photographing the burgeoning skate punk scene of soweto

In the sea of slums where students protested for civil rights in 1976, a new youth-led counterculture is demanding the world's attention.

by Hannah Ongley
Dec 12 2016, 8:10pm

Soweto, South Africa probably isn't a place you think of as a hotbed for punk music. The impoverished mining belt border town didn't come to the world's attention until the Soweto Uprising in 1976, when thousands of black students protested the removal of their native language from high schools and helped spark the fight for civil rights. The protests erupted less than two months after the Ramones released their debut record on April 23. Both events mark their 40th anniversary this year.

The Soweto punk scene in 2016 is still microscopic — but it's fearless, full of attitude, and disrupting ideas of what it means to grow up in the South African slums in a way that might look quite familiar to those who were part of the 70s counterculture. Bringing the burgeoning punk scene to global attention is a local skate punk band which goes by the cute name The Cum In Your Face (TCIYF). The group recently toured with Thrasher as part of its "Skate Rock" Series, and are founding members of the Skate Society Soweto. This year TCIYF released a debut EP recorded entirely on a cellphone. But the band's lyrics are intensely apolitical — the Jesus symbolism in the video for "Church Wine" is purely ironic, and lyrics range from curse words to ones about buying Tupperware for their grandmothers.

Photographer Karabo Mooki has spent the last few months documenting the band's day to day life in the hood, watching Stroof (guitar), Toxic (bass), Jazz (drums), and Pule (vocals) gain respect for what they do in an environment that doesn't offer much to ambitious creative youth. We talk to Mooki about skating, smashing stereotypes, and shooting the new wave of South African music.

How did you discover the punk rock scene in Soweto?
My introduction to this movement in Soweto came through meeting members of TCIYF. Documenting the band allowed me access into their lives in their natural environment. I discovered how they violated all of society's expectations and opened up different avenues through which individuality and counterculture could be celebrated in Soweto. The band emerged from Soweto's skate scene, which had been rising and gaining swift momentum. A militia of dedicated skaters from Soweto formed a posse known as Soweto Skate Society (SSS), instilled with the same hardcore DIY ethics. The skaters are mostly eccentric artists and musicians who were born and raised in Soweto.

What is your favorite memory of documenting the band?
On a Sunday afternoon at a quaint house in Rockville, Soweto, they band was playing the final leg of an arranged tour with punk bands Half Price and FreexMoney. The wiring setup was a little sketchier than expected, and a live wire sent the bassist of Half Price into a near epileptic shock right on the floor. They cancelled their part of the show, but TCIYF decided to perform, live wire or not. At some point during the show, Stroof took a blow from a powerful volt of energy that sent him crashing into the drums and onto the floor, and yet he still managed to continue tearing up riffs on his guitar while the rest of the band revved up the crowd until the end of the song.

What is the racial climate of Soweto like in 2016 and how does it affect the township's burgeoning punk scene?
The punk rock scene in South Africa is a community that fosters love for one another. Politics are left outside once the volumes of the amps are raised and slam dancing is at full throttle. Bands like TCIYF have been very involved in unifying the disenfranchised and those that come from completely different cultural or racial backgrounds. Organizing local punk rock festivals allows bands to experience what it's like to play to a whole new audience, and exposes people to their similarities no matter their physical differences. The scene is thriving because people are seeing that punk rock is not what you wear or how you look. It's an attitude, a mindset that can be unlocked, which has led to the growth of alternative culture and the celebration of individualism within the township.

Does skating allow these kids to express themselves and break stereotypes in a similar way that punk music does?
Yeah, you can only believe it once you see it. Skating in Soweto is not easy, the conditions are less than desirable, but seeing the way that band utilizes the space and their imaginations to make the unthinkable happen is incredible. In the process they are opening the minds of ordinary inhabitants of the township to make them see that life isn't always black and white, and exposing the youth to creative outlets beyond what is expected of them.

What kind of music did young people in Soweto today grow up on? How do they discover punk bands like Misfits and The Ramones?
Typically in Soweto, it's easier to be exposed to house and hip-hop music.For kids to discover punk, it could be an accidental sort of "right place right time" scenario that leads to witnessing the carnage and the fun that roars through any a gig or punk festival at the local skate park or in Rockville. It could also be through coming across videos of Soweto Skate Society and music videos online.

TCIYF also sing about buying Tupperware for their grandmothers and mothers. What is family life like for these kids?
Members of TCIYF have a strong love and infinite respect for the women that raised them. Most of the members are fatherless kids and have been raised with more love and support than a lot of people I know who have both parents.Their grandmothers have been known to show up at shows and back them 100% through their days in the garage to touring with Thrasher Skate Rock.There's nothing but love for the women that raised them.

You said that TCIYF recorded their first EP on a cellphone. How difficult is it for young artists in Soweto to access recording equipment? What else can be done to help ambitious creative youth?
Most of the band members don't have full-time jobs and the ones that do struggle to find time to get into the studio. Studio time really isn't that affordable for most musicians in Soweto, however there are incubators for talent to be harnessed, usually provided by well-known artists. In 2016, I think it's vital for the youth to adopt such an attitude. It's not about having access to the best, but working hard at creating something profound with what you've got. It would be great if more workshops were available — I'd love to dream of government involvement in youth development programs — but the reality is that the government has no interest in cultural development amongst youth in the townships. Mentorship fellowships could definitely expose more of the underground talent that is harbored within the township too.

Are there any female punk musicians? How are young female fans involved or viewed in the scene?
There are a few fierce female musicians that have given new life to the intimate punk rock scene and taken it to new heights. The band Japan and I has really contributed to the growth of the punk scene and is just as important and highly respected as much as any male-led band. 


Text Hannah Ongley
Photography Karabo Mooki