Biko Walls of Memory

A Multi Living Hip Hop Human Being

Biko’s Children from Breeze Yoko on Vimeo.

Hip Hop Film artist Vuyisa “Breeze” Yoko, aka “Khasi” who directed this piece called “Biko’s Children”, said in the opening of this film, if Biko were alive he would be a Hip Hop Head.

THIRTY-SEVEN YEARS after his death, Steve Bantu Biko has come to life, on the walls of black communities throughout South Africa… Graffiti writers are grafting Biko’s image on rough, often neglected surfaces, forcing people to remember the man and his legacy in a whole new way.

Orlando West in Soweto, is the home of Black Consciousness and the heart of the 1976 rebellion that shook South Africa to its foundation. Here I met one of those mythical memory spray painters, Rasik Green also known by his tag or graffiti name, Mr Ekse.

Rasik’s home in Nkadimeng Street is just a few blocks away from the place where 12-year-old Hector Pieterson and hundreds of other youths were gunned down by the police. Crates filled to the brim with spray cans litter Rasik’s backyard together with spray painted doors, boards and canvasses.

Rasik describes himself as; “a multi living Hip Hop human being as most of the things I do are influenced by Hip Hop”. In addition to writing graffiti, the artist also works as an illustrator and multi- media designer.

The 33- year old writer, studied art at Parktown College, Artist Proof Studio in Newtown and finally graduated from the Greenside Design Centre.

Artist Rasik "Mr Ekse" Green at work.

Artist Rasik “Mr Ekse” Green at work.

Hip Hop Connection

Rasik has thus far painted two Biko portraits on walls in Orlando West and one portrait on canvass.

“We see this kind of work as a revival, a shout-out to the people who brought us here. People like Tsietsi, Mbuyisa and Biko. Especially being from Orlando West, it’s impossible to ignore our political history while living here.”
Rasik or Mr Ekse said he wants to celebrate Biko on walls because; “Biko spoke about notions I believe in, notions like Black Consciousness, growing autonomous Black economies and self- upliftment.”

Rasik said it was Hip Hop that made him connect to Biko and his ideas.

“Hip Hop in the 80s was really a Black Consciousness inspired movement. Hip Hop emphasises celebrating your roots, your origin. Hip Hop has always been about the revolt, that’s why we connect to Biko”.

Biko Beginnings

But who was this Steve Biko, who would inspire so many, even from beyond the grave?

A biography published by South African History Online, maps the story of this enigmatic visionary, from his birth in the rural Eastern Cape village of Tylden on 18 December 1946, to his brutal death at the hands of the Apartheid security machinery in Pretoria on 12 September 1977.

According to the SA History Online biography, Biko first encountered the violence of South Africa’s system of white supremacy, as a student at the Lovedale College. Steve was arrested with his brother Khaya, who had been a Pan African Congress activist. Steve’s brother was sentenced for two years with 15 months suspended and served his term at Fort Glamorgan jail near East London.

Steve, still a teenager at the time, was released after being interrogated by the Police but was subsequently expelled from Lovedale. And so began the rebellion for the man who would come to define the Black Consciousness Movement.

In 1966, Steve was admitted to the Durban Medical School at the University of Natal Non European section (UNNE) and here he became involved in the University student movement. Arguing that black students needed to organise themselves independently from the predominantly white NUSAS, Steve together with other black student activists formed the South African Students Organisation (SASO) in July 1969.

Dignity Within the Black Man

According to the Online biography Steve was instrumental in forming the Black Peoples Convention in December 1972, proposing to ‘unite all South African Blacks into a political movement, which would seek liberation and emancipation of Black people from both psychological and physical oppression’. Steve was also instrumental in forming the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and initiative called the Black Community Programmes (BCP) seeking to help uplift Black communities. Biko described the work of these upliftment projects as follows:

“Essentially to answer [the] problem…that the Black man is a defeated being who finds it very difficult to lift himself up by his boot strings. He is alienated…He is made to live all the time concerned with matters of existence, concerned with tomorrow…Now, we felt that we must attempt to defeat and break this kind of attitude and instill once more a sense of dignity within the Black man. So what we did was to design various types of programmes, present these to the Black community with an obvious illustration that these are done by the Black people for the sole purpose of uplifting the Black community. We believed that we teach people by example”(Biko in Bizos, 1998: 43)
The Online biography says Steve’s most important work was his efforts to forge a working unity, between various liberation movements, specifically between the ANC, the PAC and the Non European Unity Movement.

After many arrests, and banning orders, Steve was brutally tortured and murdered by the security police on 12 September 1977, thirty-seven years ago.

Biko iconography in Soweto

Biko iconography in Soweto.

We Write What We Like

For street culture artists like Rasik, it was Biko’s written words and thoughts that most inspired them. Biko published articles using the pseudonym “Frank Talk”, under the heading “I Write What I Like”.

Rasik said, “Biko wrote what he liked. As graffiti writers we write what we like. Like Biko we break the boundaries and social norms around us in an attempt to beautify our environment.” Rasik said like Biko, Hip Hop artists want to conscientise people.

“We want to restore Biko’s spirit when we paint his image on the wall. Kids will begin to recognise the forgotten heroes. We want to spark those forgotten stories and spaces.”

Rasik is part of an arts collective called “Kgantsa ho Ganye” meaning “light and be lit”,
“We want to sing praise to heroes like Biko on every corner of the community. We want to educate ourselves about our history, conscientise ourselves. We want to re- ignite the spirit of those heroes like Biko who many people in our communities know little or nothing about. We want to give people more information so we can start having more Frank Talks about these unsung heroes.”

Not only has Steve Bantu Biko come to life on community walls, more importantly he has come to life in the consciousness of a new generation of young South Africans, who are determined to remember the man and his true legacy.

The inspiration for a Wall of Memory.