The author examines how Black youth in post-apartheid South Africa imagine freedom under tremendous systems of constraint.
“What I wanted to get at in this book is the political value of multiple forms of excess and exuberance.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Xavier Livermon. Livermon is Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. His book is Kwaito Bodies: Remastering Space and Subjectivity in Post-Apartheid South Africa.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Xavier Livermon: Kwaito Bodies argues that the domain of the political can be found sometimes in unexpected and unorthodox places. Primarily, I suggest that the cultural practices that Black South African youth developed post-apartheid gives us an important glimpse into both the possibilities and limitations of South Africa’s political transition from apartheid. I am interested in how Black youth in South Africa imagined freedom under tremendous systems of constraint. How might those imaginations of freedom inform our understanding of what vernacular discourses consider to be possible and what they frame as outside possibility? Specifically, I consider how popular cultural practices both reflect the sociopolitical situation of South Africa but also imagine futures that have not yet arrived.
Part of the challenge of examining popular cultural practices often lies in their connection with the culture industries. In Kwaito Bodies, I argue fiercely for thinking about what emerges despite what might appear at first glance to be nothing more than another example of the ways the market cannibalizes vernacular Black cultures. To do so, I look very closely at how Black youth (particularly Black queer youth) engaged the gendered and sexuality politics that emerged from within kwaito music. It is my assertion that these gender and sexuality politics provided a space for rethinking and reimagining the project that is post-apartheid South Africa. In essence, they forced a close examination of the continuities between the apartheid state and the post-apartheid state whereby one set of violent heteropatriarchies were seemingly simply augmented by another. Lastly, I think this project speaks to the dangers, limitations, and in some cases joys of forms of national recognition, particularly within the framework of a majority Black nation on the African continent. What does this incorporation in the “new” South Africa actually mean for the majority Black population?
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I would say two things. One, not to discount the potential for radical or even possibly revolutionary practices among the youth, particularly when youth cultures seem to simply mimic neoliberalism at first glance. Doing so, however, requires that we take seriously the things that have meaning to young people and the cultural expressions they constantly create and recreate. In my study, I had to repeatedly encounter those who dismissed any possibility of a critical politics embedded in kwaito. I understood that impulse, but I was often worried over what it meant to summarily dismiss the Black youth of South Africa as uninterested in political futures and completely enamored of and captured by global capital. What did it mean to describe them as lost and irredeemable? And what did describing them in those terms mean for the kind of leadership and framework that the previous generations of Black cultural producers had bequeathed?
Secondly, that joy, celebration, excess, hedonism, and exuberance are all important political impulses that can inform activist and community organizing work. Of course, this is not anything new as many important theorists of community organizing have reminded us of this. But, part of what I wanted to get at in this book is the political value of multiple forms of excess and exuberance. As I did my research, it felt that so much of what South African youth were being critiqued about was this sense that they had upset balances of decorum on the one hand, and had descended into conspicuous materiality on the other. I wanted to think about excess (and its corollaries) outside this binary and imagine what kind of critical work it might allow. How might we tap into the impulses and energy of exuberance and channel it into more livable futures? Hence, I ask activists and community organizers to engage the full spectrum of youth popular cultures (not just those aspects of it that fit our framework for radical politics). Some of these popular cultures might seem distasteful, one might strain to find any kernel of possibility embedded in them. But, if we are serious about liberatory futures it seems to me we do a disservice to not engage these cultures seriously and see the potential within them, even if, perhaps even especially if, their primary purpose is the provision of pleasure.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I think I would encourage readers to unlearn the idea that politics needs to look a certain way and be manifested in particular performances or gestures to be legitimate. I think I would also add that the relationship that we imagine between popular culture and politics (perhaps that could be rephrased more broadly as aesthetics and politics) cannot necessarily rely solely on a traditionally Marxist cultural studies model. Popular culture doesn’t just reflect the societal relations, it is also not simply a coping mechanism for societal inequality, or a distraction from the “real” work of liberation. Of course it can be those things, but it can also be so much more and I hope that people will see that in my work.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I think there are so many but in general I am inspired by the work of Black Feminists/Womanists and Black Queer scholars. They make my work possible, they did the hard work of opening the academy to the kinds of inquiries that I take for granted. People like Audre Lorde, whose concept of the erotic informs the joy that I found in kwaito. Barbara Christian who taught me that Black people have always theorized, even if the ways we do so are often unintelligible to the academy. E. Patrick Johnson who taught me how to find value in the vernacular wisdom of everyday people. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones who reminded me that research, writing, and scholarship are embodied acts that require vulnerability and humility on the part of the scholar. Stuart Hall, who showed me how I might analyze Black popular culture in the most expansive ways. Keguro Macharia, who showed me how to imagine political futures not tethered to the state and informed by a truly global Black theorizing. And the kwaito artists and fans themselves, in particular the late Lebo Mathosa who showed me that there was so much more to understanding popular music and performance than what could be found in my library. Of course, I can imagine that if all of them were alive and able to read this book they might find portions of it they would disagree with, but I would like to also think they would see a little of themselves, their thought, their politics, their intellectual and community investments represented in the book.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
I conclude the book by revisiting the idea of political futures. I am interested in what popular music and performance cultures ultimately can show us about alternative political futures. What I think popular culture shows is to look more expansively about where we might find our scripts for imagining political futures and hopefully freedoms. I think that we need to imagine new worlds that are not so invested in the state and state led (and controlled) versions of political futures and freedom. Let me be clear, I completely understand that the State and appeals to it may be a necessary step in processes toward something else that might look more like freedom. And I am not proposing a cynical “the state doesn’t matter” politics. Instead, what I am concerned by particularly on the African continent but also across the Black world is the way in which perhaps we have ceded our imagination to the State, and ideas of political futures (which to be clear are often not aligned with ideas of freedom) are controlled by and held within the state either predominantly or in some cases solely. While this is not a book of political theory, I do think that we can perhaps go back to our thinkers in all guises (and of course here I am interested in these ways of thinking as they emerge through popular music and performance as a kind of alternative political theory) to see how they imagined political futures in which the State was not necessarily the end goal, nor the primary or sole arbiter in the ways we imagined our futures and our freedoms.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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