Artwork by Lex Trickett

Thoughts on the formation of subcultures

”Style is constructed through a combination of clothing, language (jargon), music, dance, make-up and drugs.” – Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige.

The subversive meaning littered in your ensemble describes your personality. In subcultures, the curation of an individual’s outfit will be motivated by the overall group aesthetic with distinctive pieces and accessories to help associate the member to each respective group.

Subcultures sometimes form as a way of resistance or rebelliousness against forces of power, their governing systems such as capitalism as well as societal norms to name some of the issues they concern themselves with. In his writings, Hebdige emphasizes the historical, race and socio-economic factors that surrounds the formation of subcultures. Post-Apartheid youth in the locations are still battling the same socio-economic difficulties as the previous generation. Although inhabiting the same environment, the perception of the youth is slightly shifted towards socio-economic injustices such as unemployment and poverty, a dysfunctional education system and communities that are threatened and terrorized by gangs and drug lords. In these communities, the growth of different subcultures is heavily influenced by living conditions and the political state of the region.

The continuous sprout of new youth subcultures around various parts of the city and township is astonishing. The formation of these groups is fuelled by a growing need to communicate and relate to similar individuals, to feel like part of a community, and something bigger than yourself.

The southern township of Soweto is both a home and melting pot for the inception of subcultures inhabiting and coexisting in the same environment. The difference between these subcultures inspires a sense of camaraderie and identity quest amongst youth, as these groups develop and nurture relationships that become family-like bonds. The influence of certain socio-economic factors plays a role in the practices and conduct of these subcultures. The lack of access to higher levels of education, cultural and religious discrimination, overpopulation, unemployment and corruption within the government act as some of the motivational factors for an individual’s decision to join such a group. Due to the harsh realities of living in poverty, some members and even groups are driven to acts of crime.

In recent times, the emergence of new youth subcultures has moved into the mainstream scene allowing entrepreneurs to find ways to commodify off of their style and music. The business of commercializing youth subcultures leads to the destruction of these groups’ principle values, as brands popularize and sell these images without considering the impact it has on the group ethos as well as possible negative societal implications due to the fact that the true meaning of these groups become lost in the chain of capitalism.

Even though some of these pieces or items are visually littered with subversive meaning, the end goal is not to sell ideas, but rather to sell an image and rewrite the narrative behind their style to sell it to the general public. Looked at from a different perspective it could be said that, the commercialization of these subcultures leads to the distribution of knowledge to the general public through mass media about the meaning of these styles. However, as mentioned before this breach of a group’s identity by capitalism results in the mission of the subculture being diluted. This is a result of surface level representation by brands.

eGopla (more of a customary mode of behaviour as opposed to a fully-fledged subculture), members are required to cut off all ties with existing social institutions like family, work and school. I found interest in this group due to the fact that I wish to validate whether they can in fact be considered as a subculture. From personal observation, I gather that an initiation into the group takes place, whereby initiates could be asked to perform either a task or to abandon home, proving their loyalty and full commitment to the group.

eGopla members infuse imagery, colours, borrowed clothing items and symbolic pieces from pre-existing subcultures like Amavandal, Amapantsula and iziKhothane into their group aesthetic. Their group aesthetic is made up of technical sport apparel, for ease and mobility -ensuring less restriction during dance routines and for stylistic appeal. They bring both western and eastern influences into their look merging high fashion with workwear elements as well as some religiously inspired articles.

The group holds a gathering once a month where they participate in a dance off challenge. Here rivals compete for bragging rights and superiority over other groups. Each group selects one individual to represent them, defending their territory and honour. A popular dance style that gets expressed in battle is ‘The Scorpion’, that involves extreme flexibility and incorporates some acrobatics stunts into the dance routine. The dance mimics the way a scorpion moves, with one leg and both hands on the ground for balance and support, and one leg suspended in the air in a stiff motionless position – it is fairly similar to isiPantsula and isiSkhanda.

Whether eGopla is a subculture, place or people, I can’t help but display immense enthusiasm toward the continuously evolving practice and customary modes of behaviour associated with this potential subculture. The subculture is still growing and not much information is available about their habits but as membership grows so does available information on them. I hope to contribute to developing more accessible forms of knowledge about this group.

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