Little America is a good first step but …

Last year the urban music channel TRACE partnered with the Gauteng Film Commission (GFC) to give an aspiring filmmaker the opportunity to produce a 20-minute documentary.

After the contenders produced five-minute inserts that TRACE aired for voting, the rising songstress and aspiring filmmaker Yoza Mnyanda took home the funding opportunity to make Little America.

With the promise to explore the growing use of American gimmicks and language by South African artists, it appeared as if the film would address how mainstream South African music has gone from the likes of Mandoza asking us “Uzoyithola kanjani uhleli ekhoneni?” to Gemini Major letting us know how he’s “Chillin’ at the bando/ Smoking on the endo”. With the need to address this, we hungrily anticipated the film’s release.

Earlier this month, Little America was uploaded on Darkie Fiction’s YouTube channel. Darkie Fiction is a New Age kwaito-making duo — Mnyanda and Katt Daddy — with the mission to steer clear of American influences to make what they refer to as authentically South African music. To do this, they draw from local archives created by the likes of Boom Shaka, Bongo Muffin, Steve Kekana, Zola, Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu.

For this reason, the appearance of Little America on their joint channel did not seem too jarring.

After a disclaimer about the film’s intentions to start a conversation, Mnyanda centres Darkie Fiction as the subject that will ease the viewer into the story. Katt Daddy says: “Now that the music industry in South Africa is booming, we realised that it is important to preserve what really sounds South African.”

Mnyanda interviews artists such as Da L.E.S, Nadia Nakai, Moonchild, Robin Thirdfloor, Stiff Pap and Zola. Their opinions are presented to us in three parts: the current use and defence of American gimmicks in commercial hip-hop music, the local misfits making music that reflects their surroundings, and the supposed problem that comes with reproducing external influences.

The documentary had the opportunity to explore the different and unknown ways that a sound indigenous to the Southern African region can manifest itself, but it remained beyond Darkie Fiction’s reach. Unfortunately, it does not live up to the promise of being explorative. Instead, the use of well-known alternative musicians, who more than once describe themselves and Darkie Fiction as the answer to authenticity, makes Little America come across as prescriptive and too referential.

“The research that went into it was the research that went into making Darkie Fiction as well. We were already in this realm of thinking and so that’s what informed it. Our main objective was to figure out what people were thinking,” Mnyanda says.

“We did get some comments that this is not very academic and it seems like poor research, but the point wasn’t to make this a research-heavy thing. It was an opinion piece.”

Katt Daddy highlights the deliberate decision to end Little America with Semenya and Mbulu’s song Umoya. “The chorus says ‘Sinawo umculo apha ekhaya’. Even back then they were saying we have the music here at home. That’s what this is about.”

In addition to this, Mnyanda admits to learning that making a documentary is strenuous and requires more time. In addition to the production timeline for Little America coinciding with that of Darkie Fiction’s debut EP Sobabini: A Mzantsi Evolution, the funding and backing from the GFC and TRACE came with a deadline

What Little America does well is to play out at a speed that doesn’t allow the viewer to lose interest. It uses a cocktail of animations, sit-down interviews, pauses that encourage reflection, narration and music that supports the claims being made.

In spite of its shortfalls, Little America’s subject matter, look, sound and swift pace are a good introduction to Darkie Fiction’s journey. The documentary also lays a solid foundation for questions and conversations that can assist Mnyanda in conducting more in-depth research into this question of authenticity in South Africa.

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Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa studies Digital Democracy, New Media and Political Activism, and Digital Politics.

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