Future Sounds Of Mzansi is an independently produced documentary focused on the cultural climate of South Africa 20 years in to it's democracy. Electronic music has become a key force in the shaping of the country's artistic and creative landscape. From the frenetic energy of super fast khawuleza and shangaan electro to the headier sounds of deep house, the spectrum is wide and the sounds are making waves allover. The film was directed by acclaimed producer/ rapper Spoek Mathambo from Soweto. It features interviews with some of the country's foremost heavyweights like DJ Black Coffee, DJ Spoko, Christian Tiger and many more. While the film might serve as a musical introduction for many, it offers a truly unique snapshot of the varying corners of this musical golden age and what the movements say about the country as a whole. We caught up with Spoek to find out more about the process behind the film and what global acclaim means for South Africa's often-misrepresented narrative.
We’ve just seen the film. It’s fantastic, you must be so pleased.
It was a labour of love and it came out well!
What are you hoping to achieve with the film?
We’ve already achieved a great deal with it. I wanted to reach out to people who inspired me and some people who don’t get the respect they deserve. I think the momentum of the film has revitalised a couple of careers. Also its helped for producers from all sides of South Africa - from the most obscure areas - to realise that you don’t have to be top 40 for the whole world to recognise and respect what you do. I just want it to be inspirational. Through the models of the internet and modern communication, you can get yourself out there.
The internet has definitely impacted the consumption of this music. Do you think it has it impacted the sound itself?
It has. If you don’t need to be on the radio then you don’t need to make radio songs. There is a lot of freedom which impacts the music very directly. There is no “sound”, people from from different provinces speaking 15 different languages.
There didn’t seem to be a lot of snobbery amongst the different genres in the film. Would that be a fair assessment?
No not at all. What I wanted to emphasise was the diversity. On one side the diversity means a lot of people doing a lot of different things but there are also a lot of different mentalities. Complete snobbery on one side. We talk about it in the first chapter in Durban. The gqom guys are talking and they mention people saying, “Ugh, I don’t want to hear that music” because they prefer the swanky deep house. A huge dynamic of South Africa is the new democracy which means an emerging middle class. There’s an economic term called the “Black Diamond” which all marketing companies are going for. It is the emerging black middle class. That means having to be swanky and having to deny a lot of ghetto and rough sounds. It goes both ways, there is snobbery and exotic fascination.
Are you at all concerned by the risk of appropriation or consumers misunderstanding certain movements?
Nah man, I’m not concerned with anything. My focus of the documentary was to hold the moment in time. I don’t worry and I’m not concerned. There is so much amazing stuff happening and people are doing it for themselves. The point of the documentary was just to hold a light to it.
One particularly moving moment in the documentary was Nozinja’s commentary on marginalisation. Do you think there is still a fight in the music?
Well what Nozinja was talking about was less the music. It was more about culture and tribalism. South Africa has some dominant tribes and some tribes that are really marginalised. Some tribes are so marginalised that they are not even counted when the list is put together of the different tribes and languages. That is what he's talking about- how it manifests itself in the media and how it manifests itself in people’s opinions. He’s saying that when you go outside, people will appreciate more than they do in the country itself. And that is a painful reality for him.
There is also a lot of commentary about radio in South Africa. It’s described as “the legacy of apartheid” in relation to the division and separation of genres. Has finding success overseas helped or hindered that?
It hasn’t hindered it. The main thing is just for people to realise that they don’t have to pander to anything. There is a market for all these different and amazing things and they don’t have to be homogenous in any way. You don’t have to pander to radio or television. The international success means that if South Africa isn’t feeling an artist at any given time, that artist can move out and do what they want.
Do you think the music industry in the western world could learn a lot from South Africa’s ecosystem of music?
For sure. There have always been aspects of our music industry which have been quite informal; guerrilla marketing and pop-up performances. Just general ideas of alternative marketing. In a time where record labels aren’t what they used to be, it’s definitely a time where you could learn a thing or two from South Africa.
In the interview with John Wizzards, the country is referred to as the “hero”. Is that a narrative you wanted to portray in the film?
We wanted that to be made clear, relative to other points. A lot of local and foreign media run with South Africa being crime ridden, our AIDs pandemic, we have the most corrupt politicians. A lot of stuff about South Africa is so negative. I want to show the vibrancy, I want to show the innovation, I want to show the cultural depth. I want to show how we have already influenced so much music around the world even when we don’t get credit. That’s a big motivation and point to the film, to counter the popular discourse about South Africa. Not to show it as this Mickey Mouse, Disneyland, Nelson Mandela rainbow nation because it’s rough and it’s crazy but youth energy and the energy of being a free country in our first 20 years in democracy- I want to share that.
Do you have anything else you want to do to represent this democratic South Africa?
Yeah for sure. This was the first film project I got involved with. I’m busy writing scripts now for new stuff! As much as documentary can show the realities, there’s also fiction that has really interesting takes on alternative South Africa. I’m excited for this to be the first project.
Watch a screening of Future Sounds Of Mzansi at Islington Mill on 13 March followed by a Q&A with Spoek and a DJ set. More info here.
Words: Duncan Harrison
Photo: Kent Andreasen