Smart and streetwise

2009-12-20 14:00
Kwaito music underpinned the youngsters of the ’90s. Today hip-hop music and fashion have become the foundation for a melting pot of youth subcultures, writes SINETHEMBA MAKHASI.

HE strolls through the building in dark green skinny jeans and oversized reading glasses, and he completes his look with a “German” cut.

With his peculiar dress sense, ­television personality Siyabonga Ngwekazi is the perfect picture of nouveau youth – loud, tight-fitting clothing, nerdy glasses and haircuts, an in-your-face attitude and a touch of arrogance.

“The image is about knowing and establishing who you are. You cannot do any of the other things (clothes, music) without realising who you are first,” explains Ngwekazi, co-founder of the Amakipkip clothing label stemming from the local youth sub-culture of the same name.

He produces brightly coloured outfits for young people willing to co-ordinate them with items like pink jeans or lime-green T-shirts, sport a mohawk hairstyle or the Tempo/German cut and embellish the look with heavy jewellery. They are dubbed Amakipkip, a kasi (township) term referring to the multi-coloured popcorn snack sold on street corners. These youngsters are mostly from urban areas and former white-only schools.

Down in Moletsane, Soweto, Sibu “FDB” Sithole confidently poses on a chair in his back room with what seems to be a combination of no fewer than three different hairstyles on his head: a mohawk, half-beaded dreadlocks and cornrows.

In his bright-red sailor hat, Sithole could easily pass as local ’80s disco king Paul Ndlovu. The only difference is that Ndlovu’s dress sense was tamer. A set of five glow-in-the-dark rosaries and oversized glasses complete Sithole’s look.

On days when his more adventurous side kicks in, he throws in a hint of mascara and eyeshadow, although he ­insists he is heterosexual.

According to him, he is part of the Smarteez youth sub-culture which is mostly based in Soweto. This group first emerged about three years ago and is characterised by eclectic fashion and a love of the arts.

“People wear clothes to look good, but we dress to feed our souls and feel good. Men wore make-up way before women did. It’s how I express myself,” says Sithole, who insists on using FDB (f****** dirty bastard) as a surname.

“Society does not dictate to me how I should look. I make my own rules according to how I feel, including what I am: FDB ,” says Sithole, who is also a fashion designer, DJ, model and party animal for hire.

Followers of the Smarteez sub­culture hang out in places like ­SlagHuise in Soweto, reciting flowing rhymes of deep poetry and hip-hop with a twist of vernacular.

Fashion and the arts are the mediums these youths have chosen to tell their stories of life in the township.

Like Ngwekazi, Sithole and his three cronies – Floyd “Avenue” ­Manotoane, Kepi Mngomezulu and Lethabo “Litre” Tsatsinyane – have turned their lifestyle and passion ­into a brand and registered a company with the same name.

“Before the Smarteez we were ­always known for being conscious of how we looked,” points out ­Mngomezulu, who refers to himself as a “this-and-that within fashion”.

This group does not follow fashion trends; they create their own, says Tsatsinyane?– a designer, ­model, painter and stylist.
“South African fashion designers have been showing us what we do not want to be and international ­designers have been showing us what we do not want to conform to. This journey has helped us find middle ground that sets us apart from the rest,” adds Monotoane, a fashion illustrator, model and trend-setter.

Every fortnight the Smarteez hold fashion sessions on Sundays at different venues across Soweto where cult followers gather and ­exchange fashion ideas, do alterations and “smartify” their clothes over food and drinks.

Another Smartee, Zwelethemba “Hulk” Dyodo, is inspired by the dream of a better life.

“We want to live it up for once. To do something like a crazy hairstyle. Life is more than just umkhukhu elokshini (a shack in the township), but it can be a step towards a penthouse in the affluent suburbs of Sandton and Houghton.

“We want to be the Bill Gateses of the future,” he declares.

“This generation wants more. We have watched our parents suffer and don’t want to settle for less. We are trying to come out of this ‘four-four masihlalisane’ (in a taxi). We want to be free without bowing to the demands of society,” adds ­Ngwekazi.
The new breed of youth subcultures is so huge that Vuzu, a channel on DStv, created a reality show called Cream Cartel featuring four eccentric and daring youths.

“We believe the show falls within the diverse umbrella of youth culture. Choc, Mome, Guy and Abiah have different personalities, styles and attitude to life. In this way we are not only saying there is an Amakipkip or Smarteez generation, but that there are other styles of youth culture popping out too,” explains Mohube Rapodile, the supervising producer at Vuzu.

In the early ’90s, kwaito music was the genre associated with black South African youth in the post-apartheid era – complete with vernacular, pantsula dance and the uniform of khaki pants, Dickies or All-Star high tops and the omnipresent “spottie” (a floppy hat). It gave the youth of that era, who were enjoying the fruits of the liberation struggle, a medium of expression.

However, today's youngsters are influenced by hip-hop music, which was started by poor black communities in the United States as a way to express themselves in the ’70s.

“I still slaughter a sacrificial animal for my ancestors and go home. The dress sense is just a topical adornment. For individuals to be able to come out and express themselves through these elements, it takes a certain level of self-awareness,” concludes Ngwekazi.

It’s not just Amakipkip and the Smarteez...

TODAY’S youth subcultures can be a tad tricky for the outsider to understand. To be on the same wavelength here is the low-down:

The Preppies: These are the kids from the “right” side of the track who have had a privileged upbringing and education. They wear their preppiness like a badge of honour. The gang from Gossip Girl and TV’s “it” boys, Lungile Radu and the beautiful and ever immaculately dressed Sizwe Dhlomo, come to mind.

These are traditionally “popular kids” of middle to upper class families. They are concerned with extrinsic things such as popularity, physical appearance and material possessions.

Classical preps dress formally and their style is pricey – argyle sweaters or cardigans; button-down shirts in brands like Penguin, Lacoste, Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers.

Emo kids: Close to punk and rock, the Emos are known for their “deep” and brooding mannerism.

Typically Emos wear lots of black and will most likely have dyed hair (mainly black or sometimes with bright colourful streaks) and write music or poems about the trials and tribulations of their torturous lives.

The Gajin: Very similar to the Emos the Gajins are a younger version of the Smartees – complete with a flair for ­fashion, poetry, hip-hop, dance and the arts as a way of expressing themselves.?