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As a South African living in NYC, it’s often hard to keep track of what’s happening back home. The time difference and going about the daily business of staying afloat in this city is a lot to deal with. Not to mention that local news reports just often don’t include news from further beyond the US of A in their bulletins. Plus, you know, it’s a big world out there so by the time they get to South Africa, it’s when the president is resigning or being charged with a crime.
I remember when I was in LA on an entertainment news assignment in 2008, and was asked by the desk editor to file a story about the US’ response to the xenophobic attacks in the country at the time. Where we usually reflect news from outside SA at the tail-end of our bulletins, US news reports tend to feature a talking dog or other such amusing tales. Barring NPR, and listening to, and reading reports from, the country itself, getting a sense of news from outside the US can be a tad frustrating.
It’s for this reason I think art plays an even more crucial part in our over-stuffed lives. An artist can tell a story – in hindsight, far or near – tell the story as it happened and as it was felt by the people involved. And if the artist or artists have done a good enough job, elicit the viewer to find out more about what went down.
So it was for me with Haroon Gunn-Salie’s Marikana sculpture. I knew a lot but there was so much I didn’t know, particularly about the emotions of the day. And so it is with The Fall, a production playing at St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. It comes to the US after having played in Edinburgh and in London, earning awards and high praise. I had heard so much about it and so was glad to have the opportunity to see it. And to let it take me into the complexities around issues facing my alma mater, the University of Cape Town (UCT).
UCT  has been dealing with the subject of transformation and de-colonising and the takedown of statues and all matter of grey areas in between. The Fall, written by cast members who were students at UCT during the 2015 protests – #RhodesMustFall & #FeesMustFall – explores the events that took place around this time. With only 7 actors and 3 tables, the production is dynamic and arresting, and paints a clearer, if more complex, picture of what it means to fight for intersectional inclusivity.
Though the story may be a South African – complete with all the colourful slang that goes along with it – the issues are familiar to Americans too. Confederate statues, standing up for black lives in the ongoing struggle for equality and the issue of how to move forward when parts of the population have been deeply wronged are all commonalities The Fall speaks to.  Sex & the City actress Sarah Jessica Parker happened to be in the audience the night I saw it, and was full of compliments for the actors. Moreover, she told them something I believe to be true too. Many of the words used in the production around intersectionality and the ways that different forms of discrimination intersect are only just being commonly used here now. These are things South Africans have been acknowledging and talking about for a long time.
“I found it very interesting,” Tankiso Mambolo, one of the actors said to me. “In South Africa, we’ve looked down on ourselves and seen America as this beacon of freedom. But I’m coming here and I’m seeing that we have similar struggles, and our country is actually more further ahead in having these conversations than the free world is, which is very strange to me.”
Art – be it from South Africa or elsewhere, I think, holds real value in helping nudge these conversations along. The Fall, for sure, has already done so much to create more empathy and understanding, and I wish its actors further success.

 

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Haroon Gunn-Salie’s piece at the New Museum since seeing it at Monday’s preview. It’s part of the museum’s Triennial. Titled Songs for Sabotage, the group exhibition looks at how young artists around the world use their art respond to issues of social and political importance – how for them, art is not just something to be looked at, but something urging engagement of some kind. Haroon is from South Africa, and so naturally I was drawn most to his work. But I would’ve been anyway, I think, even if I wasn’t from the same country.
When you enter the 3rd floor of the New Museum, you are immediately met with 17 black figures on their haunches, headless. They are arranged in a kind of “V” formation and their shapes cast shadows on the ground. Overhead, sounds play on an audio track. If you listen carefully, you start to hear people talking, then mournful singing. Then bullets, then police sirens.
This audio track is taken from archival footage of the day 34 mineworkers were shot and killed by police in what has become known as the Marikana massacre. The strike that happened at the Lonmin mine is a mark on South Africa’s democracy that has yet to be wiped away. It happened in 2012 and yet its reverberations are still being felt, all this time later. For those of us watching from afar, it was something we couldn’t believe had happened, and it was even harder to try understand from outside the country. But, from what I had read and heard from journalist colleagues, it was still hard to understand even from inside the country. 
I’ve watched and reported on the Emmy-winning documentary, Miners Shot Down, which lays blame at those behind the scenes who fanned the strike and misunderstanding instead of communication and proper negotiation. But this art speaks to something else – it brought me to an almost unspeakable deep mourning for the lives lost. And the democracy lost. Speaking to Haroon afterwards about the piece, I felt the tears well up as I listened to him talk about his research, and how he based the piece on archival footage. It really is something to behold, and reflect upon. 
You can read my story for the Mail & Guardian here

