Cool Kids Manifesto: Black Aesthetics and Resistance Culture

by Ian Mangenga

From Western history’s first pages, cities have always been designed to erase Black faces and backs that built them and continue to do so. Remembering us only when it’s time to restart its engines in the witching hours of the morning in preparation for ooMadam. The weight of our stories and who we are, are neatly tucked into doeks, weaves and ties at taxi ranks and train stations; reprimanding our ‘unkempt-selves’ to not dare reveal that we do not belong.

i first learnt about the politics of belonging in the streets of Braamfontein. Every morning from as early as 5:30am migrant labourers are dispatched onto its streets. Clearing the morning’s fog with their warm bodies and leaving no trace of the families they left before dawn because here, you are nobody’s kin. You are an outsourced worker. You are a protesting student. You are a homeless street beggar. You are an exploited creative in a desperate search for a breakthrough. But it gets interesting.

In the last five years Braamfontein has become a global cultural melting pot giving birth to the notion of a Cool Kid. While there is no definitive answer to what a Cool Kid is, some of the definitions i have come across and some being my own are;

  • Braam kids; young people that can be found in Braamfontein’s gentrified spaces more often than once in a week
  • young Black creatives
  • popular culture connoisseurs
  • Insta babies, all about the ‘varb’ and is most likely to respond with ‘lit’ when asked about anything other than music, fashion or Kanye West.

Ever since the emergence of the Cool Kid, the identity of Braam’s population has transformed. What was once considered to be a student village, micro business district and a residential area for low-entry workers has now seen the incumbent of a new LSM group. The Cool Kids in this particular area are a product of this new crew, which i will get to in a bit. Nonetheless, today Braam is known as a haven for Cool kids and it is for this exact reason that i pursue the Cool Kid Manifesto.

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Sophiatown khabo ‘Mswenko

Cool Kids are neither a new nor solely a Braam phenomenon. There exists a long history of Umswenko within Black urban culture. What makes this specific case more interesting is that what once found its greatest expression in townships, where the articulation of Black experiences are not restricted and are owned by us, now plays a pivotal role in the functioning of a place where we ‘don’t belong’. Allow me to give a brief history on Black aesthetics (Umswenko) and resistance culture in urban Black communities to elaborate.

Located on the western edge of Johannesburg, Sophiatown, also known as Kofifi, was hailed as a cultural hub in the 1940s and 50s. Its history stretches back into 1904 when Blacks still had freehold rights and were able to buy and own property, which resulted in it being a racially mixed area. With Blacks, Indians, Chinese and poor-whites making up its populace. By the 1920s the White population moved out of the area- out of the discomfort i guess. i don’t know – different people cite different reasons; but we all know. In the absence of white people, Sophiatown was able to become a gem in South Afrika’s arts and cultural history.

The defiant moment of the 1940s to 50s in Kofifi retrospectively played a crucial role in establishing a culture of resistance outside the realms of orthodox political practices. Art, music, fashion and literature became mediums of resistance for the Afrikan identity and experience in the advent of westernisation and cultural bleaching. Artists spoke of the hostile state they found themselves in; desperate to fit in socially yet struggling to maintain their hopes with low minimum wages, overcrowding, poverty, expensive rent and discrimination. Sounds very much like 2016.

Sophiatown’s aesthetics were largely influenced by Afrikan American movies and music. It was often compared to the Harlem Renaissance and came to be known as Sophiatown Renaissance. The distinct sound of the renaissance is captured in the jazz music of Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe, Dorothy Masuku, Letta Mbulu and Hugh Masekela among others. The Sophiatown Renaissance was also characterized by literary collections such as the Drum, a monthly magazine that consisted of Afrikan writers and artists such as Can Temba, Lewis Nkosi, and Ezekial Mphahlela.  Mphahlela in one of his books, The Afrikan Image, speaks of the legacy of Langston Hughes, Countee Collen and others, arguing for the indispensable importance of the Harlem Renaissance for the Sophiatown Renassaince.

Sophiatown represented an authentic Black urban aesthetic that was able to respond to the political and social needs of the time and did much justice to further the resistance of the people. All that cultural archive that took over two decades to build was destroyed in 1955 by the apartheid regime when families were forcefully removed out of their homes to Meadowlands and other parts of Soweto.

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Re-membering Kofifi on Juta & De Beer

61 years later, the aesthetics and music of Sophiatown now hang in the contested walls of our memories; empty and yearning for meaning. We are met with the proof of its existence outside Kitcheners every Saturday. Cool Kids stock up their clothing rails with thrift outfits  -that could have been taken out of a scene from a Friday night jive at a shebeen in Sophiatown. Each one of them feeling fortunate to have found a spot at this busy intersection, hopelessly competing with multinational brands and eating out of the closed palm of capitalism. What was once owned and strictly attributed to Black urban communities in Sophiatown, Alexandra and Soweto is now furiously manufactured by the young Black creatives on the corner of Juta and De Beer for the financial gain of those that don’t care much for the producers of this very lucrative culture.

Umswenko belongs to the people and should therefore benefit the people. Even when Sophiatown was no more, its triumph persisted in the streets of Alexandra and Soweto. Transforming itself at every turn to allow for the greatest countenance of what it was to be Black – at least aesthetically so. From All Stars to Carvella, styles and fashions that belonged to Black people were considered gangster apparel until rulings from above realized that they had been missing out on the swenk and it was now trendy to own one. Much like Sophiatown fashion.

As these Black urban aesthetics have only been allowed to exist in townships. Anywhere else the Black aesthetic needs to be manicured or allowed entry under supervision and profit of white-supremacy, and Braam is not the exception.

The gentrification of Braam besides committing similar injustices as the apartheid regime in Sophiatown behind the guise of urban regeneration has managed to;

1. Displace residences of Braam that lived in and around Juta, De Beer and Melle street. Leaving them homeless at the mercy of their next low wage. Making way for fancy concept stores and coffee shops that enforce not only the European aesthetic but require that high-end middle class wallet too. Already the culture is sold off only to be bought back by Cool kids at an exorbitant price. 

2. Gone on to operate as a culturally antagonistic space without any intervention. Umswenko continues to breathe life into that space making us feel like we own it, however the price tag on those lattes most certainly remind us that we’re mere workers there.

The idea that pop-culture and by extension Braam are apolitical domains that are only concerned with art, culture and creation has allowed young Black creatives to not question the economic and power relations that are constantly at play or rather dedicate much effort into challenging and undoing. There is no doubt that the Cool Kids are the biggest contributors to that space. They have managed to give an identity to Braam that has placed it on the global map. The first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Braam is young Black creatives who look a certain kind of cool. The kind that international brands are paying local creatives to incorporate in their look – shoutout to The Sartists.

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The Cool Kid Manifesto

The Cool Kid Manifesto is an attempt at exploring radical politics of decoloniality outside of the campus and in other places where young people amass. To open up the space for discussions on how to decolonize the poetics of popular culture that seek to place Black vernacular contributions at its periphery. In practice this means starting to invest more in each other and the communities we come from through our creativity and skills.  Collectively building a strong network of Cool kids that work together, grow together and eat together.

This will also allow the fear of no funding – that has often lead Cool Kids to bow down to white supremacy and submit to exploitation to melt away. There is a whole diaspora at our disposal, craving authentic Afrikan creations. We no longer need other people to tell us whether or not we are good enough for the international appeal. There is an entire global Black community waiting for us to locate our litness. The Cool Kid Manifesto is also a search for the Other language of Politics. One that is not confined within universities or tied-up in critical race theory jargon, but recognizes the plight of other young Black people in South Afrika. 

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