Woke Arts Gathering Review – Leago Mkhondo

We are all aware that the entertainment industry is one of the most toxic spaces to inhabit and is very cruel to up and coming artists. Since its inception, artists have been marginalised, harassed and discriminated against. The prevalent story you hear is that money needs to be made, and no one cares so much about the actual art and its creator or how little of a voice they have. Very few “success” stories have been glamorous – there’s always a struggle behind the scenes; waves of abuse, drug dealing or depression. How awe-striking is it when that person you were rooting for finally makes it and it feels like it’s a win for everyone?


Considering how you know that not many survive this fast life – and how vital rooted and grounded support is? That’s what the Woke Arts Movement (@Woke_Arts) is about. FUBU (For us, by us)

It was back in 2014 when I met the eclectic and soulful Tsholofelo Radebe for the first time after many interactions, and similarities shared, on Twitter. By then, we had been following each other for a while and had grown to respect and admire each other. He shared with me a passion project that he thought I’d like about a movement that aims to unite Pretoria and all its artists, in which we engage in progressive conversation, and uplift, and educate one another about art.

The first Woke Arts rolled out later that year in November and admittedly I had my reservations. The most prominent one being that Pretoria is a very small city and I felt that it was going to be slightly dominated by cliques. Secondly, the whole affair sounded very pretentious. I didn’t understand what its objective was, how it fit into the realm of creating awareness for Pretoria artistry and, most importantly, how it was going to work. The questions I asked myself were probably unjustified but reasonable. Why are your friends playing the music? Or headlining the event as one of the performers? It read like a movement that claimed to be inclusive but the agenda was skewed towards just empowering the “circle.”

After numerous conversations and a change of heart, I finally understood. And to understand I needed to define what inclusivity meant, not only to myself but to others. It means communication, affirmation, acknowledgement, trust, sharing and participation. It means not waiting for a seat at the table but inviting yourself. It’s a two-way street. Therefore, the notion of “putting others on” that are close to you contributed to the idea that they might understand the vision more. If I had the opportunity or resources to aid a friend in jump starting their career, I would do it.

Woke Arts is a platform for growing independent artists. It is a space for learning and unlearning, growth and heightening of one’s consciousness. The word ‘woke’ in itself means – as defined by urban dictionary – “a sudden understanding of what’s really going on and realising that you were wrong about much of what you thought was the truth”. Another definition is “a person who pretends to be of greater intelligence than he or she actually is.” The two can ultimately be misconstrued, as is exemplified my initial reservations of pretence. Woke Arts also touches the renaissance and essence of black art. Creating original content, supporting our own and being unapologetic about who we are. One does not have to replicate western culture to be expressive. However, it’s not solely about the artists but it also caters for the art enthusiast and promotes black businesses – small pop-up stalls, conversations about passion and ambitions which can include film, hip hop, politics or silly banter that leaves you with quilted memories, and most times, newfound relationships.

I made my first appearance to the first ever Woke Jozi (#WokeJozi) at an incredible venue just outside Johannesburg central. I went there with no expectations and the most openness, ready to have a good time. There was something very distinct about that atmosphere that you don’t find at any other gathering. It has mastered the niche of making everyone feel equally important and very easy to approach, through the narrative of “love is the highest vibration” that is spread.

The presence of black women (and queer folk) is (one of) the best thing about Woke Arts. There’s something about having women as the hosts, watching them illuminate the stage, that elevates the entire aura to a very calming and healing sphere. In the few I’ve attended, they (we) have become pivotal in bringing the movement full circle. Women have a peaceful sensation that influences the men and subsequently everything and everyone around them.

As a black woman, I like going to safe spaces – spaces that allow me to be expressive, spaces that were not originally made for us but have wilfully taken ownership over. We are fed up with attempting to enjoy spaces that are male oriented and dominated. This is with regards to things such as braais and clubs that focus on portraying and/or promoting the idea of women as accessories – pitting us against each other and disregarding our intelligence so as to render us as merely vaginal and birthing breeds.

Albeit to say there haven’t been cases of wrongful behaviour (inference use of the word ‘problematic’ because I think problematic means to continually be a problem) would be a lie. There was a situation where a man, who was allegedly part of movement, had harassed or said ignorant things about/to woman at one of the events. He was immediately cautioned and banned from the movement or ever associating himself with it. When it happened, I had to no knowledge of it, and I still don’t. I believe women and maybe there have been other moments that no one is aware of because choosing to remain silent always seems like the easier option. I do also think disassociating yourself with the movement because of one person (that we know of) does not warrant it to be cancelled in its entirety when immediate action was taken and it has focused on creating what we know as “changed behavioural patterns.”

And of course, there are parodies and people who do not understand the significance of being woke (even following extensive explanations). But I think that there is a responsibility for each and every one of us to educate ourselves, more so in understanding why more of these movements and events exist. I love that millennials who are now invested in pop culture understand the issues of representation and how they work and try to enhance that through social media which is allowing us to talk back and mobilise as a collective through dialogue.

The increased growth is a rapid sign that people crave new spaces and experiences outside of their norm. It is especially more special that the event happens once every three months because it gives people something to look forward to. This space has created a ritual that many have sought to follow which challenges creatives and owners to step out of their comfort zone and has subsequently formed a relatively large part in the evolution of the South African social scene. I take pride in knowing and allowing myself to participate because we are able to define for ourselves what it means to have a good time as well as how we would like our future to be.