You’ve seen those ads. Probably enjoyed them too before some other woke vlogger or other party-pooper comes along, knives out, bursting your bubble of joy and instilling all sorts of feelings of shame & guilt & embarrassment, just for innocently enjoying a piece of South African creativity. I say innocently because whatever triggers your fist reaction, the natural one is instinct. That’s right before logic comes in to undermine your emotional connectivity and intelligence. The dreaded “dancing” ads. In punting some product or other, whether related to entertainment or not, inevitably this commercial will have people dancing the ad away. Black people. Sometimes young, or at least youthful, but dance they do, at some point in the ad or other. And shortly thereafter, the criticism. Big deal!
Now before you go off foaming in the mouth crying “Fellow South Africans…” hear me out. Sure, we’ve come a long way from the Jim Crow happy-clappy Uncle Sam klaats with condescending vibes. And we’ve probably cringed. But we’ve also enjoyed a few, especially well-done, with a relevant insight beyond that lazy, ignorant façade of a copout called “trends”. Even with or without research, truth is, Black folks, do dance and love it. And in fact not just Black folks, but yeah definitely Black folks, for starters.
In his seminal bible of essays “I Write What I Like”, Steve Biko goes to great lengths unpacking what it means to be African. “Black Consciousness is an attitude of the mind and a way of life”, he pens. “The most positive call to emanate from the black world for a long time”. Art in the African worldview is, therefore, an integral part of the culture as a way of living, but also a divine gift. Most self-taught African artists like Dr Esther Mahlangu no less, always explain their processes in a rather simplistic, “unacademic” style. They speak of getting inspiration from dreams, or ancestral spirits. And that’s enough to trigger a strong personal urge to reflect the zeitgeist through their talents. A difficult process to understand nor appreciate, especially if you are not a creative.
“Oh but everybody is a creative”.
I don’t mean those everybodies, because even the floodgates opened by today’s social media have shown that while anyone can be creative, not everyone can be a creative. There’ll always be the chosen ones; the real, professional creatives who invest their minds, bodies & soul into every piece of work, warts and all. Sometimes things work out good, sometimes they bomb spectacularly. Either way, none other than a creative professional knows that it takes the same amount of effort to fail as it does to succeed. They’re called pitched, and they can go either way. Hence the humility and unspoken code of honour, whereby you will never come across a former/current creative becoming a professional critic of creative works.
Hardly a single film, music or book critic is themself ever an accomplished creative of any sort, in their own right. It’s this parasitic relationship with the glorious creatives, the divine messengers, healers & counsellors; that made them miss that memo (Code) on decorum.
A true creative knows to respect the amount of heart that goes into every single precious baby (aka work). Simply crushing such unparalleled passion with ill-considered, toxic broad strokes doused in flamey vitriol, without acknowledging the effort is as unforgivable and inconsequential as misplaced jealousy. It has no consequence and seeks to benefit no one in particular who’s not even in the race, but their own sense of self-importance. Next thing, big unnecessary wedges between creatives and the rest of the world. Clients, agency strategists & client service people who never fight for nor support their divine creatives better recognize.
The truth is, Black peoples dance. Whether in mourning, working the fields, or celebrating weddings, there is always a song to accompany the occasion; either to make light of the sorrow or heavy toil of Azania’s fields & mines; or just to cheer a nervous soldier about to go to war (usually a fighters protest march in downtown Jozi). The right song will get you into the right mood. Hell, just look at all your memes & social media vibes to see how (South) Africans in particular love to dance, or turn anything into song.
Remember when we first heard of Corona virus, amidst the fears and the angst, videos went viral of young South Africans dancing and grooving to an impromptu chorus of “Coroona! Coroona!”, haka matorikisi & all. For the most scariest time yet, it was reassuringly brave, disarming and beautiful. Chart-topper hits and social media challenges later, the dreaded Covid era has been normalized, just like that.
It can’t be the dancing that’s at fault. Indeed, some of the best award-winning ads depict a spectacular dance routine or two, no matter how incidental it may seem. That’s not to say creatives never criticize each other, nor condemn sub-par creativity whenever it pops up. In fact the opposite couldn’t be farther from the truth because creatives are the most savage critics of their own (and peers’) work. Without no “outsider” to help them. But unless you’re in those whatsapp groups, or rendezvous at FB hangouts like “AmaCreatives Africa” or “How To Advertise To Black People”, you may never know. Ever. Because you’re probably not a creative yourself. So, rest!
Any jury panelist at any awards show will gladly tell you about how bad ads get ripped apart with brutal honesty. And still, lots of love & respect in the mix. Afterall it’s never personal, but always about the work. So what, if you’re offended?
The only question that matters at jury panels is this: Is This The Best Ad Ever for… say, Boko Haram? Or AfriForum? Trump? (Ok, maybe BokoHaram is pushing it, yet it rhymes conspiracy-theory nicely with AfriForum. The point is, the criticism from creative peers is usually from a healthy, genuine place that seeks to protect, maintain & promote the integrity of the industry, while also acknowledging the efforts put in by the creatives. No condescending tones. No hero-talk.
In fact, no brown-nosing either. Just a well-meant, balanced, sportsmanlike “fuck you” right back at you. Nicely. They call it “insider banter”. Hard to fathom, but makes a world of difference during reviews. Much like there is nothing wrong with any ‘foreign’ music genres, there’s just good songs and bad songs. Period. Ditto, ads.
Life is tough enough. To expect every single ad aimed at Blacks to carry heavy reflective subjects like apartheid, HIV Aids, or crime, is really short-sighted, self-indulgent and in fact a veiled Afro-pessimism from non-believers, “projectors”. They’re truly mistaken to even think poor people are miserable all the time. Poor, disenfranchised people dance throughout their poverty and oppression.
The ability to make light of “serious” tragedies like COVID-19, lockdowns or even death; to merely exhale in jest or disbelief using humour and dance without trivializing their gravity, is probably the most South African of South Africanisms ever. We whine, cry, toyi-toyi, & hashtag. & then sooner or later, we dance. (#Aftertears.) So no unworthy critic must come extinguish the fires within, just because they are without. Klout is snobbish brattitude and parasitic. Afterall, wena wenzeni? (What have you done?) Much like Mzansi, creatives must neither heed nor make time for self-proclaimed Messiahs & Deputy-Jesuses. Followed far by lawyers, the creatives are the chosen ones!
PS: Having said that, a skeptic South Africa is hereby encouraged to embrace any or one of the impending, error-prone vaccines; through the “Vaccine Song and Dance” tactic. Ball in your court. Careful now! 😉
- Gen. Gonzalez (Illustrator, Africa & Middle East)