“Music cannot be for entertainment in Africa; it must be for the revolution.” -Fela Kuti
Let me start by saying, if you’re considering getting your hands on / attending a screening of the documentary Punk in Africa, you abso-fucking-lutely ought to. It is one of the few (perhaps the only?) films that examines the roots of punk rock in Africa, namely Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and most of all, South Africa.
The best thing that this documentary did for me was simply expose me to some totally killer, totally overlooked bands from the ’70s and ’80s. I was openly freaking out over bands like Wild Youth, Gay Marines, National Wake, and (probs most of all although they were covered least of all) Leopard– none of whom I had ever even heard of before.
Most of the original scene went down in Durham, and had straight-forward (and wildly important!) anti-Apartheid themes. National Wake was one of the early multi-racial bands, which was quite a dangerous way of life in South Africa in the ’80s. Band members talked about how even the lack of segregation at their shows (as in, black and white folks dancing together) was seen as criminal and suspicious. Considering that Apartheid didn’t truly end in South Africa until like 20 years ago totally blows my mind. We had bands in the United States angstin’ out over the Reagan administration while at the SAME time you had bands in South Africa doing this in the face of outright racism, oppression, violence, and segregation.
So that whole story was obviously fascinating. The film itself was also frustrating though. As much as I would like to claim that I’m 100% behind the sort of organic approach that they took, in truth I felt like the film suffered from a lack of voice and direction. I would have loved more of an overall context for the scene, the historical backdrop and maybe even (I know, this is nerdy as fuck, but) maps and a timeline to give me a better idea of what was going on. I know I wouldn’t ask for that information of a documentary about the D.C. hardcore scene, or early punk in the U.K., but the reality is that punk in Africa just hasn’t been recorded nearly as much as other scenes, so it’s not part of my cultural memory. I assume the same is true for most people living outside of Africa, and it seemed like the filmmakers wanted this to be a documentary for everyone, not just people in Africa.
Moreover, while I dug the parts about ’70s/’80s punk, I wasn’t so keen on some of the other ’90s ska-ish bands covered for oh, a good 75% of the film. Maybe the groups they chose to focus on to represent African punk in the ’90s and ’00s just weren’t my thing, but something tells me there is a whole underground scene going on right now that is more in line with the DIY spirit of the original punk bands. It might be crust, folk-punk, hell, it might not even be punk at all but rather noise or post-rock or whatev, but I’m sure they’re out there.
What makes me say this? Well, my other favorite part of the film covered comix-illustrator Mark Kannemeyer, whose shocking drawings (for me) reflected the political edge and artistic transgression of the era perhaps more than any of these punk groups. He mentioned two of his favorite groups during his interview- KOOS, an aggressive, avant-garde group from the ’80s, and Sticky Antlers, a contemporary noise/indie rock band from South Africa. I consider both groups a better reflection of the progression of the early punk scene into more experimental forms, a new interpretation the tension and chaos of the era. The film also showed several clips of newer bands with women of color, but didn’t actually talk to or about any of them.
Final thoughts: 1. This film is an awesome “jumping off” point for exploring punk in Africa. It gives the audience some historical background and some bands/artists to begin to contextualize you into this scene. From here, I know some shit, and I (sort of) know what I want to learn more about.
2. In the last 10 years, SO many countries have come out with compilations documenting the punk/post-punk scenes in their respective nations. I have legit comps from France, Brazil, Australia, etc. and what I want more than anything now is for someone to re-release all of this African punk music on a compilation. And then give that compilation to me. For free pls.