Cape Town - It’s a warm Saturday evening at Bob’s District Six. YoungstaCPT takes the stage to emcee in the spring. Though hip-hop is a far cry from the single-reed stylings of District Six-born and bred Basil Coetzee’s saxophone, the message remains the same – each song is a story of a space contained; bursting with colour and content.
YoungstaCPT’s accent is steady and sincere. He easily escapes the Americanised twang so many home-grown rappers “impress” with. In the same way, District Six’s rebirth has managed to escape the Westernised gentrification suffered in other areas of Cape Town, such as Woodstock and Soutrivier. The drinks are cheap and the crowd is coloured. Where the elders once lived, now the youth roam free. It is as it should be. And if you pay just enough attention and stretch your ears past the bass, the emotion is audible.
There is no Star Bioscope, where musicians such as Taliep Petersen and Zayn Adam cut their teeth. Nevertheless, a new era has set the stage to reignite a hotspot for local musicians who represent a demographic of days gone by, the same demographic that, in a previous generation, drummed up protests through socially conscious lyrics.
“A fantastic city within a city,” acclaimed South African jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim once said of it.
“In the late 1950s and 1960s, when the regime clamped down, it was still a place where people could mix freely. It attracted musicians, writers [and] politicians at the forefront of the struggle … We played and everybody would be there.”
When the District died, the Cape Flats rose. And it’s here, years later, that artists such as Prophets of Da City, Black Noise and Brasse Vannie Kaap built the foundation of hip-hop in the Mother City, and set the scene for the South African rap game.
At 25 years old, it’s hard to believe that YoungstaCPT’s lyrics are a heritage site on their own. He has self-proclaimed his sound as faithfully “Kaapstad”, his language of choice: Afrikaaps, the prouder offspring of Gamtaal, a hybrid language born from tightknit multicultural communities like the District. It’s a multilingual melting pot of English, Afrikaans and Xhosa, representative of this township made of slaves from the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia as we know it today), west Africa and other areas.
The speakers of Gamtaal have always been the subjects of insult. Existentially, many of them remain burdened by the negative connotations the language held during apartheid. But the Afrikaaps movement is liberating the language from this ideological imprisonment. And, through music, artists such as YoungstaCPT are decolonising the language of the coloniser.
The declaration of District Six as a whites-only area under the Group Areas Act during apartheid resulted in the forced removal of more than 60 000 people. The area was repurposed into an eyesore of barren land, underdeveloped and flattened by bulldozers.
“It was here you must remember our children played their games/ And the skollie gangs smoked dagga, young lovers scratched their names/ These seven steps bear witness, can these stone steps forgive, the people who destroyed our homes and told us where to live?/ The children will revenge us, for better or for worse/ For they can clearly hear the steps and understand its curse/ For they too have been broken and scattered like the bricks/ The stones, cement and concrete that once was District Six.”
These emotional words, penned by Taliep Petersen and David Kramer for their hit musical District Six, were an ode to the obliteration of the sixth district of Cape Town, warmly known as Kanala-land. Its name insultingly replaced by Zonneblom, in memory of a colonial farm. The adage that was used to refer to the destroyed District seemed permanent – nothing will grow here again.
A revived shout
But it’s 51 years later and District Six finally crescendos from a post-traumatic apartheid murmur into a revived shout. The “city within a city” has been reclaimed, and it wears its original title with pride and that rare breed of earnest nostalgia.
“I’m a crazy Araby/ District Number Six/ Capetonian Malaysian.”
YoungstaCPT could not have spoken truer words in honour of the town and its people that night.
And while the signpost on Keizersgracht Street still bears the name of that old colonial farm, the corners of the suburb are once again alive with music. And people. Cape Malay people, coloured people … the land’s original people.
It’s not enough and it’s not the same. Maybe the stone steps will never forgive the people who destroyed those homes and told its inhabitants where to live, but at least the children of those families, this next generation, can scatter among the bricks in a throwback to the haven that once was District Six.