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The Misunderstood Farmer Boy

With his project Gazelle [1], Xander Ferreira [2] aims to show the diversity of cultures in South Africa, and to translate the political strategies of African dictators to the world of pop music. Ferreira is white, which became an issue. An article from the Norient book Seismographic Sounds (see and order here [3]).

Gazelle Album Cover «Chic Afrique» (2011)

[Thomas Burkhalter]: In January 2015 South Africa’s leading newspaper The Mail & Guardian accused you of cultural appropriation, [1] [4] alongside white South African artists Die Antwoord [5], Black Noise, and Jack Parow. [2] [6] What was your reaction?
[Xander Ferreira]: I never felt so misunderstood before. With Gazelle, my aim was always to bridge gaps between different South African cultures and to make social commentary through that. This journalist asked in our interview why I was using African aesthetics in my music and imaginary. I was so offended. Am I not African because I’m white? For ten generations my family has lived in South Africa. I grew up in a very rural part, on the border to Mozambique. The majority of people around me were Sotho. I lived with their culture. If someone of Chinese descent is born in Germany and speaks German, are they Chinese or German? Am I European? Then provide me with a Portuguese, Danish, and British passport and rights, please.

[TB]: You shot your video «Die Verlore Seun» (The Lost Son) on a farm. Is this were you grew up?
[XF]: Yes, this video is my story of breaking free from unspoken restrictions. It was filmed on my parents’ farm with people who work there and who I know well. People ignore that when making statements like that journalist. Others have expressed the same criticism, too. They might at least take into account my ambition and mission: to celebrate the diversity of cultures in our nation. Too many people here create ownership and entitlement: this is ours, that is yours, don’t touch ours. If you live in a democratic society and amongst many cultures, celebrating diversity is the only solution for peace. Segregation creates misunderstanding and conflict.

[TB]: Can anyone mix markers of cultures freely?
[XF]: Just downloading foreign sounds from the Internet and mixing them together is not enough; and taking from someone else without giving back is always exploitation in some way. Personally, I feel that we should be in contact with the culture we remix, at best submersed in it. Like Johan from the London-based group The Very Best [7] and Radioclit. He went back to Malawi year after year, and he lives there now to record his new album. There is a fine line between exploiting cultures and embracing and celebrating them. It was funny. The day that article was on the cover of The Mail & Guardian we were rehearsing for our last Gazelle show ever — fourteen South African musicians from all different cultural backgrounds. Was our effort, time, and passion to celebrate diversity so negative?

[TB]: Is the amount of income a project generates a criteria? What about Paul Simons’ album Graceland [8] (1986) that he recorded with the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo?
[XF]: Whenever there is success and money, there’s more criticism. People will be quick to judge. Some see Paul Simon negatively. I believe that because Graceland was one of the most popular records worldwide it helped people enjoy and celebrate South African traditional music until this day. It is about intention, sincerity, and fairness. Is it your intention to make profit? Do you aim to create value for people involved in your project? Are you creating value for the culture you are celebrating?

[TB]: How did you create value for the farmers involved in «Die Verlore Seun»?
[XF]: It was about showing the human and joyful side of a group of people that are otherwise looked down upon in society. These people are my family; I show our home in this video. As I didn’t have a budget for the project and filmed with a camera and a tripod only, I tried to at least be creative in giving the people involved something back. One farmer’s biggest dream was to be on TV, which we realized through the video. I further convinced my father to give people the day off. This might not be much, and, yes, I got a lot of criticism for that video: that I’m exploiting these farmers, or that I can’t show African people working on a farm. People can take something negative out of anything, and people can take something positive out of anything. That is what it comes down to.

[TB]: Gazelle has an exotic look: you wear a leopard hat, and your partner Nick Matthews wears a mask and a Basotho hat (see image above). Aren’t these just cultural clichés?
[XF]: Gazelle was conceptual art before it was music. I had been a photographer and I wanted to create an art project through which I could speak my mind. It became an intensive study on the relationship between socio-political behavior and modern day marketing. I studied the three African dictators Idi Amin, Mobutu Sese Seko, and Muammar al-Gaddafi, and I tried to understand how they convince people to believe in them. I asked myself why we always end up with bad leaders. I researched all the different steps and strategies these dictators took to become that powerful. This led to the publication of my book The Status of Greatness [9]. Then I wanted to see what would happen if I copied these steps and strategies, but through the use of pop music. So, I created this persona Gazelle. I commissioned someone to paint a massive oil portrait of Gazelle from a painting factory in China to establish the character. I made a poster out of it and hung it everywhere in Capetown. I started working with repetition: always wearing the same clothes, always using the same picture in media, trying to create recognition and find followers.

[TB]: So what I saw as an «exotic look» is in reality a play with dictatorship «culture.» This might indicate how difficult judging is whenever elements from foreign cultures are involved. Should critics read liner notes, an artists’ biography, and other info before they publish?
[XF]: Basically, art should speak for itself. You can start a discussion whenever the critiques are negative.

[TB]: What is your opinion on the concept of exotica?
[XF]: I’m careful with it these days. Exotica started to have a negative connotation, associated with exploitation and appropriation, which is unfortunate because I think exotic is a beautiful word. Exotic means the unknown. We’re stimulated when we see something foreign or alien. Amazing architecture, visionary construction, food that you have not tasted before, or new, unfamiliar, sensational sounds. Exotica inspires new things to be born within yourself.

The interview was conducted via Skype, 22.4.2015. This text was published first in the second Norient book Seismographic Sounds [10].

References

[1] The term «cultural appropriation» came into use again in recent years. It means the adoption of elements of a culture by members of another culture. Privileged, white mainstream pop stars that create a new image and sound based on stereotypical elements from another cultural context became one classic example. Critics of this debate argue: cultures are not closed and pure entities, and popular culture has always benefitted from inclusion of «foreign» cultural elements.

[2] Stefanie Jason: «Blackface, White Guilt, Grey Area» in: The Mail & Guardian, 22.1.2015.