There aren’t many places to go in New York when you’re homesick for a lekker South African meal. For ‘n bietjie bobotie, some pap & vleis, a bowl of mngqusho, or a slice of malva pudding. Up until Sunday night, there was only one place to go that fed your soul just as much as it did your stomach.
To residents who live in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Madiba became a staple on the block of Dekalb and Carlton streets, opposite the Edmonds Playground, close to the park. To South Africans – and Africans – it became a home-away-from-home. A place to go when you wanted to support your team during the Soccer World Cup. When you needed to mourn the death of Nelson Mandela with others who felt the depth of the loss. When you wanted to vent about the US presidential election and the rise of Donald Trump. Or when you just wanted to catch some local kwaito or jazz tunes. 
Owner Mark Henegan started the restaurant 19 years ago, when he and his wife took over a rice-and-beans spot, adding 5 tables and a make-shift bar to create Madiba. Mark wanted to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela, to the ideals of freedom he stood for, and the example of sacrifice he served to his country. I remember interviewing Mark when he was expanding to a Harlem location and him telling me about how much he wanted to keep Mandela’s legacy going in the US, for others to follow.
“Mandela was the peacemaker. He said, ‘put down your pangas and your guns.’ He embraced rugby, the Afrikaners, and, through the TRC, helped us come together. We’re all the reflection and image of God – we all have the ability to do great things. If everyone can just do a little bit, we can all make wonders happen. Somebody that went to jail for what he believed in, became president of South Africa. Could you imagine being in that moment in that time, coming out of prison and becoming a president? It’s almost crazy.”
Brooklyn was the first place Madiba went on his first visit to NYC, which was also his first to the US, upon being released from prison. Mark himself was told he was crazy to open up Madiba, as a white man in what was then a predominantly black area that had a problem with drugs. Over the years Fort Greene has changed and morphed into a hip part of Brooklyn, with gentrification causing property prices to surge. Mark has made his battles with rent known – he didn’t have a proper lease on the building and so the restaurant’s future was always unknown.
To have made it this long is testimony to the family behind the scenes – to Mark, who was born in Benoni and grew up in Durban, to his sister, who helped him financially get the place on its feet, to his brother, who spent many a night behind the bar. But also, to those who became family, which is essentially, anyone who walked through Madiba’s doors.
The restaurant attracted a warm hub of people, working with the nearby community to help plant food gardens for local charities and becoming the place to hang out for regular customers. “Madiba is about community; it’s about family, wrapped in a blanket. It doesn’t matter if you’re from South Africa or not. I don’t look at it as a restaurant, I look at it as a community space,” Mark had once told me. It was a space we all could go for a little of that Madiba magic in the US of A.

