Kevin Hart stands middle-centre surrounded by a group of dapperly dressed Black men, designer suits and sunglasses watch him attentively as he addresses them gesturing dramatically, a pink glass of champagne dancing in his hand; “uyazi elifeyini…” he begins, things are not as they seem. A glitch in the cyberspace highway perhaps? Not a glitch, but rather, the hilarious, intelligent, multilayered and complex work of Wendy Gumede who is known to many across the country as The Black Wendy. The initial wave of cognitive dissonance one may feel as they watch the likes of Kevin Hart, Rihanna, or Megan Markle to name but a few, express themselves in a Zulu that sounds as if it comes straight out of deep KwaZulu Natal, quickly dissolves as these people so far removed from the reality of this language and its cultural lineage start feeling like intimate strangers. Individuals one may have come across growing up; at a family potsoyi, in a taxi, koshisanyama or a vast multitude of other places. A tongue in cheek display of imaginative creolisation and interpellation; Wendy’s work, housed on her Youtube channel that goes by the name The Black Wendy Channel, is so firmly located within a cultural experience so South African BlackityBlack it can’t help but settle into ones psyche like moving snapshots from your own childhood being played back at you even if you are not Zulu.
At a mere 27 years old, her achievements and strides already speak for themselves. The actor, writer and voice over artist was born in Durban where she lived up until the age of 13. Sometimes life makes adults of us too soon; with a growing up not stretched out over time but fast forwarded too quickly; leaving no second for you to catch your breath. Wendy’s came in the form of her parents passing on while they all still lived in Durban, with this tragedy, however, also came a fast tracked deep knowing of herself and of her abilities as she states:
“When my parents passed on, I moved to eNgwelezane, Empangeni to live with my Aunt. And after matric, I moved to Cape Town to further my studies at the University of Cape Town. I was a serious kid. Life forced me to grow up really quickly! But because of that, I got in touch with myself and my skillset a lot faster and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life sooner than most of my peers”.
After graduating from university and struggling to establish herself in the media industry, she decided to create her Youtube channel.
“I woke up and you know I was in a good mood, I was feeling myself, I was extra confident. I went over to my Facebook and I typed um “y’all better watch these vlogs I’m about to drop” and I walked away and ngahamba ngayo thenga iTropika. And as I was sipping on it, I was like you know what, that was… that was a bit too aggressive. So I went back and was like “hey guys! What I mean is you know I’m about to start this hustle, I’m about to start this Youtube channel and I’d really appreciate it if you supported me and literally in one hour I had over a hundred likes”, says a Wendy from 2015 in the first ever video posted on the 25th of January.
Watching and listening to her speak, a certain warm feeling washes over me and I understand completely how in a mere hour her channel had over one hundred subscribers. There is something about her that feels like an old friend; that kickin it on a mellow Sunday-afternoon-while-listening-to-those-Khaya Fm-tunes type of old friend. Speaking to her via our virtual interview allowed me privileged insight into her creative process – rigorous, intuitive, intertextual and usually painstakingly long. I ask her where she finds the inspiration for her work, is it through South African pop culture, our chaotic cultural imaginations or her own memories?
“You know what’s weird? The original videos themselves give me inspiration for the #TheBlackWendyVO! I mute the existing video and I just watch it over and over again and I try to think of an alternative situation that would still sync with their body language. It takes a lot of time but it’s so much fun! And because this is my process, I don’t ever actually write anything down, I just watch the movement of their lips and match Zulu words to it and start recording. A 23 second video could take me over an hour to get right. Sometimes I hit and sometimes I miss – but it’s an incredibly fun process. My voice-overs make me laugh before I even release them to my platforms!”.
The love she has for what she does is infectious, along with a spirit of fun that seems to be her companion in its making. An incredibly refreshing thing to note as sometimes we get so serious about our work we forget to play in the process. I call her work a tongue in cheek display of imaginative creolisation and interpellation because I feel that in many ways and for many of us, it mirrors our cultural values and ideologies along with what could be our internalisation of them, furthermore, because it also does the work of converging and collapsing cultural ecologies and localised/global pop culture. The most obvious follow up question to my previous assertion I guess would then be but who is the “many of us”? Us, is the we who grew up in that space of liminality called “model c”, straddling multiple sides of our countries historical legacies. Although not monolithic, our memories and experiences are punctuated in similar shades. I think of a poem I came across while strolling through Wendy’s Instagram feed; the quite voyeurism of research:
my english is broken.
have to try harder to understand
breaking this language
you so love
is my pleasure.
in your arrogance
you presume that I want your skinny language.
that my mouth is building a room for
in the back of my throat.
it is not.
-i have seven different words for love. you
have only one. that makes a lot of sense.
While the poem in question speaks of the english language, where Wendy’s work is concerned english could also be a place holder for the experience of our “model c” childhood’s navigating spaces, schools and social settings accented by whiteness but our lives vernacularised with Blackness. Our Zulu Mom Reacts to Her Daughters Wishlist, is one such video made by her that more elegantly embodies the point I am stumbling to make. The video begins with an introduction from Wendy:
“so it was my birthday about a week ago and it really got me thinking like how do African parents usually react to our birthdays? First of all do they even remember, secondly do they give us what we want and who better to portray this then the perfect duo Samkhelisiwe and our Zulu mom”. What then follows is a hilarious interaction. Having cried through many a forgotten birthdays and absent gifts myself, the video could have been from my own childhood, except my mother is not Zulu and this time around years later, I was laughing.
The road to success is paved with many internal and external battles. In her own journey Wendy has had to navigate obstacles and adversity in the form of imposters syndrome and rejections:
“I wasn’t sure how many more closed doors I could handle. Moments later, I was sitting across Desireé Markgraaf and Adze Ugah in an interview. I couldn’t even believe I was breathing the same air as them! That day ended with an offer to join the Isibaya Writing Room. Whenever I feel like things are too hard or when imposter syndrome tries to creep in, I go back to that interview and I pull myself towards myself and get the job done”.
With plans to take things to the next level with her channel and having recently joined the cast of Isibaya, I think it’s safe to say that we are just at the beginning of Wendy Gumede’s journey and the possibilities seem endless. I for one, am excited to keep baring witness to her contributions to South African pop culture and her growth as a cultural producer and artist, while cheering her on from a distance as one would that kickin it on a Sunday-afternoon-while-listening-to-those-Khaya Fm-tunes type of old friend.