The conversation has been ongoing and the debates explosive. We understand why it works in the US, Rihanna getting another deal doesn't close off opportunities to Megan Thee Stallion for example, but what does the opening up of South Africa’s entertainment actually look like?
It all began with a tweet. But doesn’t it always? Last year, one tweep voiced their exasperation at how the same South African celebrities seemed to be occupying all spaces of the entertainment industry and in effect, closing up the space to fresh talent. Naturally, the debate that ensued took over social media with impassioned posts and think pieces galore from celebrities such as Boity, Pearl Thusi, Lerato Kganayago and several others who felt attacked while frustrated South African talent trying to catch their “big break” felt rather invisible.
Many South African entertainers feel that this conversation has thus far, been a continued attack on their hard-earned opportunities disguised as concern for fresh talent. It really is not. No one is vying for those already at the top to lose anything so that younger talent can benefit instead. What people are saying is that not all opportunities should go to the bigger fish. Let them secure the higher-stakes opportunities that require years of experience, familial relationships within the industry network, and trust. Let the smaller fish have access to everything else to eventually allow them to become bigger fish with the required expertise. No one is saying let a rookie take on presenting Miss SA pageant or headlining ‘Back to the City’. We’re not asking for a compromise on quality and competence for the sake of inclusion and opening up the industry. What we are saying is that the latter is nonetheless important and there are a few practical ways to ensure this happens.
Kganyago raised a point that I think deserves to be addressed thoughtfully. The television presenter tweeted: This is a false equivalence because while the likes Rihanna and Beyonce and all the rest may be securing bag after bag across different spaces, their particular market still allows for an Issa Rae to have an HBO show following a small-time YouTube series. Their market still creates space for a Munya Chawawa to secure a major deal with Atlantic Records after doing numerous skits online. The market still makes way for a Megan Thee Stallion despite there already being numerous successful woman rappers. Yes, other entertainment industries are going to be structurally different from South Africa’s. However, there should still be achievable efforts to ensure that some level of rejuvenation happens whatever the restraints of our particular space are.
Economies Of Scale
The power of celebrity is another element that needs to explored truthfully. Celebrity power is a desirable tool particularly to household brands because it drives engagement, secures more viewership or sales - it’s a marketing tool in and of itself. This is not being disputed. However, there is still the need to ensure that different voices can have their foot in the door especially for gigs that are what we’d call “low-hanging” fruit. Not every cooking show has to have a Somizi or a Lorna Maseko at the helm. Give a young and upcoming chef with the culinary expertise and vibrant personality to take the lead on that. Not every presenting gig has to go to Bonang Matheba or Nomzamo Mbatha. Carry out more presenter searches and find that diamond in the rough to refine and take over a show. Not every concert has to be headlined solely by the music heavyweights such as Riky Rick or AKA or Rouge. Showcase some younger talents, the so-called underdogs.
Don't Pull Up The Ladder
Additionally, the issue of gatekeepers is a valid one. Prominent celebrities in the entertainment space have argued that they are not the ones standing in the way of younger talent having access to certain opportunities - it’s the gatekeepers. This is legitimate and a challenge that extends far beyond just the entertainment industry. From corporate to politics to academia, gatekeeping and the exclusion of certain individuals are part and parcel of the organizational culture. Additionally, entertainers have also expressed that they just aren’t paid enough and therefore have to take more jobs than their peers in other countries. Again, this is another challenge that highlights the complexity of opening up the South African entertainment industry. It would be remise of me to turn a blind eye to this reality and offer seemingly black and white solutions.
In spite of this, however, those who are privileged enough to have a seat at the proverbial table, still need to use their privilege to open the doors for those who will come after them. It has to be an active and concerted effort on their part to invest in some way in younger talent. Share their work when it moves you. Put people on. Recommend them. Refer others in your circles of influence to their existing work. Take a chance on them yourself.
Is It Win Win?
Currently, the issue of opening up the industry has been framed as a “win-lose” where existing talent in the space have to forfeit what they have in order to allow for the space to welcome new voices. This is not the case. It really can be a “win-win” for all involved and in a way that actually benefits the majority. But it all begins with a conversation where neither cast blame on the other or feel defensive about the space they occupy. And perhaps the real challenge is that - seeing the perspective of the other and finding a way forward together.