In Blood Diamond, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Zimbabwean ex-mercenary utters a line that became one of those oft-heard film quotes. As a means of explaining the way things work – or don’t work – on the continent, he tells co-star Jennifer Connelly, “TIA.” When she doesn’t get his homemade-acronym the first time around, he spells it out: “This. Is. Africa.” It may have taken over a decade, but you could say Black Panther is the cinematic blockbuster retort to that. A long-awaited clap-back in the form of a roar. 
This is Africa. Yes, it’s a heightened, idealized version of it — where vibranium, not diamonds — is the major resource. Yes, it’s called Wakanda, and is a place built out of the pages of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s comic books. Yes, it exists within the fictional Marvel Cinematic Universe. And yes, most of it was filmed in Atlanta in the US. But make no mistake. This. Is. Africa. 
This is Africa – a multifaceted, exhilarating place that hardly gets the kudos it deserves onscreen. Not until now, not until Black Panther. As a South African, I was giddy with little squeals of excitement each time I heard Xhosa being spoken by the characters or recognized an item of clothing. It’s because for so long, when Africa has been represented onscreen, a simplistic view has usually been shown. Poverty over potency. When attempts have been made to change the portrayal of Africa onscreen, more often than not, shortcuts are usually taken. I will love Morgan Freeman forever, but even he battled with pronouncing the Rolihlahla of Nelson Mandela’s name in Invictus. In Black Panther, the clicks and accents of Xhosa are there. The effort to be authentic is there. It’s in the “eish” that Lupita Nyong’o utters when T’Challa interferes in her mission. It’s in the “Nkosi” uttered by the women in moments of hardship. 
It’s in the Basotho blankets that are held up as shields in battle. It’s in the gold and silver Ndebele neckrings the Dora Milaje wear. It’s in the casting of legendary local actors John Kani and Connie Chiume as elders.  
In director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, this is Africa. Where scientists and shamans live side by side; where spiritualism and technology can co-exist.
Where world music’s elder statesman Baaba Maal and the Gqom Queen Babes Wodumo share space on the music credits. Where trap music can play in the background of one scene, and then traditional drum-beating in the foreground of another. Where Kendrick Lamar can curate songs and Ludwig Göransson can compose them.
This is Africa – where women in front of the screen are just as important as any man, but not at the cost of their femininity. From the moment Angela Bassett, as T’Challa’s mother, enters the frame in her regal white headdress, I thought of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, with her stature and formidability. But also her fallibility and devotion. [Side note: why have we never seen Bassett play Madikizela-Mandela?] From the instant we meet Lupita N’yong’o’s spy Nakia, we know she is her own force to be reckoned with, beyond the love she has for Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa. And Danai Gurira’s Okoye fights and wields weapons as deftly as any army general, but she can also throw her wig in combat when the spirit moves her.
This is Africa – where Letitia Wright’s teenage Shuri, with her cheeky sense of humour, can act childish, but still knows how to program the hell out of a suit. A younger, way more stylish Alfred or Q to Boseman, if you will, but for a new generation of young girls to look up to.
This is Africa – where women behind the screen are important too. Debbie Berman, who was born in Johannesburg, edited the film, after working on Spider Man: Homecoming.
It goes without saying that Black Panther has been the most anticipated film of 2018, with pre-sale box office tickets breaking records all over the world. There is a richness to the interviews the cast members and director Coogler have been giving. There’s an electricity flowing through this film that is unlike any other. 
Leaving the cinema after seeing Black Panther at a press screening, I felt the energy coursing through my veins – like I had just taken some of the heart-shaped herb that gives T’Challa his powers. That’s what happens when you see something so exhilarating, fantasy grounded in the real, on the big screen. An experience that leaves you thrilled for what you’ve just seen unfold in front of your eyes – and ears – and for what comes next. An experience that makes you proud to say, “This. Is. Africa.” 


Pic from Entertainment Weekly.

This evening, the history-making, true-to-her-roots, only-woman-in-an-all-men-best-rap-album-category Rapsody dropped a little more insight into her 7-year “overnight success,” the films & actresses who influence her alongside the musicians who do too, and how much she loves body-rolling.
5 days before the Grammys, she says this year feels different from the last time, when she went to support Kendrick after guesting on TPAB. “That was like when you babysit someone else’s kid. This one is mine. I carried it for 9 months. I had to push that thing out.“
Endearing herself to me even more, she told me South Africa, where she created the album Beauty & the Beast, is her favourite place to perform. When I asked when it was that she knew she had power in her words to articulate her thoughts about the world, she says it was in a moment that came while in Soweto. A woman approached her after a performance with a little girl, about 3/4, and this little girl said she wanted to be like Rapsody. “That’s when I knew the power of music for me, and how important my voice was. So that was when it changed for me. No lie – Soweto, South Africa.”
Sending Rapsody — Marlanna Evans — good vibes for the Grammys this weekend!