Our fine young nerds

07 February 2013 - 02:41 By Pearl Boshomane
Moose Zulu, posing as a hipster, on the roof of trendy Main Street Life, in Johannesburg Picture and illustration: LAUREN MULLIGAN
Moose Zulu, posing as a hipster, on the roof of trendy Main Street Life, in Johannesburg Picture and illustration: LAUREN MULLIGAN

It costs a lot of money to look that poor, said a colleague when I told her I was writing an article about Joburg hipsters.

She had hit the hipster nail on the head: hipsters are anti-consumerist, but their clothes can be quite pricey; black hipsters refuse to be defined by their blackness and most shun the "hipster" tag because they believe they defy the pack mentality - even though they tend to favour the same Woody Allen glasses and hang out at the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein at weekends.

Hipsterdom has long been associated with posh white youth but increasingly young black urbanites are joining this growing community.

Apart from the nerd glasses, you can tell a hipster by the rumpled vintage outfits that give them that "must have just rolled out of bed" look, the MacBook under their arm and the ironic expression on their face as they down a cheap beer.

Of black hipsters, Litha Gogela, 28, observes: "They can probably afford to party in Sandton but they'd rather do it in town. They could live in Rosebank but they choose gentrified Braamfontein. They can afford more expensive beers but drink Black Label."

Gogela, an ad scheduler for a TV company, shuns the hipster label, though he's been involved with the sub-culture since he was a teenager. For him, it's about living outside any box.

"In my head, hipsters are people who kind of like things ironically," he said.

Black hipsters don't want to be stereotyped as mainstream black youth with a capital B, listening only to hip-hop, kwaito or house. They believe the colour of their skin shouldn't determine how they dress, where they hang out or what they read.

Sure, Chika Onyeani's Capitalist Nigger is great, but they'd rather read Noam Chomsky. Playing soccer in school was fun, but they preferred being part of the art club.

"It's about searching for everything that's not black," said Zanga Siyolo, a 27-year-old auditor. "Everyone is looking for that one thing that will make them stand out."

Black hipsters aren't ashamed of their skin colour - they simply refuse to be boxed in by it. If they had a motto, it would be: "I am more than the colour of my skin."

Typically, black hipsters grew up in middle-class homes and went to suburban schools. In a way, they are the 21st-century hippies brought together by their liberal views, anti-consumerism beliefs and love of cool music.

Friends Siyolo and Gogela met at high school in Port Elizabeth. By their own reckoning, they weren't the cool guys.

"We were nerdy by design," said Siyolo, citing filmmaker Woody Allen as an early inspiration.

Allen's awkward, neurotic persona resonated with Gogela and Siyolo, and the director's trademark black-rimmed glasses have become a hipster staple.

"The first time I saw those glasses was on Woody Allen," said Siyolo.

Gogela said: "I didn't look cool [at high school]. I had to find other ways to make myself interesting so I read, sought out new music and watched [indie] movies."

Nu-metal bands such as Linkin Park and Staind gave way to indie rock and existentialist literature.

Gogela said his need to be different was also driven by a yearning to fit in with the only people he felt would understand him.

"A huge part of me wanted to be accepted by whites. I don't think I fell into these things by accident; I knew what and how I wanted to be and I became that."

For Siyolo it was not a conscious decision but he admits that his taste in music is far removed from what he was exposed to when he was growing up.

"I had to go looking for the music I liked," he said. "It wasn't music I used to hear at home on a Sunday afternoon."

"Coconut", the age-old insult for the black non-conformist, is a label black hipsters have been forced to contend with among their peers.

As Siyolo says of some of his co-workers: "It's almost like they're wondering, 'What kind of black are you?'"

One of the reasons for places such as Arts on Main and Braamfontein being such hipster hotspots is that they're places of belonging. The dingy bars, markets, vintage stalls and hip eateries are a magnet for the alternative cool kids.

"It's the same thing that draws suits to the Baron [in Sandton] - it's to be around people who look like you," said Gogela.

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