It’s been about a month since M.I.A. performed at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock, Cape Town and I’m still rifling through the notes that I had scrambled into my phone at the concert, to try to neatly summarise the evening. It’s not like there wasn’t anything worth reporting: the show was monumental. But there’s been one stumbling block that I’ve been having some difficulty circumnavigating my way around when reflecting on this performance – the subject of gentrification.
WORDS: DAN CHARLES
PHOTOGRAPHY: DAVID WEIN
The subject came up during the Q & A segment of the screening of Stephen Loveridge’s documentary MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. where an attendee had asked M.I.A. why she had agreed to perform at the Old Biscuit Mill. It was a reasonable question since the venue is seen as something of the crowned jewel of gentrification in the Woodstock area – and that isn’t something that can be easily overlooked when you are an artist whose fan base reveres you for your outspoken proletariat stance in the art that you create.
It wasn’t an ideal setup. But, given the relationship that Black Major had built with the Old Biscuit Mill during the curation of the Sunday Edition concert series (which has proven to be a remarkable showcase for some of the country’s most eclectic musical acts), it’s easy to see how this venue choice came about – despite it somewhat compromising the politics for which M.I.A. is known to stand.
As the Mail & Guardian reported, Maya responded to the question at the film screening with an offer to use the show to have this conversation. So, on the evening of the show, I cut through the much needed Cape Town rain that filtered the scents of food vendors frying up onions and joints being smoked in the line that bottle-necked towards the entrance in order to bear witness to that conversation.
There’s no better indication that you’ve arrived at the right party than when you hear DJ and internet sensation, K-$, behind the decks. Opening the stage with a seamless mix of classics ranging from N.E.R.D. to Earth, Wind and Fire, K-$ had the crowd in the palm of his hand and on the soles of their fresh and expensive-looking footwear. But what was also worth noting was Kalo’s choice of visuals that accompanied his set; it seemed to be highlighting his visibility as a transgender male – with footage of his curly locks spiralling to the ground as his head was being shaved to highlight his more masculine appearance. Having appeared on eNCA the week before the event to discuss issues facing Cape Town’s transgender community in the wake of Andre Taylor’s CCMA case, Kalo’s profile as an activist for Cape Town’s queer community has been growing just as prominently as his illustrious musical career and this set was testament to the fact that politics and partying are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
The DJ table was then pulled away to the side of the stage to make room for a momentous occasion in Cape Town music history: the debut of Angel-Ho’s live performance in their home country – featuring DJ Queezy behind the decks and choreography by Chester Martinez (who has worked with the likes of FKA Twigs as well as other local acts such as Lo-ghost and Mx Blouse). Angel entered the stage adorned in a gold-laced ensemble that complemented the gold ribbons hanging from the ceiling of the Biscuit Mill’s warehouse space. They looked as if they were a part of the room and they immediately took control of the room – delivering a set of arguably some of the most abrasively forward-thinking pop songs ever to be constructed by a local artist. A powerful and poignant moment in their set came when Angel crouched down at the feet of their dancers to openly reflect on the pain felt by their pop predecessors – Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson – that lurks at the core of their art: the desire to be loved and accepted. At the end, Angel posed the question to the crowd: “Cape Town, will you love me?” to which they responded with a triumphant uproar of affection fitting of that of a future pop icon.
Just as Angel’s set was gaining momentum, their set time drew to a close and DJ Emerald took to the stage to hype up the crowd for the impending M.I.A. performance with her infectious energy and a slew of Dizzy Rascal and Rihanna remixes that had the room bouncing like the long, curly pigtails beneath her bucket hat.
And then it happened. M.I.A. appeared amidst an onslaught of percussion that cut through the speakers, launching into the opening track Bamboo Banga, and propelled the room into an elated frenzy. In that moment, any tension around the political dissonance between the performance and the place that it was occurring in seemed to have disintegrated into the sound system that Maya kept insisting to be turned up to demonstrate that this space now belonged to her and the people that had come to be a part of this.
However, the aforementioned topic could not just be glossed over with a tightly-knit set of hit songs from her extensive catalogue. M.I.A. took time in the middle of her set to dedicate her song Pull Up the People – a rallying cry for marginalised citizens – to anyone who’s home had ever been moved. It was a simple gesture that, later in her set, was followed by her collaboration with a Pantsula dance crew that jumped around and shuffled beer crates along to tracks like Bucky Done Gun as well DJ Mujava’s Township Funk, which DJ Emerald played towards the end in a subtle tribute to the late great DJ Spoko. M.I.A. knew that she was on a South African stage and it was compelling to see her sharing that stage with the culture before handing it over to Jakinda, to close off the night with a colossal set of industrial afro-futurist beats.
There’s a reason why M.I.A. is a bona fide global pop star – she knows how to connect with an audience. Whether it was having a thousand people in one room all making handgun gestures to the hook of Paper Planes, or inviting all of the femme audience members onto the stage to sing Bad Girls, she made everyone feel like they were all on the same side. Thinking back to the events of the Q & A at the film screening, it is important to keep your heroes accountable for their actions. But sometimes it’s also necessary to remember that working in the music industry often means working with compromise. This is a reality that M.I.A. knows and alluded to during a press conference given at the Black Major office the day before the concert: “As an artist, you’re put under pressure to gentrify yourself very quickly to enter the mainstream music culture and, if you don’t do that, you sort of retain a little bit of where you come from and fight against that… On one hand you kind of need to be progressive and you need to develop and establish a thing but at the same time you have to retain a lot of the original ideas. The problem is when success is the only goal and the goal isn’t preservation and being careful about not losing that identity.”
Retaining a sense of cultural identity is a constant battle in a predominantly Westernised music industry and in a predominantly Western-influenced world at large but, at M.I.A’s performance, it felt as if everyone in the audience was on the same side of that battle for a moment. At the old Biscuit Mill, of all places.