The first-encounter aesthetic rush

Spoek Mathambo's whole oeuvre seems to point towards finding a new conversation.

Stills from the music video for Spoek Mathambo's "Control," by Pieter Hugo and Michael Cleary.

If you’re wondering what took us so long to say something about South African rapper Spoek Mathambo’s new music video — for his cover of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” [corrected], well, we can’t make up our mind about it. The video, got a lot of attention when it first came out in late February as it was directed by Spoek’s fellow countrymen, celebrated photographer Pieter Hugo and Michael Cleary (cinematographer of ‘Not everything was cool back then‘). Hipster blogs and mainstream Western media love the video, though we don’t learn much from them beyond repeating the PR copy.

First up the positives: We’re fans of Spoek Mathambo, whether it’s his music or his far-out blog.  As for what he did to the original tune: Spoek infused a nice South African flavor into it, which makes us appreciate both songs more. The choice of cover also makes sense. Spoek has spoken about his admiration for Joy Division’s music elsewhere: “… I am into Joy Division more than rap … I went from being super into rap my whole life, to a point where I was specifically anti-rap, and then into obscure and avant-garde jazz. When I was probably twenty-one, I got 10GB of music which opened me up to this world of white music that had been hidden from me my whole life.”

Still, like most things, the video left us with more questions than anything else.

The selling point of the video is that it depicts the world of “township cults and teen gangs.” That sounds interesting, but we don’t see much of that in the video. Instead we get kids — apparently members of a Langa, Cape Town-dance troupe (“Happy Feet”)– and Spoek. And lots of chalk-blowing. Also, we wondered whether the trance-like dancing featured in the video is really that big in Langa (or any other Cape Town neighborhood).

More generally, we’re trying to figure out why it is that the videos that generally become popular outside of South Africa and that enters popular “hipster” circles or sites based in North America and Europe (every taste-maker site has posted this video), tend to be those that tick one or all the boxes of what appeals to us about our Dark Other: if it’s not poverty and the crying and dying show, Africa is voodoo, (black) magic, primitivity, and all that is inscribed within the realm of the “unknowable.” Though not as layered as Spoek’s “Control” video, Die Antwoord’s latest attempt at attention, “Rich Bitch” is a case in point.)

We detect Hugo’s hand in the direction of the aesthetics in “In Control”: the South African photographer, remember him for his Nollywood images, co-directed the video. His characteristic interest in creating visual links between the surreal, blackness, and the occult are rehashed here, in moving images. Here, the boys and girls of Happy Feet become cut-throat child-soldiers/zombies in an other-worldly, bombed out apocalyptic landscape, dabbling in the occult and snuff-games. The black-and-white island of order-disorder is remarkably absent of adults, and death looms as large as the Christianity offered by Spoek–the sole adult here, luminescent in white, marked with the cross. In one frame, the boys shave an initiate’s head: the wall behind is inscribed with the message: “OUT OF ORDER.”

We get it: Nollywood-surreal is a big reference and inspiration in these videos. But we question whether Nollywood retains a sustained interest amongst hipsters beyond the first-encounter aesthetic rush. While we too responded as gutturally and instinctively as any viewer — after all, we also live in the same soup of Africa-images, and find the visual noise just as arresting as we are meant to — we wonder about Spoek’s choice to pander to the base expectations. Especially when his whole oeuvre seems to point towards finding a new conversation, not type.

Further Reading

A power crisis

Andre De Ruyter, the former CEO of Eskom, has presented himself as a simple hero trying to save South Africa’s struggling power utility against corrupt forces. But this racially charged narrative is ultimately self-serving.

Cinematic universality

Fatou Cissé’s directorial debut meditates on the uncertain fate and importance of Malian cinema amidst the growing dismissiveness towards the humanities across the world.

The meanings of Heath Streak

Zimbabwean cricketing legend Heath Streak’s career mirrors many of the unresolved tensions of race and class in Zimbabwe. Yet few white Zimbabwean sporting figures are able to stir interest and conversation across the nation’s many divides.


After winning Italy’s Serie A with Napoli, Victor Osimhen has cemented his claim to being Africa’s biggest footballing icon. But is the trend of individual stardom good for sports and politics?

The magic man

Chris Blackwell’s long-awaited autobiography shows him as a romantic rogue; a risk taker whose life compass has been an open mind and gift to hear and see slightly into the future.

How to think about colonialism

Contemporary approaches to the legacy of colonialism tend to narrowly emphasize political agency as the solution to Africa’s problems. But agency is configured through historically particular relations of which we are not sole authors.

More than just a flag

South Africa’s apartheid flag has been declared hate speech by a top court. But while courts are important and their judgments matter, racism is a long and internationally entrenched social phenomenon that cannot be undone via judicial processes.

Resistance is a continuous endeavor

For more than 75 years, Palestinians have organized for a liberated future. Today, as resistance against Israeli apartheid intensifies, unity and revolutionary optimism has become the main infrastructure of struggle.

Paradise forgotten

While there is much to mourn about the passing of legendary American singer and actor Harry Belafonte, we should hold a place for his bold statement-album against apartheid South Africa.