The collective project of autonomous education can be made urgent by the imposed limits on knowing made by academic curriculum and the archives of knowledge upon which they rely.
Turning outwards and away from these limits, to streets, dwellings, villages, farms, markets, forests, fields, waters; as well as to sound, music, diverse inscriptions, and stories, across spaces and scales of human and other-than-human life and being, what other ways of knowing might we find? In Sibonelo Gumede’s contribution, a route of such knowledge seeking is sketched. It follows multiple and intertwined spatial, affective, and interdependent threads through Johannesburg, in a collective endeavor to forge a musical curriculum as a way of knowing and producing blackness.
“[R]EALISM can be star-scattering, even if you have lived your whole unthinking life in reality.”
—Can Themba 
While there is a cultural turn, in which we see and experience a multiplication of representations of blackness within the creative and visual arts, the academy, public cultural representations in media, and other genres and sectors, it is without a doubt that the moment acknowledges and necessitates the need to see ourselves in what we do, and who we are within the worlds that we occupy. And now, in this cultural milieu when these representations are being appraised, the cues that foreground their persistence of subjections should be in question. Tina Campt, in their book, A Black Gaze, asks us how might we see and write within the black gaze, in a way that can open up the possibilities of dismantling the white gaze on blackness and seeing blackness anew? .
I want to think about the implications of Kampt’s provocation and the dichotomies of representation, to take seriously the consistent conversations that I have had with creative cultural instigator and healer, Thanda Kunene, who, through his practice, ponders much on the representations of blackness, in music, listening practices and music’s connection to spirituality—calling for more nuances and multiplicities in which black folks could see themselves outside of the spectacle of bondage, to listening across the polymorphic spectrum of black music.
Thanda, a music selector, is known for his taste for varying sounds that present defiantly, yet also vulnerably, to the audiences that they share music with . One evening, his set ended abruptly after playing a Zionist church gospel song in an establishment in Melville, Johannesburg that was known for alternative music. He retells the story by framing the enthusiasm that he encountered, from patrons taking to the floor, to the raised frequency that pointed to the familiarity of the church hymn and an ecstatic space travel moment! However, that frequency was not enough for the owner, who claimed that gospel, as a sound, particularly the Zionist church hymn, did not fit the ‘avant-garde’ aesthetic that the space represented (or was trying to represent). This implied that within the avant-garde, there were sounds that were invited and those that were not.
As complex as Christianity aptly presents in Africa, and more specifically in Southern Africa, the practices of African initiated churches such as the Zion can be acknowledged for their deep-rooted lineages to indigenous musical knowledge systems . Such musicality and practices have survived, adapted and persisted within urban environments even though they are oftentimes honed in the margins. Embedded in the sound are also questions, affirmations, dualities and contradictions of the inherited religion that propels black spirituality and a way of knowing for many that requires an acknowledgement. To some, the sound is a reminder of a communal intention and nostalgia, that reflect a collective aspiration and piecing together of a multitude of identities.
Josh Kun and Brandon Labelle, through their theorization of listening, premise listening as a dynamic framework that has the ability to enhance our sonic sensibility and inform our emancipatory practices. LaBelle encourages us to experience sound like a “relational material” that has the potential of creating “vibratory models of alliance”, capable of not only disrupting dominant orders but also creating new forms of togetherness . With a focus on critical listening, Kun opens a way of understanding the border as an audio-spatial territory of performance. They see music as having the possibility of mapping new places and cartographies of possibilities which are not necessarily in the real-time political realities . McKittrick offers us more when they identify music as a potential response to geographic domination, explaining that ‘music, as a geographic act, is an available space through which blackness can be read as an integral and meaningful part of the landscape. The soundscape is identified as a contestation, which publicly and privately communicates geographic possibilities’ .
I am interested in the latter theorisations for how they can possibly enhance our understanding of the socio-spatial processes of black life through the sonic archives. These theorisations pay close attention to how the sonic can narrate a counter knowledge that can forge an alternative paradigm, which can be attributed to what Sylvia Wynter refers to as an ‘auto-poetic’. According to Wynter, the ‘auto-poetic’ refers to the idea that all human beings have the ability to create and transform their own identities and cultures, without being passive subjects of history, but rather active agents who have the power to shape their own destinies and the world around them .
