Article Responce

Y in Action: Putting Style to Use

The transfigurative aspects that Sarah Nuttall identifies in the cultural expressions the Y Generation of South Africa are hopeful to anyone eager to see the country move beyond the barriers of it's history and assert it's still novel freedoms. Nuttall confronts the critics of content with a the call for focus on "circulation and transfiguration," on how styles are 'remixed' by their participants, and she acknowledge the tensions between South Africa's social ills and the middle-class, commercial environment surrounding Y culture during the period of her analysis. But by retaining her analysis within the styles of Y culture, she avoids the uses of these cultural forms in social and political arenas. To better understand it's political nature, Y culture need to be analyzed not for it's styles but for how those styles operate within South African society. Such an analysis will depict the culture as an adhesive for a community of youths whose political potential, though limited, has been activated and could very well be activated once again.

Y culture's development within a newly accessible media environment is a text book demonstration of Joshua Meyrowitz's medium theory, which posits that as information access desegregates, so do the social roles performed by individuals, thus blurring the separations between different groups and encouraging self distinction (Meyrowitz, 67). The opening up of media after apartheid certainly warrants as information desegregation, and Nuttall reports just what Meyrowitz asserts, that individual identities disassociate from the social roles of the past, such as class and race, and rather than adopting new roles, individuals associate into groupings around superficial identifiers. To put it another way, role dissolves into style under the influence of open access electronic media. As the instrument of South African social diffuseness, Y culture has a fundamentally political function.

The political function of Y culture does not operate without limitations. When Nuttall points to the transfiguative styles of Y culture, she distracts from the many restrictions on identity maintained by those styles, most significantly those restrictions around gender. The vast majority of kwaito celebrities are male, rape was rampant during the period of kwaito's emergence (McGregor, 110) and still is today, and homosexual identities are invisible. In these regards Y culture does little to challenge the dominant culture. Compared with the amateur manga movement exploding in Japan during the 80s to the mid 90s, in which gender roles were consistently transfigured (Kinsella, 117), Y gender is utterly rigid. That the amateur manga forms were ridiculed by Japanese mainstream while Y culture enjoys adoption in South African mainstream reveals the deep conflicts between alternative sexualities and dominant culture.

Kwaito's political character has been a conundrum since it's emergence in the mid 90s. While there are political contents to some lyrics, by and large the concerns are light-hearted and the house-derived music is made with a dance hall setting in mind. But it would be a mistake to assess an art's function from it's content. To understand how kwaito and the surrounding youth culture operate we must analyze how those consuming and broadcasting it put it to use. From it's inception, YFM, the celebrated radio station whose success is interwoven with that of kwaito, maintained a social stance through philanthropic outlets such as 'Positive Youths of Gauteng' and Y-Cares. It's creators used their new found presence to transform self-perceptions within Johannesburg townships, demonstrating positive values and life choices as alternatives to pervasive criminal ones, even while celebrating the aesthetics arising from that environment. YFM effectively re-associated the cultural expressions of poor South African youths to a new life style made possible with the end of apartheid. The use of the forms, not their content, is what determines their politics.

While YFM almost immediately established a strong audience, it also needed to attract investment to survive. To do this it moved to Rosebank, a hip commercial district in Northwest Johannesburg, and was followed by Loxicon Kultra and Y Mag just as the middle class youths became involved and the expressions of Nuttall's analysis emerged. This shift is a decisive moment in the Y Generation. Their styles, images, and music became mainstream and the hedonistic and glamourous elements of the culture were made pronounced through mass media. When Nuttall reported these expressions in 2004, she saw few politics, except that they took advantage of the new freedoms of self expression made possible after apartheid.

In 2008, Y culture's political possibilities became evident in anti-xenophobia protests, many of which were organized by YFM djs. These protests show the potential to politicize the culture around specific events, in this case well publicized, bigoted attacks against foreigners. The expressions of Y culture, like all cultural expressions, can be seen as adhesives that unify a community, even if around superficial styles. Here, the culture is maintaining a solidarity amongst South African youths across racial and class divisions, a solidarity that can be adopted at critical moments to political causes given tactile, motivating circumstance. The most recent protests in Johannesburg offer just such a moment, and it will be interesting to see what, if anything, the broadcasters of Y culture do to mobilize their audiences.

It is rare for a youth culture, or any culture, to be explicitly political in it's expressions, but then content is not where politics reside. The culture of Y Generation emerged from a society fractured across several divides but emboldened by the release from institutionalized prejudice. It should not be surprising that the music and styles of this culture are light-hearted, given the elation of new freedoms and the pressures of commercialism, but by delving into those instances of mobilization in it's history, Y culture's fundamental politics can be illuminated.

Works Cited:
Nuttall, Sarah. "Stylizing the Self: The Y Generation in Rosebank, Johannesburg." Public Culture. 2004; 16; 3

Meyrowitz, Joshua. “Medium Theory.” in David Crowely and David Mitchel (eds.). Communication Theory Today. Cambridge. Polity Press. 1994.

McGregor, Liz. Khabzela. Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd. Johannesburg, South Africa. 2005

Kinsella, Sharon. "Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society." University of Hawai'i Press. Honolulu, Hawai'i. 2000


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