On most Friday nights Roger Young can be found behind the decks at Hectic on Hope. It’s a real dive bar – pool tables, cheesy disco lights and fans (not air-conditioning) blowing onto the dance floor. On Fridays, this joint, complete with bar attendants who look constantly pissed off and act as if they’ve never seen your face before in spite of the fact that you are always there, is transformed into Evol.
INTERVIEW: SANDISO NGUBANE
PHOTOGRAPHY: HAYDEN PHIPPS (Portrait)
PHOTOGRAPHY: LOUCAS POLYDOROU (On set)
It’s the kind of party where almost everyone is either a creative of some kind or an art kid from Michaelis, UCT’s art school. It’s a gathering of Cape Town’s hipsters, but don’t let anyone hear you say that out loud! Basically, everyone kind of, sort of knows everyone there.
The party tends to find its groove in the early hours of Saturday morning, way after the kids have had a fair dose of alcohol, MDMA or whatever it is they get off on. Young, who for the purposes of this party, goes by the DJ Kak Emotional moniker, can often be seen sweating away behind the decks and you’re almost guaranteed to spot him ducking under the box between tracks, definitely up to no good.
At 42 years old, Young has not yet pulled the plug on the fun. Most people his age, he says, imagine that he has this glamourous life and, on every other night, has a young hipster lay sucking him off while he snorts a line off her youthful, plump breasts.
Oh, how he’d love that, but that’s not quite how it is, he claims.
“Somebody recently called me the Hipster King”, Young laughs as we speak about his larger-than-life persona over beers at the Kimberley Hotel, a Cape Town watering hole he frequents. “Firstly who still uses that word? And secondly, I’m not fucking every twenty-year old “hipster” girl, you know. I go to a place like Yours Truly and mostly I get ignored. A lot of that stuff is like, people my age, who have settled down and stopped partying and they see me hanging out with young people and writing about it and they assume…… I dunno.”
“People of my generation, specifically, think I’m constantly jolly and happy that I’ve acquired some sort of celebrity status. It’s weird. I’m a writer, not a celebrity. Like I go out and I am surrounded by a lot of much younger people, I dunno, the people I hang out with are my friends, they’re not fodder, they’re not disposable. And as much as they are often my inspiration, I’m sure some of them think I’m a bit gross.”
He adds that South Africans in general have this “Calvinistic” outlook where it is generally accepted that, at a certain age, one must move to the suburbs, get married and wait to die. “Because I haven’t done that, there’s this perception that there’s this other magic whereas, in fact, my life has it’s own banality. I’m this guy who goes out drinking, dancing, having fun and I enjoy it. I just chose to carry on enjoying culture as it happens. That’s it.”
Young’s party reputation is nothing new. From selling drugs in the early nineties to living on the streets of Hillbrow, Johannesburg, and even robbing people, reading through his as yet unpublished memoirs, you get the sense of someone who has been there, done that, got the tee but continues to wear it, albeit in a different and perhaps slightly better, if not far less hectic manner. You’d have to be a real fuck up not to pick yourself up and try to do things differently had you been through eight years of homelessness in the middle of Hillbrow, losing a career and watching life pass you by, losing friends and having one helluva heroin addiction.
It begins after high school when Young left Durban, his hometown, against his father’s wishes. He finds himself in Cape Town looking to study photography, but that didn’t last very long. “I had a choice which was to either find something else to study or go to the army and I wasn’t going to fucking do that so I found a shitty film school in Cape Town.”
“There was this huge burgeoning house music scene that was kind of in the middle ground between what ERA and Caprice is now: that sort of young, rich white people, Jewish or from London or whatever. And with that was an underage kind of scene and there was this club in Green Point, which was my point of entry and there was with girl…”
Young fell badly for this girl, who he wishes to keep anonymous (“Could you imagine how annoying it would be for her to read this?”), so badly that he eventually got a forever mark- a tattoo- dedicated to her, inked on his right arm. “We eventually had a bit of a teenage romance but she had to move to London. I wanted to go with her but didn’t have any money. My parents were fairly wealthy but there was no money coming from them. My mom would sneak me some at times but from my dad- not a chance!”