Through his lament, Thanda, along with KBZL, a vinyl collector and deejay, have curated three iterations of a gathering that they have titled ‘uShuni,’  which they have hosted at Kitcheners in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. The curatorial approach of the gathering is one that allows for experimentation and the breaking down of the enclosures of how music is experienced in more commercialized spaces and settings within the metropole. Theirs is a cultivation of a free space, with melancholic to groovy sonic expressions, liberation music, Maskanda, gospel, dance music, low-tempo to high pitches as well as music from multiple geographies. In this context, the sonic creates the “vibratory models of alliances” as attributed by Labelle, that can extend a sense of time, intimacies, and place.
As an intervention, ‘uShuni’ takes on the so called ‘decolonial’ mode of enquiry that renders the black sonic as a powerful modality, amongst many, that has the ability to unhinge us from Western imaginaries of communing, sense-making and space-making. ‘uShuni’ can also mean different things to different people. It could mean variations of imaginaries that are legible and illegible. It could be delivering us to a lexicon of opacity, that confronts the primordial fixity of modernism that limits our horizons of experience. With ‘uShuni,’ Thanda and KBZL are able to confront the curatorial recirculation that often bogs down the contemporary music scenes particularly in Johannesburg.
It is intriguing to interrogate the practices of listening and sensing that are consistently unfolding and in flux within a spatiality like Johannesburg that are delinking the epistemological and pedagogical understanding of what an African metropolis is or isn’t. Johannesburg is a (post)colonial city that is co-implicated in the socio-politics/displacement/dispossession/Afri-centricism/futurism of Southern Africa. The framing, or rather method of decoding culture and space through invitations of other sensibilities, holds the potential of connecting threads beyond fields or practices and offers new possibilities for theorizing and analyzing cultural production.
This text was commissioned and written uniquely for Urgent Pedagogies.
Ushuni wethu lo! is part of Urgent Pedagogies Issue#5: Pluraversality
Themba, Can. Requiem for Sophiatown. Johannesburg: Penguin Books, 2006.
Campt, Tina. A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021.
Thanda Kunene is the artist formerly and sometimes occasionally known as Thanda Man Jones. A practitioner of the immediate arts, sound enthusiastic, field recordist and art director. Spending his days in the depths of societal norms and cultural practices ranging from language, behaviour, and socioeconomic landscapes.
African Zionism can be attributed to African Christianity, which branched off from mainstream Christianity after the missionary pioneers from the West planted churches on African soil. The traces of the church can be found across South Africa. See Resane, 2020, “African zionism and its contribution to African Christianity in South Africa,” in Scriptura vol.119 n.1, Stellenbosch.
Labelle, Brandon, Sonic agency: Sound and emergent forms of resistance. MIT Press, 2020.
Kun, Josh D. “The aural border.” In Theatre Journal 52.1 (2000): 1-21.
McKittrick, Katherine., 2011. “On plantations, prisons, and a black sense of place.” In Social & Cultural Geography, 12(8), pp.947-963.
McKittrick, Katherine, ed. Sylvia Wynter: On being human as praxis. Duke University Press, 2015.
‘uShuni’, a word that has no official definition as of yet, but one which people have started to decode. On Twitter, one of the users has defined it as “That vibe….that attitude. That approach. You could describe a cheeky response by saying… “washo ngo shuni wenkani.” It is derived from Geographic Maskandi Genres and or influences. The South Coast has its “sound” intrinsic to the region. Also, the topics sung about is ushuni”.
is an urbanist and cultural worker based in Cape Town, South Africa. In urban environments, Gumede is interested in the intersection of city-making processes and citizenship, as well as exploring the limits of contemporary urbanism discourse. Gumede holds a Master’s degree in Development Studies from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal and is currently pursuing an MPhil in Southern Urbanism at the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town. Gumede was the Vice President of the Kwa-Zulu Natal Society of Arts, mainly serving on the curatorial and education committee. He was a 2021 Research Fellow at the Centre for Arts, Design and Social Research (CAD+SR) and a Black Planetary Futures collective member. Gumede also has experience working as a researcher in institutional development projects that involve strategic and operational planning, project management, monitoring and evaluation as well as partnership management for municipalities.
Thanda Kunene’s soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/thandamanjones