I’m standing in the middle of a festival campsite feeling out of place. The swelling numbers of festival-goers are the kind of twenty-plus kids you’d find at the Power and the Glory, a small café-bar where Cape Town’s extended hipster family comes to work from their laptops during the day, and where they gather with friends in the evening to have fat chats and drink anything but South African Brewery beers. No matter how out of place I might be feeling, I’m wearing a red flannel shirt that I got from a second-hand market in Zambia – I blend right in. I’ve only been here ten minutes and I’ve already seen five just like it. The only person who knows I’m feeling awkward right now is my girlfriend, and she texts back: “You’re a secret hipster Jo Jackson.”
Before driving up South Africa’s West Coast to the festival, my friend Abi and I both agreed we’re not doing this for the music. Sanja is deep into Psych Rock, but Mac Demarco is the extent of Abi and my knowledge and enthusiasm, and he’s not performing at Endless Daze. I bought a tent just for the occasion, which, all things considered, was a pretty extravagant gesture. I unpack it from its neat bundle and start putting it together while doing some simple addition. Tent plus ticket, plus food, plus the money I added to the illicit substances kitty equals more money than I can justify. Especially because I’m not so sure about the MDMA anymore.
I first told Abi I was having doubts a couple of days before the festival. We’d just pulled up in front of my house share in her old Corsa.
“It’s chilled. It’s not about the drugs.”
“But you said it’s not about the music either.”
“It isn’t. Not for me anyway.”
“So what’s it about?”
“Getting away for a weekend with friends and having a chilled time.”
I flop down in my brand new little tent. It’s set up right next to Abi’s and in the lee of Sanja’s tent-castle, which is bobbing and snapping in the wind like an inflatable dancing man. Sanja isn’t the kind of person to pack guy ropes, but fast and loose is how everyone seems to roll here. A little yellow tent nearby is airborne, flying like a flag from a single guy rope lashed to the branch of a low tree. I wonder who could have looked at that set up and thought, “That’ll do.”
The festival is small. I mean really small. And it’s only made smaller by the fact that Cape Town is small, or so everyone says, but what they really mean is white Cape Town is small, and a whole cross-section of it is here at the festival. Abi, Sanja and I walk to the main stage. This is their universe. These are their high school friends, their exes, the characters in their wild stories. I stop to hug the occasional friend of my own, smile at familiar faces I can’t quite place, and avoid eye contact with people I’ve only ever met on Instagram.
I settle into people-watching mode. The carefully curated outfits of this alternative crowd swirl around me. Washed out shades of pink, green, and blue stain the bleached tips of countless heads. The Tumblr-girls have glitter under their eyes and white shag coats on. They are the Internet mermaids in mother of pearl sequins, crocheted bikini tops and blunt fringes. There are guys in leopard print coats, others in candy pink caps, but most of them remind me of sepia photographs of my twenty-something father. They’ve drunk deep from the well of 60’s and 70’s folk rock; Long hair, suede jackets with flowing tassels, handle bar moustaches, strappy sandals and bare feet. We join the crowd gathered around the stage and I spot a girl with silver blonde hair wearing a pair of denim dungarees and an oversized, red, 80s jacket. Her comfortable disregard for a certain kind of femininity reminds me of a young version of my mother and I watch her while the intimate crowd sways to the afternoon set.
I expected to feel something at this festival. Belonging maybe? Or at least a longing to belong to this progressive counter-culture… But I don’t. It troubles me instead. Something about the nostalgia that clings to everyone’s clothes makes me think back on my own adolescent nostalgia. I think back on how my parents used to be the heroes of my world. My father, the one who preferred exile to fighting in Ian Smith’s white-supremacist army. My mother, my figure of feminism; too switched on to fit in, too fierce to conform. I grew up bathed in their stories. Their mythology was tangible throughout our house – guitar strings, vinyl records, bitter smelling bracelets, Indian silks, and countless ageing photographs taken by my father on his Olympus OM-2. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to stand for their values. I wished I could have been a part of their youthful rebellion and fantasized myself back into that meaningful era through long skirts, old songs and trinkets around my neck.
