How South Africa’s Dance Floors Provide Hope and Safety in the Face of Oppression
How South Africa’s Dance Floors Provide Hope and Safety in the Face of OppressionSeptember 1, 2020
Mandy Alexander outlines how the supremacist history of South Africa is continuing to echo in the lives of Black people, who find solidarity, therapy, hope, and safety on dance floors across the country.
South Africa conjures up imagery of ancestral roots and resistance, where sounds and creativity for survival grow in the colonized soil. On a spiritual level, it is an intrinsically and aesthetically beautiful place. But South Africa is a heavy place to live in, as its complex history continues to thread its way into the present-day society.
The word colonialism is naturally worked into everyday conversation amongst Black and POC because its everlasting imprint is so prevalent. Our current struggle with racial division, land reform, and other failed systems started with the arrival of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1652. They landed at the Cape of Good Hope with the intention of setting up a refreshment station to supply Dutch ships that were on their way to the East. Well, at least that’s what we were told by our colonized education systems. What it refused to emphasize was the exploitation and displacement that colonialism imposed.
Fast forward to 1948, when South Africa would bear witness to the beginning of a terrible and traumatically painful reign by the National Party — an all-white government that enforced racial segregation and institutionalized systems. Yes, on paper the apartheid was repealed in the early ‘90s. But the aftermath still plagues South Africa’s current social fabric. The color of your skin still determines your ability to access various spaces in South Africa. Spatial inequality reeks of policies that leave many marginalized people vulnerable and destitute. In spite of being told, “apartheid ended a long time ago, get over it,” we still feel and witness the psychological and economic effects it left. The one thing we have, which the ruling system could never colonize, is our rhythm. When we dance, we are not thinking about what we do not have, what was taken from us, or the institutionalized feeling of being lesser than our white counterparts. We are enough and stand in our power through the music.
Music has always played a significant role throughout the South African landscape. During the height of apartheid, musicians expressed the realities of the oppressive regime through songs. Notable figures like Brenda Fassie, Hugh Masekela, and Miriam Makeba dared to rage against the oppressive white system through their poignant music.
Today, in a post-apartheid era, electronic dance music continues to provide a safe space — one that rhythmic sound has always created throughout our violent history. Right now, we are transitioning people. Dance is the medium through which we express our sorrow and turn it into hope and peace of mind. On South African dancefloors, you’ll witness the most beautiful scenes of this world, and otherworldly connections. Dancefloors have the potential to be the portal through which we can communicate with our ancestors. If the intention of the event promoters and energy from the DJ/performer and dancers are harmonious, unspoken magic can happen. In South Africa, dancefloors are the most accessible means of therapy. Resistance pulsates through our bodies and shakes the environment around us. This is where melanin dominates and where it loudly and unapologetically moves in unison.
“Dancing is an ancient form of celebration and self-expression,” says Leighton Moody, a DJ who has been in Cape Town’s electronic music scene for over 15 years and is the co-host of a monthly party, We House Sundays. “For house heads, dance is a release from our worries, the mental and emotional struggles we face daily. I have witnessed more unity on a dancefloor than in most other social spaces. It’s important to create such spaces where people feel safe and are accepted while being themselves. [At We House Sundays], we see complete strangers of all colors, dancing shoulder-to-shoulder, and in time, they become friends with family-like bonds.”
South Africans have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to music, and we proudly express this through infectious and hyper-energy on the dancefloor. It’s a unique confidence that makes you smile with pride. In rhythm, vibration, and sound, the color of our skin does not determine the degree of respect we’ll receive because we consciously emit equality in these elements. ‘’It’s overwhelmingly beautiful to see such love and unity expressed amongst people,” Leighton says. “From an artist’s perspective, it’s amazing to witness DJs being free to express themselves musically and seeing the energetic response they receive from an appreciative crowd.”
The DJ plays a pivotal role in creating an atmosphere where dancers can feel safe to let go and temporarily transcend beyond the heaviness of their daily lives. Through Leighton’s sets, he is able to provide this necessary feeling. He creates a sense of unity, allowing those in the space to know that we all have shared experiences, and to understand that this is the moment to relieve yourself of the world’s big demands. “I need to be true to myself and what I am feeling, or wanting to express musically. I need to move the crowd by giving them a mixed bag of fresh unheard music and some classics that stir up memories and feelings of nostalgia. I love dropping spoken word poems over the music that hopefully uplifts people and inspires them,” he says. Through his sets, he hopes to provide escapism, euphoria, love, and togetherness.
