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Selema Masekela on the True African Origins of Surfing

By Mae Hamilton

Oct 13, 2021

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Masekela’s book is the first of its kind to explore Africa’s myriad surfing cultures in depth.

Photograph by Daniel Wikey

Masekela’s book is the first of its kind to explore Africa’s myriad surfing cultures in depth.

The sports commentator and activist shares his thoughts on his new book, the launch of his surf brand Mami Wata in the United States, and the unique spirit of African surf culture.

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Any Beach Boys song will have you believing that the epicenters of modern surf culture are located firmly in Hawai‘i and Southern California and that any global offshoots are mere pantomimes of the “real thing.” But did you know the first documented instance of surfing was actually logged in the 1640s off the coast of what is now Ghana? Afrosurf, compiled by Selema Masekela and his Cape Town–based surf brand Mami Wata (which launches online in the U.S. today), seeks to dispel any preconceived notions that readers may have about the African surf scene—if they have any at all.

Masekela is a Hollywood multi-hyphenate who’s dabbled in a little bit of everything, all while keeping up with his main passion: surfing. He’s perhaps best known for hosting the X Games for 13 years and broadcasting the Olympic games for NBC’s Olympic Zone, but he’s also made forays into acting and music, following in the footsteps of his father, critically acclaimed trumpeter Hugh Masekela. In addition to his professional and artistic pursuits, Masekela is also an activist and the cofounder of Stoked Mentoring, an organization that uplifts underserved youth through action sports. A staunch believer in the spiritual might of surfing and the need to make it accessible for all, Masekela shares his thoughts on the joy of riding a wave for the first time, racism in the water, and how surfing just might be the way coastal African communities can take charge of their economic futures.

Buy now: $37, bookshop.org

Selema Masekela is the son of trumpeter Hugh Masekela. But he found his own passion in sports—specifically in the power of surfing.

How were you first introduced to surfing?

My first introduction into surf culture was actually in Australia in 1987. I was a teenager, and with my father, who was touring with Paul Simon during his Graceland tour. It was sort of like that movie Almost Famous, except real. There was a crew member, a local guy in Sydney, who would always bring his surfboard to work and put it backstage. I would walk by the board and would pepper him with questions. [One day] he was like, “I’ll tell you where to go.” So, I took a ferry to Bondi, bought a sandwich, and I sat down on this bench at this prescribed place and these two kids, who were around my age, walked by with their surfboards after school and went out to surf. To me, surfing was like break dancing on water. I was just so fascinated by the movement, the posturing, and the clear self-expression that this thing had. 

Then, a year later, my mother and stepfather announced that we were moving to a place called Carlsbad, California. I had to look it up in an encyclopedia. I didn’t realize how close to the coast it was until I woke up in the morning to go unload the U-Haul truck and we were a mile and a half from the beach—I could see the Pacific Ocean. I just remember this moment of like, “Whoa.”

The culture revolved around this relationship with the ocean and surfing. But I was very much a fish out of water in that nobody that looked like me. I mean, I think there were two other black kids that went to my school and they were the track star and football star. So, when I told the kids I wanted to surf, they laughed at me, like, “You people don’t even swim!” It was like a public service announcement, “You people don’t even swim, what do you mean you want to learn how to surf?” 

The first time that I stood up on a wave for like five seconds in the white water, it was a very spiritual experience. Time stopped. I felt something pour out from the universe and the entire direction of my life was changed from that moment. 

What was the segue into South African surf culture?

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I’m the son of a political exile—a father who was in exile from South Africa. In 1991, I got to be a road manager for his homecoming tour in South Africa. But the biggest appeal to me before I went there wasn’t necessarily getting to meet [some of] my family for the first time—it was knowing that there was really great surf in South Africa. Like, well, sh*t. For sure I’m going!

But it was a very strange and hostile time in South Africa. So, the first time I surfed there was in Durban, South Africa; people were in shock the first day I walked down the street with a surfboard. Cars pulled over. You could hear the brakes of cars screeching and people looked at me in silence. Kids let me know they had never seen a Black surfer before.

Three or four days later, the cops basically set up a roadside sting at this place where I was surfing and claimed that I was breaking the law by jumping off of this jetty to go surfing—which everyone jumped off of—but they sat for like three or four days to try and figure out, “How do we get this Black man, who clearly doesn’t know his place, out of here?” It was a really powerful moment to be going back with my father, who had been fighting for 30 years to get home and then go and be affected directly by that in what was my passion, which was surfing. 

Africa’s Atlantic coast may feature some rocky sailing, but it makes for excellent surfing and offers some of the best waves in the world.

I have to be honest—before this book, I didn’t even know that African surf cultures existed. Why was starting this project so important to you?