His father, Young adds, wanted him to become a builder and take over the family business. That was never going to fly. Desperate to get to London and have his fairytale love story he figured the easiest and quickest way to make money in order to get there was through selling drugs. “I found this guy, a body builder, who knew people who brought in MDMA. I sold that and took a lot of acid for like six months”. But the London dream fizzled out as quickly as it had bloomed.
Joburg would happen soon thereafter. In Yeoville in the early 90s, Young would find himself in the midst of a ‘Democratic Utopia’, a place where “the dream had been realized” and where people of all races had been living side by side for quite some time. It was shortly before the country itself became democratic and the sense of freedom, of liberation, was palpable.
“There was a sense of freedom about Yeoville that hadn’t spread to the rest of South Africa, and with that came a special level of celebration. No one was going to arrest us because the cops had no clue what was going on. There was this sudden influx of drugs, black and white people were suddenly getting along; no one knew what the fuck was going on, what the future was. So, it was a world that came into being around me and I wasn’t going to not enjoy it.”
There was a lot of partying, but at the same time, Young had this desire to prove his father wrong by creating a career for himself as a writer and filmmaker. “My whole life I wanted to do something that would impress him, but only joining the family business would have done that.”
His father was not the only person Young wanted to prove wrong; there was also his ex-teenage love – two people he all but felt rejected by.
“After it ended she sent me a letter saying white South Africans are ignorant,” he says. “Just by living here I was continuing to perpetuate injustice and basically if I wanted to be a good person, I would leave South Africa. She felt that South Africans were horribly materialistic as a consequence of colonialism and apartheid, and had nothing left to contribute.
Former President Nelson Mandela had just been released, many whites were suddenly facing the reality of the society they had lived under, and this, Young says, was a culture shock for many, “You experience that and you can’t formulate a response. You react, you run.” Her advice to him was that if he wanted to “make movies like David Lynch, you can’t do that in South Africa, leave!”
Young’s response was to pull a zap sign at that and he became determined to make a career for himself in South Africa, writing, making films, taking pictures; making the work he wanted to without running away from his context, and so he decided that he would never live anywhere else in the world.
But making films in South Africa and being white, there’s a balance one has to strike or risk being totally off the mark and this is something Young has become careful about. Having a loud presence on social media, often calling out white ignorance, means he himself can’t be found wanting when approaching the inevitable race issues. It’s either that or, like most Afrikaans filmmakers do, you ignore the existence of black people altogether.
“It was unhip, at that time in Yeoville, to profess ignorance of the black experience. We were all over, doing things together but we never got to know each other, really. I didn’t know my black friends as much as I knew my white friends, because we thought of ourselves as being too beyond race to talk about that. I think there was also a fear of exposing myself by asking questions. I didn’t want people to know I was that sheltered white guy.”
Anyone who has read any of Young’s work or simply follows him on social media would probably find this uncharacteristic but even though Young is finding his place within the racial discourse, this puts him right in the shit with white people on the one hand, probably thinking ‘why the fuck are you speaking for them (blacks)?’ and black people on the other hand also probably thinking ‘what are you, our white savior?’
“I’m kind of right in the thick of it,” he digresses. “I’ve had people ask me why I even feel the need to say anything and I’m like, well, I’m a writer, you know. I want to get to a space where I can make what I want to make and that space doesn’t exist in this country. To pretend that it does is false and that would lead to making shit art. To be quiet would lead to frustration.”
In his latest short film Boat Girls Young steers clear of telling the black story as he does in Keys, Money, Phone – two films that, in spite of having white people dominating the cast, are filled with commentary around the topic of white privilege. The latter follows jock Seb (played by Anton Taylor), and his misadventures after leaving his, well, keys, money and phone in a cab when he gets home to the Southern Suburbs after a night out.
The cab has driven off and Seb spends the night trying to find someone, somewhere to give him shelter for the night, but in typical jock style, he swears at women, disrespects other people and rather than recall that he left his assets in the cab, chooses to say the cab driver “stole” his things.
It is unmistakable commentary on white, male privilege and it is done without overtly badgering the audience with the message. Notably, black people only appear in subservient roles- a security guard, a petrol attendant- and this is something Young’s critics might point out.
The fact is, Seb is a Capetonian jock and unfortunately, his only interaction with black people is most probably at the entrance to his complex, ordering food at McDonalds, or filling up his car at the petrol station.