South Africa’s coastal city, Cape Town, is home also to a special sound known as yaadt music. It is a genre that is not often spoken about in South Africa. Yet, in Cape Town, yaadt is the music that POC communities find escapism in. Yaadt is an Afrikaans word that directly translates to “yard” or “backyard” in English, as this is the music that is often played and enjoyed at backyard parties. Yaadt music elicits imagery of family, friends, togetherness, laughter, dancing, and joy in POC communities. In a city that is still largely segregated, Black and POC find their strength in the music and on the dancefloor. It’s the one space where we do not have to carry the burden of what it feels like to continuously be overlooked by our ruling political party. I spoke to two Cape Town-born artists to discuss what yaadt music means to them and how this sound is worthy of recognition as a legitimate genre.
“My time spent growing up in Cape Town was filled with authentic sounds of Cape jazz, ghoema, and yaadt. Ghoema, in its technical form, is a sound where lots of instruments can be used. The key element that stands out for me, however, is the rhythm and tempo of the drum. Yaadt, I would describe as a modernized, electronic derivative of ghoema,” Boskasie explains. The Cape Town-born singer and songwriter has announced that she will be releasing her debut EP called We Are Gold. It is an important piece of music that ties in her roots, lived-experiences, and love for her people. When asked about the intention of the EP, she says, “I think first and foremost, I’ve accomplished something I’ve always wanted to, and that is to combine a part of who I am with the music I make. Secondly, my hope is that through this process of reinterpreting ghoema and yaadt in a “Boskasie way,” it will bring light to these two incredibly rich genres, which have gone unnoticed [or are] not recognized beyond the borders of Cape Town, and [are] somewhat looked down upon as stereotypically coming from poorer communities. My hope is that we can recognize ourselves in this music and allow the world the opportunity to recognize themselves in these sounds too, further connecting us to the world.” Boskasie has called on Cape Town’s most-loved yaadt DJ-producer, DJ Chello, to contribute to her We Are Gold EP. “It was important for me to work with a yaadt producer on this project to further give context to the EP. My interpretation of yaadt combined with the work of a yaadt producer was a dynamic I needed to have on the project,” she says. Having grown up in the Netherlands and now residing in Johannesburg, Boskasie encapsulates a wealth of sounds and cultural experiences. She remains grateful for all these different life experiences, which allow her to express herself musically.
As we engage in yaadt music and whether it is consumed beyond Cape Town, it is interesting to note its similarities to music in other parts of South Africa. “I would say that there are certain elements of the yaadt beat that make the sound intrinsically Cape Town. However, when making the EP, my music director Pasja and I discovered that there are similarities in yaadt with other sounds. He is from Limpopo [a province located in the northernmost part of South Africa], and there is a sound that is authentically Limpopean, which has elements that he recognized in a yaadt beat. I believe in different parts of South Africa, and the world alike, there is music that is “cousins’’ of yaadt music,” Boskasie says.
“Yaadt music is a feeling, a really good, joyous feeling. When this genre is played in POC communities, it’s nothing but smiles and good times. This music puts an electronic twist on commercial songs that are unforgivably catchy with outrageous basslines,” Cape Town-based DJ and creative Cody Losper fondly says. “Yaadt music has always been around. As its name suggests, it is literally music that is enjoyed in your backyard. It’s just that today’s popular yaadt music has an electronic take on pop songs. The backyard house parties, this is where I fell in love with this music and this is where I got my inspiration to host the parties I do today.” Cody runs a well-loved party called Slow Down. It’s a beautiful concept that transports revelers to the good old days of pumping parties that take place at someone’s house. Word would get out that there’s a Slow Down happening and you’d gather your crew and make your way to the house party. You always knew you’d be in for a night of great music and a sweaty dance session. “I am very much into promoting the richness of what music can do for people, no matter the genre. I have always been an avid believer that through music comes cleansing. Combine music with other creative elements and it becomes a powerful tool for moving people,” Cody says. As a DJ and party host, Cody offers a space for people with different backgrounds to come together and dance.
Black and POC communities in Cape Town continue to face harsh living conditions. Genres such as yaadt provide the necessary momentary escapism for people of all ages. “For us, to have something of our own is like gold. Yaadt music is something that we embrace without a doubt. It gives us a sense of confidence. It is an immediate mood booster; just letting your worries go with a DJ Chello remix is what therapy is to us,” Cody expresses.
In a society that would prefer to sweep the violent experiences of marginalized peoples under the carpet, the dancefloor is where we boldly rid ourselves of this violence against us. Through the balls of our feet and smiles on our faces, we resist the psychological warfare. After all, the dancefloor is where we feel connected to the greater continent of Africa with its many vibrant cultures and stories!
Mandy Alexander is a Cape Town-based writer with a passion for researching and writing about electronic dance music. Through her storytelling, she expresses her perspective as a POC dancer and music enthusiast. With her words, she aspires to explore and celebrate marginalized people’s lived experiences through music. Find her sharing POC stories on Instagram.