Woke Arts: Art that embodies our politics

BY ESINAKO NDABENI (3).pngIt seems that the greatest burden of the moment we find ourselves in is creating content that is “woke”; the time of “problematising” is upon us and so all art is vulnerable to political scrutiny. I am fortunate enough to be writing this article post the interrogation of the ethics of Afropunk Festival and Abantu Book Festival, as well as the “Surviving R-Kelly docuseries. All three of these moments were a reflection of our society. Abantu and Afropunk were particularly under fire for booking artists who had been implicated in transphobic behavior (Abantu with “Half of a Yellow Sun” author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Afropunk with Cape Town-based rapper, YoungstaCPT)).  Surviving R- Kelly, a docuseries that is long overdue, turned a mirror on (American) society and reminded us that, today, accountability is demanded from artists and their consumers. However, the question that burns in my mind is whether we should all be creating content that centres our “wokeness” and marginality; or should we also be creating content that aspires to embody all the things we want for our society?


What does art look like when it has problematised/ has been problematised and now has the challenge of embodying “woke” beyond rhetoric? I brought together a group of artists who almost embody the kind of artists we want to be; creators who create beautiful worlds that attempt to include everyone without declarations of “wokeness.” Menzi Änarchadium, Lebohang “Nova” Masango, Lelo Macheke, Mr Allofit, Lelowhatsgood, Helen Herimbi, Tshego “Red” Mosiane and Njabulo “Jabba” Mpanza.


Perhaps the most obvious art form that has been able to do that is the fictional novel.  South African novels have inserted many of the theories we have on race, class, gender and sometimes sexuality—but they have been illustrative. The late Mama Lauretta Ngcobo with her novel “And They Didn’t Die” has taught us how to engage with feminism in a way that takes account of the complexities of our respective ethnicities as South Africans; how womanhood is experienced differently according to culture. “Behind Every Successful Man” by Zukiswa Wanner does not make (much of) a spectacle of gay men and lesbian women. Instead, the novel weaves these narratives into the fore of a heterosexual story and forces us to confront the tropes that have been created around sexuality in a way that is not prescriptive.


And now, from our generation, Lebohang “Nova” Masango (a poet, anthropologist and UNICEF children’s ambassador) wrote “Mpumi’s Magic Beads“; a children’s book that affirms little black girls and the magic that is their hair. But this book makes no mention of blackness. In this way, it makes black hair (and therefore blackness) slightly more normalised for these little girls. Little girls who would otherwise be growing up in a country that has inspired so much internalised racism in them through the schooling system (it comes as no surprise that a parent took “Mpumi’s Magic Beads” to her daughter’s school when she experienced microaggressions in the form of teachers who told her that her braided hair was “inappropriate.”)


DSC_0016.JPGShot by Vivid Ink

Perhaps the desire for the proclamation of one’s “wokeness” comes from the necessity of these conversations around marginality. It is important to identify issues as racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist etc.  Perhaps it is most important for queer people as it seems that we are still behind on normalising these identities. This is where the two Lelos, Lelo Meslani and Lelo Macheke fit most perfectly. Both Lelos do work that centres queer safety (Meslani as a writer, Macheke as a Youtuber).But still. Imagine if the world we desire reflected itself in our art without us all declaring it- a step towards normalizing treating our identities (and the identities of those around us) with kindness. A world where spaces such as Lelo Meslani’s “Vogue Nights” exist as part of a society that encourages and normalises difference and the creativity that comes with it.


Mr Allofit, who has been adamant that he does not want to be identified as just a queer rapper but wants to be viewed as a musician just as much as the likes of  AKA, Cassper Nyovest etc. has expressed that desire. Of course, it is nothing short of radical to witness a young person in high-heeled shoes, a dress and other markers of femininity still stand firm in his identity as a man. For Mr Allofit represents the society we strive towards; a society where manhood is not defined by toxic ideas of masculinities that restrict the expression of young men.  And for Mr Allofit to stand proud as a queer artist but still insist that his art be taken as art is a step towards a creative space that normalises different identities without making a spectacle of them. Or a permanent “woke” discussion.


Shot by Vivid ink



I often sense a disconnect between the South African entertainment journalism today and that of yesterday.  As a writer who enjoys going back to reading DRUM and Y Mag issues from the 90s, I find that a lot of the conversations we are having today were already taking place in old journalism. But somehow, it seems that we are still operating under the assumption that the ideas we bring to popular culture in South Africa are new.  Tshego “Red” Mosiane (a fashion journalist whose “Festival Politicos” docuseries won an award at the Zanzibar International Film Festival) says it best in a discussion we all had together about black creativity in South Africa. “We’re still letting the same people get away with the same shit. Have the same gatekeepers make the same decisions. Have the same tokens being pedaled as thought leaders,” she told us with a hint of exasperation.


Shot by Vivid Ink


My contention is for us to gravitate towards a creative world that can one day move towards a “wokeness” that is not a hot topic, or a thinkpiece (such as this one) about identities and their politics. Instead, I hope we move towards a creativity that reflects all of us, in a way that makes all our differences normal. A writing like Helen Herimbi’s, written by a person cognisant of the dangers of our society without making a spectacle of her subject. Or a Youtube channel like Anarchadium’s that explores movies with an awareness of the world around them. Or a rapper like Jabba, who decided that he could be part of a rap duo that can call itself “Bougie Pantsula” because he has managed to make sense of the complexities of his upbringing as both Model C and hood.