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Millenial nostalgia: reincarnating legends and giving high-fives to the past

The paint on the door was quite chipped, but the black letters remained clear: “Nostalgia is one helluva drug” it said like an answer to a question. 

And now, here in South Africa – specifically Johannesburg – we get through the day with our trusty dose of the good stuff.

Defined as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for a return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” In the spirit of the times, nostalgia’s favourite hashtag is #ThrowbackThursday. In our local context, the yen spins an orbit around the time loosely defined as post-94.

Most notably and obviously, the post-94 period represents South Africa’s technicolour transition from apartheid to democracy. The birth of democracy was potent and many nascent paths were forged spurred by the energy of the anomalous rainbow nation. For one, black people were free to express themselves without the fear of oppression. The new nation not only provided an opportunity for expression but a platform too. The national broadcaster, the SABC was restructured with the intended consequence being content that was reflective of, and responsive to, all of the people of the new South Africa. For the first time, the nation’s storytelling instrument reflected the full spectrum of the nation.

At the time, nostalgia was simply illogical, and the future although splashed in rainbow hues was at least historically, unchartered territory. The present was the only option and the sentiment during that period was reflective.

In turn, young South African creatives took advantage of the opportunity for expression and their pent-up creative energy birthed unmatched work that would later provide the fuel for current day nostalgia. The squiggly bright outline of “Hanging with Mr Cooper” said a lot about the 90s: there was a bright hue to everything.

The door found on Albertina Sisulu Road, close-to but not-quite Braamfontein was found next to a long abandoned general dealer decorated with heavy locks that moaned when the wind forced its way through the City of Gold. 

For examples of the current manifestations of millennial nostalgia, you don’t have to look too far, only a bit more carefully.

Watch “Don’t Panic” by DJ Speedsta and Moozlie and witness the spirited reincarnation of Lebo Mathosa and Brenda Fassie embodied by Moozlie and DJ Doo Wap juxtapose with FaceTime conversations, Spice Girls’ chokers and Rihanna-inspired blue lippy.

The work of The Sartists – a Joburg-based creative collective – sings of the past in a manner that is evocative, even if misunderstood. Telling the Noted Man website of their infamous arrival at the 2014 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week (MBFW) dressed in 1990s Bafana Bafana and Kaiser Chiefs soccer jerseys, bucket hats and baggy carpenter pants. The duo was met with suspicion by security guards and guests, despite their carefully considered intention to celebrate the golden victories of the two teams, along with the matchless style of their supporters. Sports in apartheid South Africa were – much like everything else – largely the reserve of white people, and so, the significance of supporting the successes of the majority-black football teams goes beyond sport. The Sartists note that at the same event, they were offered an undisclosed sum for the Chiefs jersey by Kaizer Motaung Jnr himself, thrifting is imbued with new meaning when seen as a way to reimagine and reclaim the past.

Okmalumkoolkat is another artist who blurs the divide between “what will be” and “what has been” simultaneously adopting the monikers “future mfana” and the “Zulu Michael Jackson”. Drawing cultural currency from 90s kwaito and hip hop, Okmalumkoolkat isn’t lying when he spits: “Back to the future and I’m chilling in the front seat” in his smash track, “Holy Oxygen”.

Collectively, the aesthetic and work of the above mentioned is an act of time travel: to take back what was promised. Part-nostalgic, part-futuristic. Part-passive, part-active. Consumers of the global village rooted in South Africa, the purveyors of millennial nostalgia are powerful reminders that the past echoes until it is heard.

Walking past the door, my friend noted that she had seen that very same quote on a sticker “somewhere in Berlin, I think” while she was waiting for the bus. 

However, the sentiment of nostalgia is not isolated to South Africa – globally, it is most noticeable in the at-the-point-of-cliché hipster movement. Think flannels, artisan products, spectacles and a wartime haircut and on the surface you have the checklist for the “perfect hipster”, but upon further inspection – beyond the pretension – there is a real desire to return to what was, or more accurately what movies starring James Dean and the like, say “what was”.

With regard to South Africa, the nostalgia is for a lived, real experience often witnessed with the optimistic glow of childhood innocence. Globally, however, the hipster movement represents nostalgia for an idea, and perhaps that’s why it is so seductive: ideas can be perfect, memory by nature cannot.

Upon closer inspection, next to the door in small neat type, someone had written: “nostalgia kills happiness”.

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