I think that for the same reasons that those kids felt so comfortable as to say to me like, “You people don’t swim, how are you going to learn to surf?” The idea of recreation, water, and the freedom to find peace, solace, and joy in nature as a lifestyle, is something that has been marketed for the most part, to white people. And when anyone else who does it, it’s like, “That’s cute! That’s a novelty! I didn’t know that they participated in our things.” Even from a commercial perspective, it’s been how the lifestyle brands have narrated what it means to be a surfer, or a mountain climber, or a kayaker, or an outdoor runner, or any number of things that take place that are deeply personal and connect you into nature. 

I think especially with water, we have this mythology of like, “Oh, Black people just have heavy bones or have an aversion to water.” It’s ironic that the largest continent in the world surrounded by water would be a place where, when it comes to surfing, people perceive it as only as a place that folks from other countries would explore and that the Indigenous people wouldn’t find joy in and have a life revolving around the ocean—it’s kind of crazy.

In South Africa, in Ghana, in Senegal, in Morocco, in Namibia, in Mozambique, it’s all influenced and built around local Indigenous culture. It’s not necessarily dictated by what the Australians, Americans, and the Pacific Islanders do. It’s pretty cool. The book ends up being a good Trojan horse into making people very curious about Africa as a whole. There’s something very beautiful and powerful in getting to see people be forced to communicate with and to connect with Africa through something they love, that they literally thought of as only existing in a handful of spaces.

Afrosurf presents a modern narrative of a new Africa that is less interested in imitating the West and more interested in showcasing its own identity.

What do you think the big draw of surfing is for people in general? 

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Overwhelmingly, there’s two things. It’s a flow state activity, for one. Surfing, as far as the clock is concerned, it happens very, very quickly. Your longest experience riding a wave—your biggest waves—are probably limited somewhere in that 10- to 15-second range. Tops. But the best moments take place for a second or two with your prefrontal cortex out of the way—everything slows down and you really feel a oneness with this energy that is propelling you. It is a very natural, powerful high that is not subject to any of the bullsh*t laws that you deal with on land. You’re entering a space that is not yours. You’re entering the domain of what lies beneath and the raw magical power of energy as it moves through the ocean. You get a chance to harness an energy for brief seconds, from storms that originated thousands of miles away. There’s something about just sitting in the ocean waiting for the opportunity to catch a wave that is so peaceful and so meditational. It’s very, very difficult to explain. 

On land, everyone is trying to tell us who we are and why we are, are or aren’t, and what makes you less than and someone else better and the ocean could give a f*ck. It’s just a very, very powerful way to bathe in the magic of getting to exist. It feels like, at times, touching beyond the astral plane. I think that’s what draws people to it. And listen, the community has got all sorts of issues and toxicity and selfishness, but surfing is so great in itself that you’re willing to deal with all of that just for a moment of a peace that you couldn’t manufacture if you tried. 

Protecting surf breaks can also protect fragile ecosystems like mangroves and coral reefs.

In the book, you talk a little bit about “Afrosurfonomics”—how local entrepreneurs can use surf tourism as a way to uplift their communities. I’m wondering how you envision that happening. 

Traditionally, surf economics have been dictated by people who have a colonialist bend, where it’s like, “I left where I was from, set up shop in this place, built a business for myself and I bring people from all over the world to surf here, and I feel good about it because I employ local people, and therefore I’m providing an economy.” But at the end of the day, the local people, the way that culture runs most of the time, isn’t setting the tone for what that looks like and they don’t have any ownership or piece of it. 

So, when it comes to this new world of Afrosurfonomics, surf culture, and surf economics being driven by local culture and that ownership by local culture, that to me is a beautiful future, where the people who live there are able to set up and dictate, as opposed to someone who came through with a backpack and never left—and now they’re suddenly in charge of a place.

Mami Wata is debuting in the U.S. in just a few days. What are your big hopes for the brand launching here?

Well, I mean. It is my hope that Mami Wata launching in the States holds the feet of the rest of the surfing industry to the fire in a way. It’s like, “Hey, we’re going to tell the story of surfing and it’s going to look a lot different from anything you’ve ever seen.” All of its rooting is going to come from this idea of African surf culture. That’s going to be the bent and the flavor of the entirety of this brand. 

My goal with Mami Wata, and hopefully with other brands that come along, is that saying “I’m a surfer,” doesn’t result in someone looking at you and saying, “Well, you don’t look like a surfer.” Looking like a surfer isn’t necessarily a thing anymore that you can pick out strictly by having blond hair and blue eyes. I hope it ushers in a redefinition of surf culture that is really far more global in its presentation than it’s been so far.

>>Next: Writer Louise Erdrich on the Unique Soul of the Twin Cities

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