Why we gotta let the people groove

January 1 2020

Never again. It’s almost 3am on a Wednesday morning. Instead of being fast asleep, I’m in a helical convoy of pedestrians who are making their way to the McDonald’s drive-through near Constitution Hill. 

I stopped drinking shortly after midnight, so the effect of my last double gin and tonic is quickly wearing off, making me acutely aware of how cold, hungry and sore I am. 

Since the evening before the two-day Afropunk festival, I have abandoned mindful eating practices, allowed people to ignore most of my social boundaries and neglected my need for eight hours of sleep every night. Instead, I have sustained myself with binge drinking, buckets of hot wings, power naps, ceaseless dancing, roaring laughter and the company of friends who never go away.

Back in the line for fries, my swollen feet have begun protesting against my tightly laced sneakers. I ignore the urge to go barefoot because the line seems to be moving. 

Every now and then we shuffle two steps forward and get closer to the intercom that will take our orders. By the 14th shuffle I take off my sneakers and resort to wearing them as slippers because I have abandoned the hope I had a few sentences ago. There’s no telling how much longer we will be here, because now we have to consider people cutting in line and others placing orders big enough for a family of seven. 

Even if we weren’t hungry enough to wait in line, we would still have to hang around McDonald’s for a while before we go home. It’s the only way we can avoid falling prey to the surging Uber prices in the early hours of the first of January. 

I’m complaining because I don’t like to go outside. On most days, I would rather stay at home where I am in control of the stimuli. But I go to music festivals because they are the only time when I can be surrounded by thousands of people in a public space and still feel secure because very little attention is aimed at me.  

Over the years, festivals have become a secular means of fellowship. At Afropunk we come together to celebrate and engage each other based on shared cultural interests in an environment that frowns on and prohibits exclusionary behaviour like homophobia, ableism, sexism, racism, transphobia and fatphobia. I also go to festivals to make meaningful connections that come with no expectations the next day. 

Earlier that evening 

One of the reasons why I decided to do both days of the festival was because both days had acts that I wanted to see. Day one had The Championship Ball (an event aimed at celebrating queerness through competitive performances) as well as DJs DBN Gogo and Batekoo. Day two featured GoldLink, Kwani Experience, Morena Leraba and closed the night with Solange

After being right in front of the crowd for Solange’s performance, a sea of pushing and shoving fans managed to move me too far back for someone my height to get a view of her on stage. By the time the band began playing the opening chords of Things I Imagined, my friends had grown tired of the congestion and opted to watch the performance from one of the festival’s pop-up bars, leaving me to fend for myself. 

I refused to give in because I had waited to see the artist perform live for two years. Solange had to postpone coming to South Africa in 2018 because her health had taken a turn for the worse. So I stayed put, readying myself to be on my tip toes for an hour and a half. 

For my phone’s camera to capture a glimpse of the headliner singing and dancing to the Almeda single from her album When I Get Home, I had to stand on my toes and stretch my arms (human tripod) out as high as they would go. Just as I managed to start recording I lost my balance and landed on the tall stranger in front of me. He turned slowly and snarled at me for a split second before flashing a comforting smile and patting me on the head. “Oh hun, you’re so short. What are you doing here?” 

After realising that I fell onto him because I was straining my body to get a shot of Solange, the tall stranger who was blocking my view, offered to swap places with me so I could see and record Solange. By the time she sang Cranes in the Sky, the tall stranger and I were crying and singing along while embracing each other like old friends who attached a shared memory to the song. 

Somewhere mid-April 2020 

I’ve tried to recall these moments during the lockdown. But playing that very same music out loud and dancing to it alone fails to have the same effect. 

With physical distancing in place, I stay in touch with the outside world through my phone — a device that I have full control over. I can turn it off, disable notifications, unfollow, block and decide not to engage with news updates if it so pleases me. 

When I’m under lockdown in my studio apartment, I get to go about my day with very little concern for the next person. If I run out of essentials, I can have them delivered to my door and my interaction with the service provider can be limited to a “hello” and “thank you”. Today I’m wearing the same pants that I wore yesterday and the day before that. I don’t know where my bras are because I haven’t worn them in so long. If I’m having a bad day no one is here to ask me if I’m okay. No one else is here to say or do anything. 

It’s unnerving knowing that I have the opportunity to practice apathy because I get to disconnect from humanity. I never thought I would look back fondly on the 72 hours that I gave to the 2019 Afropunk festival. But under the circumstances, I do. 

I miss how human the festival period made me feel. I miss compromise. Waiting in line. Sharing space. A full car. Singing out loud. Enduring the butterflies of nervousness. Uncertainty. Seeing new faces. Wearing new clothes for people to see. The buzzing sound of a hyped-up crowd. Hugging, pushing, fighting, apologising, resolving. I miss that concentrated encounter with humanity. 

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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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