Q&A: DJ Okapi
At the weekend, World Treasures, with the help of Outlaws Yacht Club and Dimensions Festival, brought DJ Okapi to the HiFi club. Alongside Ruf Dug, the South African absolutely nailed it. As was expected, it was a vibrant night of global music to remember. As a parting gift, Okapi had a little chat with us…
Could you tell us a bit about your upbringing? Where did you grow up?
I was born and grew up in Cape Town, moved to Johannesburg in 2009.
Where are you currently based, and what is the music scene like there?
I’m still living in Johannesburg. The scene is all about house and hip-hop, so it’s great if that’s what you’re into. But unfortunately there’s not much room for anything else.
Can you pinpoint the moment when you decided that record collecting was for you?
I’ve always collected music but I only really got into vinyl around the time I started DJing, around 2005. I’ve also been more interested in older music so vinyl was simply more affordable at the time, at least for the music I was looking for, which was mainly funk and disco at first, and then South African stuff, which was only really ever put out on vinyl.
For the uninitiated, can you describe the music that you like to collect? Also, why is it that you are drawn to it?
I collect South African music mainly. As a DJ I play mainly what’s known as bubblegum – SA disco form the 80s, as well as kwaito, although these records are harder to find. But I’ll happily buy almost any South African music on vinyl that I can find, if the price is right, so I’ve got plenty of other stuff in my collection that I’ll never play out – all kinds of traditional stuff, gospel, jazz. I look at my collection like an archive of all South African music, preserving this stuff before it’s lost. At the moment maybe two thirds of my collection is South African music of all kinds. The rest is from other parts of Africa, also funk and soul, reggae, jazz and some rock.
Could you give us a small insight into the historically political implications of this style of music?
This is a long and complicated story but in a nutshell bubblegum came out of what was probably the most turbulent, violent and repressive time in South Africa’s history. Apartheid had been entrenched for decades but the struggle against it was become increasingly violent, as was the state’s repression. The country was under a state of emergency for much of the mid-80s, basically under military rule. People were dying every day, or simply disappearing. Censorship of musicians was also severe. The government controlled the radio and used it to promote apartheid, they would even pay musicians to record. That’s why early bubblegum music isn’t expressly political, rather its messages are veiled in metaphors. At the 80s progressed it became clear that apartheid was on its last legs, and musicians took an increasingly significant stance in conscientizing the public. International pressure and attention was also mounting against the regime. As is the case in other parts of the world, the political repression of the time inspired and united musicians.
Could you talk us through some of the issues with starting up a record shop? How do you do things differently at your store?
Well I started by selling online and at a few markets and record fairs in Johannesburg. A lot of people in SA have a very strange relationship to SA music – they are more familiar with American music, so it’s happened before where people kind of laugh when they see these records – ‘what kind of music is this?’ That really makes me sad – it’s a sign of how out of touch a lot of people are with our history and culture, and the power of American cultural imperialism. It’s the same as a DJ, it’s kind of a constant struggle to push this local music on people. But the tide is changing and people are rediscovering their local music and taking pride in what we have here. Also, South Africa has always kind of been isolated from the rest of the continent. So it’s very hard to find music from other African countries in SA, except nearby countries like Zimbabwe and DR Congo. So the other aim of the store is to bring other African music into the country. There is a small but growing vinyl scene, but the dealers are far more familiar with classic rock etc. As a record dealer in SA one can make plenty of money selling Pink Floyd or Iron Maiden albums. I feel people need to catch a wake up – we are Africans so let’s listen to African music first before we worry about American music.
Your interest in the music is comprehensive – aside from running the store, you release reissues and maintain a regular blog, as well as travelling around the world to DJ. Do you think it is worth being involved in music in anything but this fully engaged way?
This has been a gradual process over the last 10 years. There’s isn’t as much money in the music industry as there was 20 or 30 years ago, in South Africa at least, so one has to multi-task. My day job in the past was in journalism, but over time this became focused only on music journalism, and for the past 3 years African music in particular, running the website www.musicinafrica.net.
The blog, store and DJing all kind of go hand in hand. I don’t think I’d get gigs in Europe if I wasn’t selling records or writing about them. And I’d probably find it harder to sell if I wasn’t DJing.
South Africa gets a lot of bad and misinformed press – what is it like to live and be a creative there?
South Africa also gets plenty of good press! It’s a complicated place with a long fucked up history. Over the past 20 years people have kind of been let down by poor leadership, and inequality is growing because of this. So in the past year or so, or particularly since Mandela passed away, there is a sense that the honeymoon is over and our leaders don’t really have the interests of the majority at heart, despite their promises and rhetoric. So it’s quite a crazy time at the moment, the ANC is losing its grip and people are uncertain of the future. Plenty of people grow negative, some choose to leave the country, but I’m optimistic. For people working in creative industries, on the one hand it might be harder to make a living because there is less money circulating, the majority of people are simply trying to put food on the table. But on the other hand it’s a place of almost unlimited potential – one can really make a difference there and be noticed, whereas in Europe things are so established that it’s hard to really rock the boat. Johannesburg is particular is an incredible place with amazing people – there’s always been a sense that if one can make it if one works hard enough. There are downsides like racism and crime but it’s certainly never dull.
Will you be doing much digging while on your European tour?
I’m using these trips to pick up stock for the store, but it’s more trading for new African re-issues than really digging for obscure records. When I was in Amsterdam I traded a box at Rush Hour. This time I’ve just traded a box of records with Mr Bongo in Brighton. I’ll pick up a few others here and there, but I’m pretty much overloaded already.