Xavier Livermon

Kwaito Bodies: Remastering Space and Subjectivity in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Duke University Press, 2020

288 pages


Reviewed by Debjyoti Ghosh, PhD

Xavier Livermon’s immersive ethnographic engagement with South Africa took years to put together. Livermon sees Kwaito as an alternative site of political engagement. For the uninitiated, Kwaito is a musical genre that came about in post-apartheid South Africa. The genre began in the 1990s in Soweto, a place remembered globally for the 1976 uprising of Black students. Livermon uses the socio-cultural placement of Kwaito to challenge the apolitical positioning of the “Rainbow nation”—a hub of multiculturalism (originally coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the fall of apartheid). While apartheid has been dismantled on paper, the equitable distribution of resources is still a far cry from reality. Through his interviews and personal experiences, Livermon surmised: “Kwaito facilitates alternative performances for Black bodies as it contests the constraints of geography, race, class, gender, and sexuality as they are produced through South Africa’s post-apartheid transition.”

As an African American, Livermon’s lived experiences in South Africa are very enriching for the reader. As a Black person, he gains a certain insider-ness, yet his American identity causes confusion for the authorities as well as for the people he is engaging with, casting him as an undesirable outsider. Immersing himself within the racial subjectivities of South Africa allows him a unique space of duality that he uses to examine Kwaito as an ongoing experience.

For Livermon, Kwaito becomes a site of both production and consumption. He departs from looking at Kwaito culture as just a site of Black consumerism and instead looks at it from a political standpoint and as the voice of the Black youth. He uses Black feminist and Black queer and performance studies frameworks to look at Kwaito, its emergence, its evolution, and the political voice within. He also uses Black diaspora studies to understand the confluence of cultures and styles within the Kwaito musical framework.

By looking at Kwaito as a cultural formation, Livermon moves away from looking at it just as music. Through six chapters, Livermon investigates several Kwaito artists and their embodiment of gender and sexuality as well as their embodiment of politics within particular spaces – from townships to national platforms. He focuses on different controversies that emerged with Kwaito songs and Kwaito singers, including Boom Shaka, as demonstrated below. He engages additional performance styles such as pantsula,used by the Kwaito youth, that was also born in the townships of South Africa but has moved beyond these borders. One of the most important aspects of Livermon’s work is looking at Kwaito as an Afrodiasporic space—a conceptual category that is “inhabited not only by those who have migrated and their descendants, but equally by those who are constructed and represented as indigenous.”

Livermon uses his own encounters with the local population of Johannesburg and the townships to bring to life the lived experiences of his Black friends. They connect and identify with Kwaito artists who are disruptive of middle-class morality, such as Lebo Mathosa and FAKA. At the same time, they yearn, they desire, they aspire to occupy and inhabit certain spaces—even if temporarily—that emblematize the wealth that has become a necessity to create a site of belonging and social acceptance. Unlike many white South Africans, the Black communities do not have generational wealth to exercise social mobility.

Through the lens of Kwaito bodies, Livermon successfully navigates different aspects of nostalgia, belongingness, and desire. He looks at the promises of the new post-apartheid government and the way the youth take the memorialization of the past and make it their own present. Livermon uses Kwaito as a springboard to look at how spaces that embrace the highly gendered aspects of Kwaito are also spaces for different gender and sexuality expressions. Looking at Kwaito from the consumption point of view, Livermon charts the desire of the Black youth to disassociate from their often-impoverished backgrounds and escape into a different reality through music. This eagerness to escape takes on a literal form through dances such as the pantsula, whichhas made its way beyond the townships, the borders of South Africa, as well as the African continent. This migration of dance style is associated with the circulation of labor in Southern Africa. Yet, even Beyoncé using it in her video and documenting her connection with the pantsulagroup Tofo Tofo as if they had been ‘discovered’ in deepest darkest Africa feeds into a neo-colonial trope. They were actually based in Maputo, the multicultural capital of Mozambique, and their video was ‘discovered’ on YouTube. However, at the end of the day, pantsula was given an international platform and thus a kind of acceptance by a global north Black woman. In contrast, Kwaito is being relegated to a negative space by the conservatives of the country it was born in.

“Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” is the national anthem of South Africa today, but originally it was a Black anthem. Livermon uses this anthem as the perfect example of taking an emblem of rebellion and mainstreaming it with state-sanctioned approval and sanitization. Thus, it became a site of mainstream anxiety when the band Boom Shaka performed it on stage. Reclaimed by the Kwaito youth on the national stage through their moves and their beats, it was seen by many as a defilement of the national memory of pain. With their sensual movements, gyrating to the beats of the band, Boom Shaka’s “Nkosi” is simply one example of how Kwaito bodies cannot be contained by the national script of Black heteropatriarchal redemption. The performance is also the perfect Afrodiasporic landscape because Boom Shaka borrowed not just from their South African roots but also from Jamaican and Congolese dances, which, for the conservative nationalists, made it un-South African.

Livermon dwells on what the youths’ bodies signify within the Kwaito performativities: to tread on waters that are frowned upon, to engage their bodies in a sexual and sensual mode, to codify their own freedoms. Indeed, as Livermon states, Kwaito breaks the boundaries for the youth from townships and jars them into the public consciousness of the entire country. The destruction of apartheid was supposed to render the body free, especially for the poor, the disenfranchised, the disadvantaged, women, the queer population. Instead, the nation carries on with few changes. The constitutional promises are yet to be fulfilled, and with Kwaito, the youth keep asking, can we dance to our freedoms the way we want to? Can we own our bodies and embrace them with our bodies and absorb them into our systems? Can we claim/reclaim the spaces that were promised to us after the fall of apartheid? Can we get the freedom we were promised?

Kwaito movements challenge the ungainly, fractured politics of South Africa by threatening the conservative values that the apartheid past has allowed to seep into the new system. Livermon’s work comes at a time when the country has been shaken up by political scandal and the band-aids on poverty have been ripped off through COVID-19. Using Kwaito as a signifier, Livermon successfully ties together twenty years of musical growth with politics and shows how the body itself remains political within the South African framework.