YOBO | Your’e Only Born Once

Words: Dave Mann
Photography: Niamh Walsh-Vorster

Iain ‘Ewok’ Robinson performs in YOBO: You’re only born once in the Thomas Pringle hall in Grahamstown on 8 July 2015; at the 2015 National Arts Festival. Robinson’s spoken word and poetic lines are used to tell the story of a solitary white South African man, discovering his position in a post-apartheid SA and realises the contemporary issues we face that link to our history. (Photo: CUEPIX/Niamh Walsh-Vorster)

Iain Ewok Robinson is a busy man. Through his graffiti, hip-hop, and spoken word, he tackles various socio-economic and political issues. Now he’s teamed up with director Karen Logan to bring to the Festival, YOBO: You’re Only Born Once.

Yobo was a terrific production which made use of live video production, a sparse set comprising of plastic bags, crates, and a metal barrel, and Ewok’s signature spoken word, to spit slating commentary at the state of overarching whiteness in post-apartheid South Africa. Robinson touches on a variety of issues ranging from the recent #RhodesMustFall movement and apartheid apologists, to impoverished whites, and of course – the ever-present, unapologetically vocal, white liberals.

Iain ‘Ewok’ Robinson performs in YOBO: You’re only born once in the Thomas Pringle hall in Grahamstown on 8 July 2015; at the 2015 National Arts Festival. Robinson’s spoken word and poetic lines are used to tell the story of a solitary white South African man, discovering his position in a post-apartheid SA and realises the contemporary issues we face that link to our history. (Photo: CUEPIX/Niamh Walsh-Vorster)

I, however, was more interested in the audience than the actual production. Wedged between two white audience members, one an SA expat now living in Scotland, and one young woman who consistently regretted her decision to come to the show. Behind me were a row of high school boys, mostly white.

Expat made a point of telling me how much she knows about the South African art scene and that how when she used to come to Festival many years ago “the social politics were very different”. “Back then, black artists used to make art for a reason, and protest was an art form in itself,” lectures expat. According to her, art by contemporary black Africans “just isn’t substantial. They’re focussed on the wrong things”. Expat made a point of clapping the loudest and longest after the performance, because you know, she knows exactly what Robinson was saying. The message wasn’t even aimed at her right? She’s known about the evils of white liberalism all along. All the way from Scotland.

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Young white woman made a point of letting out a number of audible sighs of frustration throughout the show. Between all the sighing and eye rolling, she would have expended less energy by walking out of the show. It’s a bizarre experience seeing a message so blatantly thrown at somebody and watching them remain so glibly ignorant to it. The schoolboys weren’t much better either. They seemed to thoroughly enjoy the piece, but largely because of Robinson’s wild outbursts and audience interaction in the character of a jumpy homeless person.

Me? When I wasn’t watching the audience, I thoroughly enjoyed the production. At points I did find it a bit drawn out and preachy, but perhaps that’s a flag for my personal limitations in terms of discussing whiteness. That’s what Yobo does – it holds up a mirror to its audiences. A cracked and dusty mirror smeared with the subtle, but permanent marks of elitism, racism, and ignorant escapism. If you’re a white South African and you don’t see some of yourself in that mirror, then you aren’t looking hard enough.

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