When Solange filmed a music video in a Cape Town township

I had forgotten about American singer Solange Knowles until The Fader shared her new music video for ‘Losing You’ this week, calling it “a killer single.” The music video comes two weeks after another video by Swedish band Little Dragon surfaced on the web. Both videos were recorded in some of Cape Town’s townships. Where Little Dragon’s acoustic session is pretty dull (MTV disagrees) and the band doesn’t even seem to pretend they’re interested in their surroundings, Solange plays around, touring the unnamed township in the company of what appear to be a group of friends (whom she flew down) and an oddly out-of-place group of Sapeurs (it’s not clear whether she flew them down too). In an interview, Solange explicitly refers to the work Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni did on Sapeurs as an inspiration for the styling of the video. Tamagni is one among many photographers who swarmed to Brazzaville and Kinshasa some years ago to shoot the Congolese life-style phenomenon. (Remember the work of Héctor Mediavilla Sabaté, Baudouin Mouanda and Francesco Giusti for example.) Somehow, these kind of photo series on one and the same topic always appear to come in waves. Think also of that bulk of features on Congolese wrestling from around the same time, or in a different context, those on poor white South Africans. One photographer “discovers” a subject, others will quickly follow, and, with some delay, you’ll see the imagery start to circulate in other popular media. It’s what pop is about. (Side note: when will this grittier look on Sapeurs go viral?)

But back to the Solange’s music video. As has become custom around Africa is a Country, I decided to solicit opinion from around the “office.”

Marian Counihan: Township life has never looked so glam. In some ways it feels cheap, it’s like the (re)discovery of the ghetto — but now it’s slightly exotic, and so fresh again. Solange is a bit of a fish out of water (at some points moving like one too). But it’s a nice track, and it’s refreshing to see Africa filmed in a slightly faded pallette instead of the oversaturated one we’re used to — and it’s one that accurately conveys Cape Town’s Africa-for-Europeans feel.

Sean Jacobs: Unless Solange is making a political statement (I am being generous) about xenophobia and panafricanism (by featuring Sapeurs in a video filmed in a South African township). But we know that Cape Town was merely a stand-in. I can’t make out the mix of images and references (especially of the Sapeurs). Otherwise it looks like a series of images patched together. For the Cape Town people: It looks like it was filmed either in Langa or Philippi?

Marissa Moorman: Indeed, it’s hard not to read this as part of the “Come Film in Cape Town” trend. The Little Dragon video at least has some sonic interaction, if no physical movement around the space … but both videos just use these neighborhoods as background, as periphery ghetto chic.

Wills Glasspiegel: I like the tune, love Blood Orange. Seems like Solange should work with Boima at some point, too. The dancing looks a bit off in terms of how it was edited to the music. For some more background re: Solange and Africa, I co-shot this video that she sang on once for a project she was doing for Coke’s clean water campaign in Kenya with Chris Taylor from Grizzly Bear.

Palika Makam: Visually, the video is interesting and I enjoy it — the subdued colors, the fashion, the direction. She worked with Mickalene Thomas, a Brooklyn artist who I’ve actually interviewed for Life and Times before, a site started by Jay Z. The collaboration makes sense since it is her brother-in-law’s website. Mickalene’s work tends to have strong blaxploitation themes and specific pattern choices and color palette — all which you can see in the video. In terms of the content, the location and concept for the video make no sense and have nothing to do with the song. There’s also been some controversy over why she chose to feature those Sapeurs from Congo instead of Cape Town’s Swenkas. I don’t understand why she couldn’t disclose the location. Instead of situating the story and characters within a particular place of importance, the streets and shacks are just a representation of “Africa” or “poverty,” with no real identity.

Marissa Moorman: One of the interesting bits in the Fader interview is the fact that Solange originally wanted to film in Brazzaville but was discouraged because of the cost, ‘drawing too much attention,’ and ‘insurance issues.’ Cape Town makes it easy to film there. US citizens don’t even need visas, so boom — there they go. There is actually something called political risk and insurers have actuarials for this kind of thing. So filming this kind of video is wrapped up in a politics of stabilization — and South Africa trades repeatedly on its relatively sounder stability. And that just bugs me at some level. It disappears in all the flyness of the duds.

