Traditional attire shouldn't be limited to Heritage Day 'dress-up', says Sho Majozi

The rapper believes that on a lot of levels, non-white South Africans still don't feel free enough to dress in their culture's particular attire on a day-to-day basis

06 October 2019 - 00:00
Sho Madjozi usually performs in a traditional Tsonga skirt and has released her own line of Tsonga-inspired clothing.
Sho Madjozi usually performs in a traditional Tsonga skirt and has released her own line of Tsonga-inspired clothing.
Image: Tiso Blackstar

Heritage month is finally over. For a whole 30 days we got to parade around the office in our traditional attire, showing the world just how proud we are of our respective cultures.

Hell, we even had an entire Heritage Day where everyone got to dress up as a perfectly Instagramable ideal of what our cultures are supposed to look like.

But now it's over. Our beads, umbhacos, (a long traditionally Xhosa skirt) and headdresses are going to be folded and placed neatly back into our cupboards, until either the following September or the next wedding.

That's the problem with Heritage Day. For a country that speaks ad nauseum about our cultural diversity, we certainly don't seem to wear it very much in our everyday lives.

"What has always struck me is how, in Senegal or Nigeria or even Tanzania, what we would view as 'traditional attire' is just your everyday clothes for the people who live there. So if you are dressing up for Heritage Day, then who are you the rest of the time?" said award-winning rapper Sho Madjozi, who has spent periods of her life living in various parts of Africa.

Madjozi's performance of her new hit single John Cena on the popular YouTube channel Colors has garnered more than three million views since it was released a month ago and saw the American professional wrestler/actor/rapper/television presenter, John Cena, dancing to the song on The Ellen Degeneres Show.

WATCH | Sho Madjozi perform ‘John Cena’

Madjozi has built a career for herself off being unapologetically Tsonga. She can almost always be seen performing in xibelani, a colourful traditional Tsonga skirt that shakes when she dances, and has even teamed up with Edgars to release her own line of Tsonga-inspired clothing.

Madjozi believes that on a lot of levels, non-white South Africans still don't feel free enough to dress in their culture's particular attire on a day-to-day basis and that this is reinforced by our society's infrastructure. "I think it speaks to how this place (SA) isn't ours," she added.

For example, if you're male and work in a corporate environment, chances are that the dress code involves a button-up shirt and long pants. Jeans will sometimes be tolerated on a Friday. Depending on how corporate that environment is you may even need a blazer and a tie.

For most corporate landscapes pitching up at work dressed in full traditional garb would likely land you in a meeting with HR or having a quiet word in the boss's office.

There is an unspoken idea that non-Western clothing is a costume, made to be put on and performed at certain events in specific settings. Outside of that we're all required to dress "respectably".

Similar respectability politics play up when the issue of black hair comes up. The standard of what constitutes "neat" hair is very much skewed in favour of the Chads and Sarahs of this world.

There's an unspoken idea that non-Western clothing is a costume worn for specific events; the rest of the time we're all required to dress 'respectably'

"When I first started doing my dreads it wasn't cute. Now more and more people are embracing it," said Madjozi, whose stellar 2019 has seen her win a BET International Award, headline the Johannesburg leg legendary Boiler Room parties last month and will see her perform at Afropunk in Atlanta this month.

Ever since the end of apartheid we have tried, with varying degrees of success, to embrace the idea of our own Africanness and to be fair the needle is moving.

Fashion houses like Maxhosa by Laduma and musicians like Sjava, Madjozi and many others are helping reinvent what dressing in traditional SA attire looks like and the spaces in which that can happen. There is still a long way to go, however.

While it is important to note that dressing like the Africans we are need not be monolithic, there is a definite need to begin challenging the prevailing idea that it is something that should only be done on occasion. We are African every day and our society should reflect that.

An accountant or a lawyer should be just as free to arrive at work in umbhaco on a random Wednesday as they are around Heritage Day.

It makes little sense that we should be limited to only expressing our cultures at certain times and in certain spaces and as long as that is the case there will always be that nagging idea that perhaps we are less than. Besides, as pretty as they are, Western suits have been done to death.

So take a leaf out of Sho Madjozi's book and treat every day as Heritage Day because your heritage doesn't disappear as soon as October begins or the wedding ends.


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