linguists, anthropologists, political scientists, geographers as well as media and cultural studies scholars.

Many Cape hip-hop heads, specifically, have gone beyond performances and have committed their energies to a range of community projects; to them, hip-hop goes beyond selling units and is really about making a positive difference in communities that have yet to really experience the promise of our post-liberation era. In this regard, community media like Bush Radio have played an important role in supporting these artists in their efforts to develop youth programmes (e.g. Bush Radio‘s CREW and the former programme, ALKEMY). That said, the long-term sustainability of such community initiatives in an aggressively market-oriented context remains a key challenge.

With such challenges in mind, the intention of Staticphlow is to create a non-commercial platform to make the efforts of these artists, activists and scholars visible and to create the space for participants to network, access resources and consider possible solutions to some of the problems that frustrate their efforts. It is not the first of such initiatives, but this project makes the academic work on post-1994 youth culture accessible to a wider audience and encourages researchers to share their research material with communities beyond the ivory tower.

The archive recently commenced a series of short video and podcast profiles on artists who have been of interest to academics working on youth culture – instead of merely holding onto source material while a polished journal article or book is being produced, researchers are encouraged to share their material online as well as add to a bibliography of published material. The project has also held workshops on aspects of the music industry and these will continue.

Ideally, the project would encourage policy makers, funders of the arts and drivers of national youth development initiatives to take a careful look at youth culture as a valuable vehicle for positive social change and as something that deserves support.

Visit staticphlow.com for more on the project.

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