The significance of the 21st birthday has interesting roots. It goes back to Elizabethan times, when 21 was the age at which a man could become a knight and could also get married.
The significance of the gaudy key, often handed over at 21st birthdays, varies. Some writers say it represented the keys to a house that a 21-year-old man could now legally own, whereas others say the key represents the key to adulthood and to the rest of a person’s life, which is now squarely in their own hands.
I have been thinking about the significance of the number 21 in relation to YFM, which celebrates its 21st birthday this year — and especially because youth is significant for the station that describes itself as one for the young and the young at heart. This milestone is also important for me because I’ve been thinking about, listening to and then not listening to YFM since I was nine years old.
In these 21 years, the Y project has represented different things.
In many ways, YFM emerged as a “born-free” child, who represented the aspirations and hopes of South Africa, a country that was only a few years older than the station itself. It is impossible to think about YFM and youth politics without considering the public discourse and expectations of democratic South Africa in 1994.
The station’s launch took place when South Africa was experiencing an immense moment of change. The mid-to-late 1990s felt like a time of infinite possibilities and hope, as the country tumbled forward, drunk on optimism and the world’s expectations of the new South Africa of Nelson Mandela.
At the age of nine going on 10, when Y launched, my musical tastes were tuning in to those significantly different from those of my mother,who was a committed listener to Highveld Stereo (now 94.7), Metro FM and later Kaya FM.
I was heavily into hip-hop, thanks to my second cousin Reginald’s influence. He adored Tupac and soon I added Eminem, Jay-Z, Nas, Skwatta Kamp, Amu, Zubz, Snoop, Slum Village and The Roots to our shared loved of Pac. None of the stations my mother listened to were playing the music I loved.
It was because of Y that I discovered Renegade by Eminem and Jay-Z, which would become one of my all-time favourite songs. I would sit in the laundry room, where we’d set up a desk with the little radio on it in front of me, the play and record buttons permanently pressed down along with the pause button, so I could unpause the tape and pirate whatever song I had to have.
In their afternoon show, Bad Boy T, Lee and Sanza shaped my romance with hip-hop. Lee Kasumba was particularly important because it was the first time I had heard a woman talk about her love for hip-hop in a way I hoped to.
As a tween and later a teen, Y was like the cooler older sibling that I didn’t have. My introverted self was grateful for being able to hear so much local and international pop culture. In addition to helping with my burgeoning aspirational street cred, YFM felt like rebellion against everything — and nothing. The station was a rebellion against adults who told us we had to speak a certain way and that our music was noisy, or that we were lazy and, to quote Brown Dash’s Vum Vum, that “asina future”.
YFM was original, capturing my young angst about being in a previously white-only school and proving to be an outlet against the immense violence of daily racism that was so significant in my schooling. We were the guinea pigs of the democratic integration project, and many of us had very few, if any, tools to navigate our way through it.
Y articulated some sense of being young, South African and enamoured with hip-hop — a sound from overseas that quickly found its home here. The station captured the sense of being hopeful and angry at the same time.
With a public discourse that told us to be more grateful and to keep quiet, even as HIV was becoming a terrifying reality for many, YFM sounded anxious and excited, like optimism and hopelessness, like kasi, amacheeseboy and their twangs, abomrapper, The Admiral and Jah Seed. It was messy and beautiful, like the country in which it was growing up.
When the station moved from its first home in Bertrams to The Zone @Rosebank, where I lived with my grandmother during the week, it was like a dream come true. I could see my favourite station through the floor-to-ceiling glass around the studios. I spent hours hanging around The Zone in the hope of catching my favourite DJs, a profession that I had decided would become the focus of my career.
Of course, the move signalled a change in focus for the station. The new digs reflected a subtle message about the shifting class position of the station, an ascension they imagined their listeners would be making too. The station seemed to celebrate those who had “made it”, which in South Africa’s toddler years represented a tiny minority of black people.
As the station aged, the reality of living and being young in one of the world’s most unequal countries was unavoidable. Poor young people,who still represent the demographic majority in the country,simply refused to be ignored by university and college administrators, the state and its political parties, their parents and, most importantly, the media.
Fast forward to the nascent 2010s.
As #FeesMustFall protests erupted around the country, YFM, like many other media houses, seemed to be out of step and unable to articulate what was happening. This was particularly unforgivable for a youth station, one that had chosen to “speak for” the demographic majority.
Even long before #FeesMustFall, it was becoming clear that young people’s frustration with the status quo — politically and socioeconomically — was increasing. The works of Robert Sobukwe, Frantz Fanon, Steve Biko and Kwame Nkrumah inspired South Africa’s young and restless to urgently pick up on the decolonisation project that their parents had seemingly abandoned. YFM, like many stations, failed to keep in step with the conversation in any challenging and meaningful way.
There is the immense expectation, fairly or unfairly, that media (certainly those that claim to represent youths’ interests) are able to articulate the messy and difficult place of young people.
At 21, YFM is no longer a child. Neither are those of us who started with the station. But we can’t ignore the increasingly loud demands by young people that this country must deliver on what it promised to everyone. Y must grapple with the questions that South Africa, now aged 24, is grappling with. It is the very messy business of growing up and realising that, although there is immense potential for growth, things are very bad: the new South Africa continues to exclude along old lines, and young people (who are not a homogeneous group) demand that those tough conversations be had.