My admiration made my parents uncomfortable. They pointed me towards a documentary called Century of the Self, which tells the story of the growth of mass-consumer society in Britain and the United States. Set against the backdrop of the 60’s and 70’s, the third of four episodes explores how “a world in which people felt they were rebelling against conformity was not a threat to business, but its greatest opportunity.” When students in the mid-sixties rose up against corporate America and its materialistic, conformist values, they were met with such fierce government retaliation that the thinkers of the time were forced to change tactic. If it was impossible to overthrow a state that was using consumerism as a way to keep its masses docile, then one had to find a way to free the mind from the “policeman inside all our heads.” Surely a new, liberated self could lead to a new society?
These new, inward looking selves concerned with self-exploration, didn’t make for predictable consumers – that is until market researchers realized that what lay beneath the surface of young white political activism was really just a deep desire for self-expression. Big business turned this to their advantage. If individuality was what people were searching for, then all they’d have to do was create varied and individuated products through which people could express themselves. The idea that “this product expresses me” was born. The way people chose to spend their money told the world who they really were. Are you a BMW or are you a VW kombi?
I blink and look around. There are festival centrepieces everywhere – an embroidered shawl reminiscent of Woodstock, an elaborate septum ring straight out of an FKA Twigs video, a trendy pair of odd-ball sunglasses to get blazed behind… Countless trips to H&M, The Lot and Zara to build these meticulously constructed selves – selves that come together to enjoy a meticulously constructed, nostalgic weekend away. One great big Hunter S. Thompson fantasy, minus any real subversion.
I lift the viewfinder of my Olympus OM-10 to my eye and snap a photograph.
Abi, Sanja and I take refuge from the wind inside Sanja’s tent and eat an early dinner. I pop the lid of my Tupperware to dig into the Mexican beans and rice I prepared. Abi dips hunks of cucumber into a tub of hummus and Sanja stuffs handfuls of crisps into soft bread rolls. I stay up for a few acts, but go to bed early. At twenty-eight, I’m determined to no longer give a shit about being judged for ducking out of a party early. Besides, the plan was to do the MDMA on Saturday night, so it’s not like I’ll be missing out.
It must be past midnight when the Psych Rock rhythms which lulled me into sleep switch to Felix Laband’s electronic beats. Pangs of FOMO tickle me in my sleep, but fail to rouse me from my warm sleeping bag. I drift in and out, stirring when the voices of wandering party people sound so close as to be in my ear. Two of those voices pull me from sleep. Abi and Sanja are back. They speak inside Sanja’s tent in the loud and candid way one does when afforded privacy, and I wonder if they realize their voices ring clear throughout the quiet of our campsite. They’ve decided to take the MDMA. They’re debating how much, at what intervals, and why did they only play Felix Laband now? A part of me is relieved that I’m tucked up in bed where no one can offer me some. Not tonight. I’m not feeling it. Besides, there’s always tomorrow.
The night melts on and I lose count of the number of times Abi and Sanja return to camp to top up on MD. I might not be able to see their pupils dilate and their mouths go dry, but I can hear their voices change. Adjectives bubble up through my sleep: loud, obnoxious, oblivious… There’s no judgment behind the words, just sleepy observation; My friends are not their best selves on MDMA.
The morning sun bakes me out of my tent. I know it was past 4 a.m. when the others went to bed, so I set off on my own mission. I shower in the ablution blocks. One of the cleaning ladies sets off my gaydar. The mop in her hands doesn’t take away from how G she looks. We eye each other out in the way that gay people do when unspoken recognition passes between them.
“Goeie more,” I say, wondering what her life must be like way out here in Silwerstroom.
I wander past the gourmet German and vegan food trucks on my way to the beach. “A boutique music and arts festival” indeed. I don’t know what to do with the fact that I’m vegan and without a doubt the bulls-eye target market of this whole thing. I roll my eyes at myself. Just another niche to cater to. I walk past the life guard tent and down towards the ocean. It’s so cold it makes my bones ache. I stroll along the wet sand instead. The only other people on the beach are a group of semi naked girls far off in the distance squealing in the waves. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t feel like an outsider. Abi says I have a complex.
