MANGA NGCOBO | 2023
Johannebsurg is a hadron particle collider of sorts, hurtling worlds together at break-neck speeds, and even bringing worlds back into forgotten orbits. Two such worlds are those belonging to Filmmaker Jack Markowitz and Musician Shanti Cullis who collaborated on a music video called Primate.
Jozi is a place that Markowitz describes as having a certain “reptilian” quality. A kind of bloodsucking tendency that breeds thick skins and cold shoulders— especially in the all-too visible cultural world. While the case for shamelessness can be convincingly made, and the bloodsuckers can be found to have a pulse of their own, the dance to distinguish the genuine from the transactional is tiring for want of a better word.
When Markovitz moved to Johannesburg to continue his work in film, he moved into Bertrams — Johannesburg’s oldest suburb. It sits in a valley on the edge of the central business district and between its sister suburbs of Lorentziville and Troyville. It is at once historical and contemporary, vulnerable and violent, urban fabric and urban fray. Not exactly where a suburban kid from Cape town, let alone one from Johannesburg, would opt to move.
Bertrams in all of its glory is probably the center of this story, but it doesn’t really begin until one afternoon at a casting audition— the basic outlines of which are as follows. Shanti gets recommended by a mutual friend to be a character in one of Jack’s new films. It turns out that Shanti isn’t right for the role, but through an afternoon of casting and chatting, a friendship is born. Weeks down the line and Shanti invites himself over to Jack’s in Bertrams, where they discover that their parents had met years before. Their union, Jack tells me, is the key to creation of the music video. The combination of Shanti’s unpretentious story telling and Jack’s relationship to the Bertrams area, was the perfect vehicle for their respective talents to collide.
The suburb is in a sense a shadow of its former self. Towards the end of aparthied, when the physical mobility of people of color was restored thanks to the slashing of pass laws and the Group Areas Act, the inner city and surrounding areas experienced an exodus of its white middle class to Johannesburg’s suburbs. In a move straight out of the American zoning handbook, and in a need to protect its waning wealth, [the government] gave the middle class what the middle class wants most — services— leaving the inner city and surroundings largely outside of municipal affection. Places like Troyville , Bertrams and Yeoville that were once sites of inclusive and diverse resistance, where all of our parents met in the early 90’s, were left to fend for themselves. The stigma around these places being dangerous is rife. They are victims of urban decay, but they are far from derelict. The people that inhabit these places, particularly because of Johannesburg’s violent adjacency of wealth and disparity, are painted with unaffectionate brush strokes in the media and the general story of South Africa.
And in some senses Bertrams is merely a backdrop. There isn’t a moral high ground that Shanti and Jack are claiming in filming it there, but the choice and ability to do so are emblematic of a change in mood about aspirational, clout-hungry imagery. It shows that art can be made without adhering to a marketable template. And because it is the product of relationships and friendships carefully cultivated it avoids the trope of the intellectual fawning over the “characters and textures” of a certain place, like a national geographic photographer exoticising anything outside of the west.
Because the city of gold is a cradle of dreams with its own mythical status it breeds people who hustle. “There’s a lot of people that come to Joburg, and you can see that reptilian ambition in their eyes when they speak to you”. Even though this video was created outside of the world of hustle, part of the message of the song is one of struggle. The chorus “dala what you must” translates to ‘by all means necessary’. If there was a way to describe Johannesburg it would be with that phrase.
The music video stars Shanti and some characters that frame him as an affectionate lover, a riotous youth, or the master of a house of horrors. It features a pair of old-age twins with juvenile hair-do’s; a man wearing a blazer and his pants tucked into his knee high socks, dancing with the swagger of a drunken jester. In other scenes, Cullis races down the street in a shopping cart. The video carries the energy of youth mean-mugging. It is scary. It is. It has an evil allure and anyone who is up to par with South African slang knows that it is sharp and cutting.
Primate is peripheral. Not so much a celebration of the margins, but it ushers the periphery into the music video ecosystem — which mainly consists of the flashy and the polished. In fact the duo embrace the ugly as a kind of antidote to the rather flat sonic and visual landscape of South African music production. Jack confesses that “South African Hip hop is quite a one-note experience, and I felt I was starved for someone like Shanti”. Of course the landscape is punctuated with figures like Die Antwoord and their longtime collaborator Roger Ballen, who together have defined a path for musical iconoclasts locally and internationally. But Shanti and Jack aren’t blatant iconoclasts, perhaps more significantly than that, in this video they’re showcasing the forgotten and invisible — no matter how strange or abrasive.
Shanti, who I’ve had the pleasure of sharing a friendship with for over a decade, has quickly developed a cult following. Primate and its brazen lyricism and cutting stylistic choices are at least a clue as to how he has garnered his audience. The other clues are to be found in the city of our upbringing— Johannesburg. We both grew up skating in the inner city, partying in suburbia, and crawling in and out of trouble. It was there that I witnessed Shanti become a keen negotiator of style and taste — not in the sense that he knew what was cool and what objects to possess (he did too), but in the sense that what drove all of his choices musically and otherwise was an attitude towards or against established and current values. This makes him distinctly hard to categorise. I have known him a long time and even my descriptions of him and his music seem to be found wanting. His music is genre-phobic and groundbreaking in the truest sense of the metaphor. Nobody is making music like he is. There isn’t a desire to garner “sympathy” as Jack puts, or for his music to be palatable. Its fearlessness is what makes it so attractive, its diffificulty is what makes it so relatable. Shanti wears his complexity with enviable self assurance and comfort. He doesn’t care that people call him a rapper, he still idolizes Morrisey and wears leather pants.
Every artist, musical or otherwise, has their eye on the globe. We are all painfully aware of what’s happening around the globe all the time, all at once. A steamroller has made its way around the world and flflattened us into the same tarmac. Johannesburg is New York, Accra is Bangkok— or so it seems. We all have the same references. We produce the same impulses, language, art and sound. Of course we are particular but articulating differences is rare given our platform incentivised standards. There are, however, still those soothsayers, who are still able to locate themselves and remind us of place — Shanti is surely one of those.
On the pavements lining Yeoville, in the abandoned shopping carts occupying parking lots, on the muddy banks of Johannesburg’s storm drains, and in the city’s eastern suburbs a wind is blowing. A force is animating the mud and spitting on the established.
“Live from the gutter”.