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OPINION | Dissecting the Costa Titch & cultural appropriation debate

How is it justified to celebrate the late Johnny Clegg and singer PJ Powers, but not Costa Titch?

16 October 2020 - 08:00 By chrizelda kekana
Artist Costa Titch has recently been accused of 'stealing' kasi culture.
Artist Costa Titch has recently been accused of 'stealing' kasi culture.
Image: Instagram/Costa Titch

I followed with interest the debates and discussions that were had all around me in reality and on the socials after a few tweeps accused young dancer-turned-rapper Costa Titch of cultural appropriation after a video of him dancing in amapiano style and rapping in s'Pitori went viral on the TL.

The big hoo-ha had to do with the fact that Costa Titch, whose real name is Costa Tsobanoglou, is white. The 25-year-old hails from Nelspruit and has been in the entertainment industry for a few years as a dancer but recently branched out into rap.

It is his style of rap, aesthetic and language of choice that made him the talk of the town. Costa raps in English and Pretorian dialect s'Pitori, and an additional strength is the fact that he can dance better than most people when it comes to moves created for amapiano beats and songs.

His iTunes bio describes Costa's music as a “dance-friendly iteration of hip-hop that taps into SA’s rich cultural landscape with deft flow in isiZulu, Sesotho, English and Afrikaans”.

Unfortunately for him, his skin colour has made people “evaluate” his strengths differently as there are folks who feel that Costa is stealing from a culture they claim isn't his.

Now, cultural appropriation has to do with relegating culturally important objects to “exotic” or fashionable pieces by the dominant culture. And some have argued that as the world becomes one global village, cultural appropriating will be inevitable.

For me, South Africans have a particularly tricky situation when it comes to charging “one of their own” with cultural appropriation. I say this because didn't we dub ourselves the “rainbow nation”? The country that identifies as a collective despite the diversity of cultures within in it?

How then can a person born and bred in Mzansi be accused of stealing from a culture that he's supposedly a part of?

Why is it OK for black or even coloured people to 'borrow' from western or American people ... but Costa can't dance to amapiano beats?

Look, it was simple for me when Africans charged at British musician Adele for her Bantu knots and even when they fetched Kim Kardashian-West back in 2018 for her braids - but charging Costa felt a bit more complex.

I've been here long enough to witness South Africans drag other South Africans on the TL for praising white people who speak black people's languages like isiZulu, isiXhosa, Tshivenda, XiTsonga, Sepedi, Sesotho and so on ... but I remember the argument, if white people are going to call Mzansi home, then they need to learn the languages and immerse themselves in the varied cultures of South African people.

Therefore, most people concluded at the time, we shouldn't applaud a white person for learning a language native to SA, it should be expected that they know other languages outside English and Afrikaans. In order for Mzansi to truly be a rainbow nation, everyone needed to show their efforts in truly learning and understanding the people they share home with.

That sounded like a good, logical narrative. Then came Costa - multilingual and deeply immersed in kasi culture - and it's a no from us? The same people that called for effort from abelungu? I'm confused.

I wasn't the only one confused though, because I saw people who asked, how can we accuse Costa of cultural appropriation when we hailed the late Johnny Clegg and continue to support PJ Powers' Jabulani freely.

Now I don't want to disrespect Clegg in any way, because I got his story and history first hand and can say with confidence that he was the “Zulu” guy he said he was.

I haven't spoken to PJ but I personally love that Jabulani jam, especially the remix with the late HHP.

For me these are two musicians who didn't let their skin colour limit their creative expression and they were/are — for the most part — appreciated for that very fact.

I am aware that times have changed since then. The “woke” people of this day and age scrutinise and analyse things in a different way.

I also understand that as black people, we are proudly pro-black in many aspects for the first time in years.

However, does all that mean we have to shut down people's creativity based on their skin colour? Also, if that's the case, why is it okay for black or even coloured people to “borrow” western people's language and parts of their culture, but Costa can't dance to amapiano beats?

I can understand the Focalistic comparisons, especially based on that viral video. However, with that said, Focalistic is in his own league if we're all being honest with ourselves.

And even though I am yet to personally speak to Costa, I agree with rapper Cassper Nyovest and many others that the guy is just having fun and giving us good jams.

Comedian Nina Hastie, who has also been accused of cultural appropriation in the past, worded it wonderfully for me in an interview three years ago.

Nina said: “I feel like cultural appropriation takes place when people who are not invested or actively engaged in a culture use its elements to make profit. And that is not where I am coming from. I'm not a visitor in this country, using its culture, traditions and heritage for my own financial benefit then going back to where I come from. Instead, I am actively participating in learning and understanding these cultures.”

Truth is one can only accuse Costa of “stealing the culture” if you fundamentally believe he's a “visitor” in SA and not a citizen. But SA is Costa's home - maybe not his ancestors' home, but definitely his home.

Therefore, unless it becomes clear that Costa is using kasi culture for the fame, money and fortune only, the guy must just be left alone!