Neelika Jayawardane: I’ll second what Marissa said. Visa and immigration restrictions/insurance/political/other bureaucratic measures meant to roadblock life’s natural flows are the ‘real’ to which flyness often responds, with flamboyance as the jailbreak device. So denaturing or escaping the ‘real’ of the misery that such restrictions produce by replacing it with Cape Town is to remove not just the context, but to replace that symbolic space of the ‘real’ with a superficially pretty location — in fact, with a city that actively whitewashes the restrictions it places on freedom, liberty, egalité in an entirely different way. The two things that are juxtaposed here in this video — flamboyance as a response to the breakdown of human value, and Cape Town’s own set of inhuman, yet whitewashed restrictions — do not “call and respond” to each other. I think that’s why the Solange video doesn’t work on subtle levels. And once you know, the juxtaposition is quite jarring.

I’ve often thought that dandies such as the Sapeurs are not too different from their counterparts in late 19th/early 20th C Europe (not the Louis the XVIth type of dandy, who are responding to abundance and the material effluvia of Too Much; I’m referring to the effervescence of subversive gay culture circa Oscar Wilde in the late 1800s/early 1900s).

The Knowles family is known for taking the style signifiers and emptying out the context, no? So I doubt that this history and context matters to them; what sells is a flattened out landscape of signs and symbols. If it requires too much intellectual or emotional involvement, it may not be attractive to the demographic they want to reach, and therefore, not make the piles of money that videos like this usually do.

19 thoughts on “When Solange filmed a music video in a Cape Town township

  1. There’s a Haarlem Ave (the video shows a street marking) in Langa, so I think that’s where it was filmed.

    Until this post, I thought the dapper gentlemen were Swenkas, who would have also been out of place, but not quite as much.

  2. I like the video. I like that nothing has anything to do with anything. It’s kind of mismatched and off beat, like her fashion sense. It like a collage of many different ideas and imagery and I like that. It’s unexpected. It represents her fun side (hanging with friends), appreciation for what most would consider quirky fashion (the sapeurs) and her love of travelling (using a Capetown township as a backdrop). As far as using Capetown I think she just grabbed the opportunity when it came. However I do appreciate that she originally intended to do it in Congo. And I don’t think the gentlemen are out of place as such. According to articles about them that I’ve read online (their accuracy is debatable) most of these men reside in “low income areas”. In addition to that, there is a sapeur community in Cape town so whether she uses them or the swenkas is neither here nor there. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  3. Definitely Langa Township. Looks like Zone 23 but I’m not 100% sure. Also-you can see the orangish/yellow apartment blocks and the random glimpses of “The Beverly Hills of Langa” homes which are unique to the area. The first scene (ariel view of shacks), however, is probably not Langa…I’m thinking Khayelitsha?

  4. I really like Solange’s song. Unlike her sister, she has soul in her music. You should check out this video by Samoan-Australian artist, Robyn Loau for “Cry” – it was filmed in South Africa as well.

    • *____* this is even more awkward than solange’s. it’s like she’s a glowing beacon of hope to my destitute people lol. it makes me so uncomfortable. at least with solange it was supposed to be lighthearted and fun. i really like solange too though! 🙂

      • Ah! I can see that. I do love Robyn Loau, though 🙂

        That’s the thing I find interesting about Solange’s song and video. The lyrics are quite depressing, and the music seem to have this really light and bubbly melody laid over this downtempo beat. Then, it has a very happy-go-lucky video on top of it. But somehow it all works 🙂

  5. I like the video. Let’s remember this is a music video, we should take it as such and not get too carried away asking for it to be more than it actually is. I agree with Hamish that the whole set-up is charming, and I think it has an ease about it that is so likable and endearing. For Solange’s audience, this will be a side of Africa that they perhaps hadn’t even known existed, so kudos to her for opening some eyes.

    I like Solange because she appears to be ‘conscious’ about her image, dictating her own style, incorporating accents from different African influences into her look.

  6. I’m happy to see this video. There’s not a second in it in which Solange is taking advantage of an African image. The sapeurs and the rich details of the township are the stars here & Solange must talk on their terms (especially because she looks like a woman in diapers next to them). I like this kind of playful/absurd (albeit driven by visa/financial restriction) pan-Africanism.

    I sincerely believe that these images subvert the protective question: “are they doing justice to the original meaning of these symbols?” The discourse needs to move towards creating international, cutting-edge images of Africa that cannot be usurped into Western fad / only find their value in newness to a Western audience (i.e. who is given permission to create these images).

  7. very interesting and good commentary. Only I think what makes the whole thing even sadder is that what Solange and her “friends” got up to while being incidentally filmed for this video cant really even be described as “flamboyant” can it? In fact it’s very safe behaviour – whooa sitting on a bike so unstably and jumping in a pool – but .. your super expencive hairdo’s gonna get ruined!! teaching kids to behave this naughtily will make for a very compliant society who will at most ruin their expencive stuff so they can buy new stuff.

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