A Story of B-Boying in South Africa
“Shakers and Movers [were] all about creativity. It was about bringing something that is extraordinary to the dance scene. The competition was not pantsula entertainment, it was the global dance scene,” says Teboho Diphehlo, alias Tebza, of the renowned pantsula dance troupe, Intellectual Pantsula. He's talking about his first group, where he learned to sharpen his skills under the tutelage of Sthembiso Makhanya, known as Mada in dance circles.
Performance by Intellectual Pantsula at Red Bull Dance Your Style, South Africa, 2019
They’d study what the breakers, krumpers, and contemporary dancers were doing, and figure out how to mix that up with their style. Tebza’s of the view that South African dancers should follow the same model, instead of focusing solely on their scenes.
This mix of dance styles is most evident in breakdancing, which has been around in South Africa since the early eighties, when flicks such as the Charlie Ahearn production Wild Style were making in-roads into the country via VHS tapes from family members who'd spent time overseas.
The elements – breaking, emceeing, deejaying, graffiti, and knowledge of self – solidified when groups such as Prophets Of da City and Black Noise started coming to the forefront. POC's Ram1, for example, was foundational to the culture of b-boying, and inspired the next generation of dancers through his infusion of the motions made by Khoi and San people during their rituals. For instance, he found creative ways to incorporate the ‘mantis pose’ often depicted in rock art paintings with popular kung-fu moves he’d see on television. This had the overall effect of setting him apart as one of the livest dancers from South Africa. The response was immediate; people ate it up, and dancers today still hold him in high regard. Nowadays, his heart is set on unearthing talent from rural areas which mostly get overlooked when opportunities arise in the form of dance competitions and so forth.
Whatever difficulties dancers faced during those heady days were compounded by Apartheid-sanctioned policies which sought to keep citizens segregated. Black Noise's Emile YX? speaks of how those years of unrest made it impossible for him to separate his dancing from his student activism.
"Because I b-boy...the main thing about hip-hop is that you throw down. You think and then you do. Now that I'm older, we talk much more, so I want to become an MC too - you can say shit and not be held accountable. But b-boying is about whatever you're thinking, if you say something you have to do it," says Emile YX?.
He continues: "With Black Noise, a lot of what we were saying, we needed to implement, because we were getting [...] a lot of the young people growing up, protesting, had no idea of the depth of the White Supremacy within."
One could argue that the political consciousness and activism ascribed to Cape Town hip hop was a direct result of the state of affairs back then. However, the repression was countrywide, which also means that the consciousness wasn't exclusive to Cape Town hip hop. Cats were catching fumes from spraycans at the same time that they were dodging fumes from teargas in all the major metropoles.
“We would always take the train into the city centre to go battle other crews. At the time the stations and the cars were segregated based on race, and we would go to the white side of the station to battle crews there until the security and police came to chase us away. Then we would move to another part of the city centre and do it all again," says DJ Ready D, himself a POC member who started out breaking before the decks and the raps took over.
Ready D also speaks about the material differences between b-boys when he was starting out, a feature which continues to impact the scene to this day.
DJ Ready D on B-boy crew, Rap dreams and DJing | Red Bull Music Academy, 2017
As he tells Shaheen Arifdien during a Red Bull Music Academy lecture: "The white kids were the guys that had sponsorships. They had money, they were always looking good, always dressed well; their sneakers used to match their tracksuit pants, and the hair was nicely combed and all that. And we were the scruffy kids coming out of the Cape Flats. We were like 'fuck this, we've got nothing, but we've got moves."
The culture of breakdancing, and the growth spurt of hip hop culture in South Africa from the late eighties until now, can therefore be attributed to this inter-mixing of people that Apartheid was designed to prohibit. Not only were cats hanging out and battling in the streets, they were also connecting during afternoon matinees in clubs such as Club Teasers, which later became The Base; Angels; and Le Club (in Johannesburg).
This is a story of b-boying in South Africa. It begins in the early eighties through young adults who escaped conscription and went overseas, but kept in touch with their friends, to whom they'd send new music and assorted merchandise – VHS tapes, magazines, and so forth; through 'coloured' men who found jobs at the port, blue collar workers like chefs and cleaners would travel overseas where they'd get a hold of hip hop-related wares; and through inter-city travel, specifically between Johannesburg and Cape Town, that rap crews such as the aforementioned Prophets Of da City, and Brasse Vannie Kaap much later, would undertake during their tours.