I think back on a teary conversation I had with my aunt once. I was wracked with the exhaustion of rootlessness, weeping in the kitchen of her London flat, which was full of pots and paintings and cloths and sculptures from our lives back in Zimbabwe – full of home away from home. “Being an outsider is a gift. It gives you perspective that people who belong deeply to a place their entire life simply can’t access. Being gay also puts you on the outside. Use it. I think you’ll find most creatives are outsiders in some way or another.”
The ocean is so cold that even the wet sand hurts my feet, and I find myself thinking that maybe I just need to accept that I’ll never belong… There is more bittersweet than relief in the resignation.
I find Abi and Sanja near the main stage. We get BBQ seitan for breakfast and lounge around in Sanja’s tent. They tell me stories of the MD party that went down in a tent village not far from our own and how someone peed in their own takkies. I start telling them about Century of the Self, but realize I need to choose my moments better and leave the thought unfinished. Abi plugs her iPhone into Sanja’s battery pack and we gather around the small screen to watch a short movie her friend made. It tells the story of how he discovered original 16 and 8mm footage shot by his great grandmother with never before seen images of the inauguration of the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria in 1949 and Hitler Youth marching in Rothenberg in 1939 – just a few months before World War Two broke out.
Everyone here is making something. They’re actresses and documentary film makers. They’re photographers and musicians. For all the self-indulgent navel gazing, I’m surrounded by creatives that make me want to keep creating. The contradiction only compounds my confusion.
That night I find myself kneeling in our big tent. Abi, Sanja and I all have head torches on and the three beams converge on the tightly bound packet of MDMA, which Abi’s doing her best to open. She taps a portion of the brownish powder into the upturned butt of an unopened Coke can and adds a little Coca-Cola from the one Sanja’s sipping to dilute it. I go first. I knock back the mixture like it’s medicine. The girls crinkle their noses in sympathy, waiting for my reaction to the bitter burn they’ve been telling me about, but when I don’t complain, Abi says, “Yoh… Maybe we’re just pussies.”
I take a fraction of the amount the others do. It doesn’t hit me like that fourth toke on a joint that suddenly makes your brain expand. A gentle smile plants itself on my lips, but mostly I just feel awake. I drift along wherever the girls lead me. After three sets and a trip to the ablution block where a girl in the toilet queue keeps saying, “Rave to the grave!” I say my goodbyes. I’m a few paces away when I realize I’m going to bed more because I expected I’d want to rather than because I’m actually tired. I turn back and join the girls again.
We drift from the stage to the spider web hammocks, to the top of the dunes where we can see the full moon’s bright sliver stain on the ocean. The three of us squeeze our adult hips into the tight tire swings of the playground on the outskirts of the festival, and I remember how I used to whip myself up into a dizzy delirium on my grandparents’ swing as a kid. We settle on the top of the jungle gym and talk about abusive relationships.
Pleasant. That’s the word. I feel pleasant. Pleasantly awake. Pleasantly buzzing. Pleasantly reassured that I haven’t been missing out all these years. I get it though. I get that it’s fun. I get submerging yourself in a dreamy festival. Submerging yourself in yourself through drugs. And I’m glad I’ve tried. I’m glad I’m up here on this jungle gym with my friends at three in the morning. But I also know I don’t need this.
It’s the creativity and the thoughtfulness that keeps me coming back to this crowd. That’s what makes me want to write more, make more videos, take more photographs. But it’s the indulgence that keeps me on the outskirts. What power do we wield if we’re more stoked about receiving that rad gender neutral cap from that rad tomboy brand in Portland, Oregon than we are about pitching up to march at Pride? We’re all so preoccupied with building our “true selves” through all the choices we make, which by and large are consumer choices, that I wonder if our energy is being undermined. Are any subcultures truly subversive? Or are we just new markets to be placated by new consumables?
I zip my tent shut and pull out my notebook. I scribble something about how I’ve realized I want to work in media and not in marketing, but I lie down to go to sleep and realize that no matter what I do know, I still don’t really know how to be.