Black skin, white festival
‘Oppikoppi is a religious pilgrimage for white people right?” read the tweet on my phone. I had just finished loading the back of my bakkie with my camping gear in preparation for the festival.
The tweet came from Durban comedian and radio personality Simmi Areff.
I chuckled. Oppikoppi is certainly very white and also very Afrikaans. And for many it probably does feel like a religious pilgrimage. So, yes, Areff had a point, but the situation is a little more complicated than that.
Oppikoppi is many things to many people and once you remove culture, language and race from the mix, it is essentially the best music festival in South Africa.
However, because this is South Africa, no matter how hard you try, it is impossible to remove race, culture and language from the debate.
For many white Afrikaans kids raised in conservative, Calvinist homes, Oppikoppi is an escape, an excuse to behave badly with no one around to judge them.
So the booze comes out, drugs are consumed and people get very messy and dirty. It’s all about the letting down of hair.
No wonder the words “disaffected” and “disenfranchised” have been applied so readily over the years to the Oppikoppi audience. It is Debauchery 101 with a great soundtrack. It is then also no wonder that Fokofpolisiekar has become the most important Afrikaans band in the country.
The universal truth about music is that young people want to hear songwriters speaking to them about their lives. And whatever one thinks about a band like Fokofpolisiekar, their music speaks to these youths.
It speaks about their conservative homes and parents, their religious upbringing and that many don’t see a place for themselves in the new South Africa.
But this disaffection becomes problematic when it is inward-looking or expressed through a “laager mentality”. For too many young Afrikaner people, their disaffection becomes about withdrawing, clinging to Afrikaner culture and rejecting outside influences, rather than looking outwards to the rest of South Africa and working towards a space where they feel like they belong.
In a phrase, it is “a culture under siege”.
For years this exclusionary mentality has bothered me. And how it manifested itself at Oppikoppi has bothered me even more, because it felt like it was holding the festival back.
I got sick of walking around seeing kids wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the old South African flag.
I was over the T-shirts with the slogan “Praat Afrikaans of hou jou bek” (Speak Afrikaans or shut your mouth) and I was certainly over the one or two cases of racism that I heard about every year.
Transformation is critical to the future of South African society — and that includes Oppikoppi.
White-dominated music industry
It seemed to me that no one was thinking about the young black people who had started coming to Oppikoppi. Where were the musicians singing to them about their experiences?
It was no longer good enough to use the excuse “but this is an Afrikaans music festival”.
For too long Oppikoppi had relied on tried-and-tested formulas, the same black artists booked every year.
It was Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse or Vusi Mahlasela. It was HHP or Tumi and the Volume. Don’t get me wrong — these artists are great and deserve their space; it’s just that the process of selecting the black bands was lazy.
Where were the young up-and- coming bands and artists?
The BLK JKS had to get signed by an international label and tour overseas before the white-dominated music industry took them seriously.
But this year, this attitude seemed to have changed. When Oppikoppi started to announce the artists for its 18th festival, I began to feel optimistic. It had booked established black acts such as Tidal Waves, BLK JKS, Vusi Mahlasela, 340ml, Oskido and HHP. All these bands and artists had played Oppikoppi many times before and have established fan bases, even among the white Afrikaner crowd.
But this year, the Oppikoppi team had also booked a new breed of black acts — the likes of Nakhane Toure, the Brother Moves On, Fruits & Veggies, Koldropduk, Tribal Echo, The Muffinz and Toya Delazy.
“So much of brown bands,” a black musician friend commented with a surprised look on his face as we discussed the line-up a few weeks before the festival.
Things were clearly changing and I was excited that, finally, Oppikoppi was making the move towards becoming a truly great South African music festival, not just a semi-religious pilgrimage for white Afrikaner kids.
However, the actuality of these changes on the ground at the festival was a different thing altogether.
Sure, there were way more black young people than ever before, but there were also a lot more people than ever before — some 27 000, to be precise.
The point is that the transformation of Oppikoppi is not going to happen overnight. The BLK JKS and Mahlasela still only played to a few hundred people, even though their performances did not clash with major acts playing at the same time.
Karen Zoid got on stage to address the crowd during Vusi Mahlasela’s set and called him “the father of transformation in this country”.
What does that mean, Karen?
It was bullshit moments — like the one when Zoid was brought out as a “token white” to sing the chorus of one of Mahlasela’s songs —that reminded me of just how far Oppikoppi has to go.
However, the festival did take a major step in securing its future this year, and it is one that it can hopefully build on from here.
Turning the corner
The change was summed up for me by one band. Seeing the Brother Moves On performing the politically controversial The Black Diamond Butterfly to a majority white audience gave me faith that Oppikoppi had turned the corner and could become a festival for which all young South Africans could eventually feel an affinity.
And when the Brother Moves On dedicated a new song, The Smallest Guitar in the World, to all the bands who hadn’t been selected to play at the festival, I didn’t feel despair, just pride that a band that had fought so hard to get where they were weren’t above remembering all the struggling artists who haven’t got their shot yet.
To the organisers of Oppikoppi, congratulations on another great festival and one that definitely was a lot more representative of our country.
You have sold out for three years running and have a successful brand.
This is great news, but it also allows you the opportunity to start diversifying the line-up even more.
You are no longer dependent on the tried-and-tested angsty white Afrikaans bands to bring the crowds and you can start to experiment to build a new music festival for all South Africans of all colours.
Because the more we open ourselves up to each other’s languages, cultures and music, the better off we are going to be as a nation — and for young South Africans Oppikoppi can play a crucial role in cementing this.
To the Oppikoppi regulars, let’s embrace the changing face of this festival we all love so much, because this is where its future lies.
We asked people about their sweetest thing at Oppi. Watch the video here.