But this is my observation, why has Roger Young decided not to reflect on the black experience more broadly? “I was once told by a black consciousness academic that, as a white filmmaker, I had no right to try to represent the stories of black South Africans. Keys, Money, Phone, and my next film, called Boat Girls at the moment, are a reaction to that idea.”
He adds that in future it should and will be possible to tell those stories in collaboration with other writers, filmmakers, etc. “I think it is entirely correct that I cannot know and speak to the experiences of black South Africans, but I also think that film is a collaborative medium and if I find strategies to co-write and co-direct, then it must be possible to come up with ways of representation and storytelling that confront this result of systematic oppression. We bring a new way of living into reality by telling it into reality, with stories.”
The film he is currently working on, a feature titled Love Runs Out, is about being young in South Africa today: the racial integration, the party scene, drugs, sexual exploration. This Young tells me without giving too much away.
Considering how entrenched in today’s scene Young himself is, it will be interesting to see how he captures the Zeitgeist. I imagine that his experiences in pre-democratic South Africa Yeoville and his experiences in a Cape Town that is finally confronting its colonial city image, thanks to the scribblings of writers like himself and movements like UCT’s Rhodes-Must-Fall, will aid in the process. If anyone can, he is most probably best placed to tell these stories because the decks at Hectic on Hope is not where the party ends. As we’ve established he remains very much into it.
“The bottom Iine is that I want to tell the truth. I know this sounds pretentious but there’s a certain fragility to the human condition and I want to unfold those layers and present it. In order for me to do that I have to hang around people who are alive and still living. It’s another cliché but the most beautiful people I ever knew died young and tragically.”
Shooting on the film is going ahead in spite of the fact that Roger has no money to fund it. “We just want to get started. We are tired of waiting around for people to get back to us, so we’re gonna shoot where we can and what we can with the little bit of cash and the equipment we have at any given time.”
His memoir won’t be coming out any time soon, Young tells me, because he has a lot on his plate with the films and other work but there’s no doubt that when it eventually drops, the thousands of “friends” and followers he has on social media will be bracing themselves for a further peek into the mind of a man who is something of an urban legend to some. Roger Young is a name that rolls off many a tongue and even out the mouths of those who have never interacted with him anywhere beyond the interwebs. He admits that he is partly to blame for creating this larger-than-life persona.
“When I was getting off heroin I was trying to become part of the world again and people generally didn’t want to know me,” he says. “In media, there were new people who didn’t know me. I couldn’t rely on who I was before. The fact that I’d written stuff ten years ago was not good enough. I had to start writing more than just good work, so I would embed something of myself in my writing so that editors would know who I am. I was constantly reintroducing myself to the world, often coming across as an asshole, writing about very specific things so that people got to know me again, forcing myself back into the public consciousness, to get closer to making films.”
“Obviously it’s a double-edged sword because by doing that, people start thinking they know who Roger Young is.”
When strangers meet him, Young says they expect the same person whose work and status updates they read on the internet.
“This person that I created is very much like a dancing monkey. People come up to me and ask what I thought of a particular movie or a particular artist and they want to hear “Roger Young”, but that’s not on tap, you know. And often people come up to me and offer me drugs, because of my writing.”
In his journalism Young often mentions his current drug use (Psychedelics on safari anyone?), isn’t this hypocritical given his past as a heroin addict? “I managed to get clean off the smack when I realized my addiction wasn’t to the actual drug, I was addicted to self-pity.”
“And you know, I’m a Gemini, so the idea of there being a public Roger Young and a private one is weird but I’ve kind of become used to it, and if people do want to speak to me, or to offer me kindnesses, well, it would be rude to say no.”
Young pauses here and thinks for a bit, surveying the juke box rave unfolding around him on a mid-month Thursday night at the Kimberly Hotel, an air of chaos about to break, and he smiles, “You know I had this English teacher, Mr. Stokes, and Mr. Stokes once said to me, “Everything in moderation, including moderation itself”.” And he smiles as another drink is magically delivered into his hands.
TOP FIVES SONGS
‘Slave to the Rhythm’
‘So Tonight That I Might See’
‘Sign o’ the Times’