Emile YX? conceptualised an annual festival called the African Hip Hop Indaba in 2001. One of the key features that audiences looked forward to, besides the emcee battles, were the one-on-one b-boy sessions. Many a b-boy got their first taste of stiff competition at the event. B-Boy Benny, a battle champion who's collected enough scars to prove his longevity in the game, is a former participant.
"African Hip Hop Indaba did a lot, because you were looking forward to it because everything was a crew battle. I started entering those battles [from the beginning]. For me, it was bringing my crew together, and just working together with other b-boys to learn from them and all that. The first time I went overseas [to conduct a series of workshops in Amsterdam] in 2001, that was through the festival," he says.
"I was actually in Azanian Flames (formerly Rocksteady Crew). That was 2003. They approached me to come and dance with them for [African Hip Hop Indaba's] Battle of the Year, and I said yeah, it's fine by me. They gave me a lot of inspiration because they came before me."
Founded in 1995 by the likes of B-boy Xavier, B-boy Elly Cat, B-boy Mervin aka white, B-boy Vouks, B-boy Banna & B-boy Donnie, Azanian Flames were one of the crews renowned for their vicious tactics, great dancers and cool moves in the dance cipher.
DJ Switch interview on Afternoon Express, South Africa, 2016
DJ Switch, who is better-known for his music production nowadays, speaks of two other crews which reigned supreme during the early 00s in an interview.
"We had two groups [that] created one super crew, Static B-Boys and 021 B-Boys. [It was] a power team in Joburg, and a power team in Cape Town coming together. Having the mentorship of guys from POC, they pioneered South African hip hop, and it was only for us to take it further. And how we use it will be to our benefit. Most people miss that part. Once you get mentored by someone, you're only copying and pasting, but the idea is to take it to the next level. For me, getting young talent right now, that's my [method of] passing down the torch," he says.
The dance community in South Africa has gone through bouts of popularity across all forms. But in a country that doesn't prize art in general, b-boys are often at odds with life's demands; the pay is too little to sustain a lifestyle, and dancing gigs come a dime a dozen. This has had the unfortunate effect of limiting the amount of breakers who have stayed in it for the long haul. But they do exist. Sponsorships offset this imbalance, and Joburg-based Courtnaé Paul, who is also a musician and reputable deejay, has the following to say: “Having the sponsors I do has been awesome. We work together, playing the role of supporter and cheerleader for each other. However, having brand affiliations doesn't just make you or guarantee you success – it all lies within your effort. I bring a unique vibe and brand to each team, as well as thrive in a more focussed market which the brands might not necessarily reach.”
Courtnae Paul interviewed on the Expresso Show, South Africa, 2019
Cross-country, in little towns such as Makhanda and major cities such as Johannesburg, b-boys like Man Like B and b-girls like Courtnaé Paul are throwing down and upholding the artform.
For Ram1 mentee, B-boy Meaty, the essence to longevity in the game lies with focus and discipline.
"Whether it be 3 times in a week, or 2 times in a week, practice is a must [in order] to stay constant," he says. "Discipline is also high up there. If you're not going to be disciplined, then it's gonna be hard for you to stay on track of what you are doing. If you practice constantly, but don't have discipline [in terms of] when to go say no to things, and you're not keeping your eyes on the prize, but you're getting distracted. Next thing you know, your time has been screwed up so much from all these distractions. You miss out on practice and boom, you're at the event. And boom, you feel like you didn't practice."
B-boy Benny parts with a word to the breakers still coming up the ranks: "Be a unity, and be humble when you lose. Don't talk shit about the competition. Ask judges why you lost [in a competition]; don't talk shit behind them. It's better to learn, that's what I teach when doing workshops. And just be you, you know?! When you're in that circle, you must express yourself. You must be free."
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021
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Tseliso Monaheng is a freelance writer, photographer and filmmaker born and raised in Maseru. He currently lives and works in Johannesburg. Tseliso studied at the University of Cape Town, where he obtained a degree in Computer Science and Information Systems. He has, for fifteen years, written on a range of topics -the majority of which centre African urban cultures - for print publications including Chimurenga Chronic, Rolling Stone (SA), City Press, the Sunday Times, The Fader (USA), Mail & Guardian, and more.