“Where there’s a lot of art, there’s a lot of pain,” 21-year-old Yamkela Kasana says, as she looks out at a long wall at the edge of Langa, fencing Langa Stadium. The whole wall has been turned into street art by local artists. Yamkela leans her hand against one of the walls that shows an older Langa dancing to Afro Jazz. It’s the community that Yamkela comes from. Street art, just like music, is everywhere.
And here, music is in the heart of everything.
Langa-born-and-raised, Yamkela is a vocalist and DJ, studying at Bridges for Music Academy, learning music production, entrepreneurship, and mindfulness.
“In the township, the only thing that brings us together is music,” Yamkela says “I’m a part of that. [As a musician], that’s your job, to bring people together.”
Valentino Barrioseta founded Bridges for Music in 2013 after touring Langa Township on a visit to South Africa from Spain. He worked in the music industry for 20 years, running some of the world’s biggest night clubs, including Barraca in Valencia and Amnesia in Ibiza. In 2019, he opened the Bridges for Music Academy.
“He fell in love with the love of music here, and how young guys like me were creating music with what they had at the time,” Langa legend Thulani Headman, also known as DJ Fosta, said.
DJ Fosta knows what it’s like to struggle for access. A portrait of his father, Cyril Ngcukana Headman, the pianist for Peto music group and a jazz musician, greets passersby at the first entrance to Langa.
“I come from a disadvantaged community, and coming up as a teenager, I got caught up on the wrong side of things, and I ended up in prison,” DJ Fosta said. “That was where I changed my life.” After leaving prison in 2005, he chose the name Fosta, which in the isiXhosa language is slang for “making things happen.” He started 021 Records as a platform for musicians from Langa. Now, he’s the community leader at Bridges for Music Academy.
“This is the first studio of its kind in a community such as Langa,” DJ Fosta said. “Even I used to produce in the back room of my house.”
Bridges for Music Academy crosses that gap, training 20 students a semester in how to market themselves, how to DJ, how to produce music, and how to guard their mental health. They hold workshops with entrepreneurs, talks, and events with famous musicians — Black Coffee, Sho Madjozi, Ed Sheeran, Skrillex, just to name a few — and create opportunities and connections with clubs, event organizers, festivals, and internships.
Bridges for Music closes the gap between famous artists and young women like Yamkela, who share the same passion but not the same opportunities. The difference is access.
“When you stay in a township, it’s created to keep you in one place,” Yamkela says. “It’s got one layout, so you can’t really escape.” Although Langa has an official population of 80,000, it has just two exits, part of how townships like hers were designed under the apartheid system. Yamkela can trace her family’s history in Langa back to her grandmother. “[But] with music, I can escape,” she said.
“As a female from the township, firstly, there’s already a stigma put on you. I have to take what they say and put it behind my back,” Yamkela said. “I’m not just doing music because it’s a passion. I’m doing it because I need to escape that negative energy.”
Bridges for Music Academy is a safe place. Students bring their trauma with them, trauma from poverty, violence, crime, gender-based violence, drugs, alcohol, and emotional abuse, but here, mental health is as important as music.
“Every morning, we meditate first, [to] calm the mind, center ourselves,” 24-year-old student Onele Ntsabo from Delft said. “We come in that gate with so much baggage. Having that ‘sacred circle,’ we’re able to take off that baggage even just for a short time, so we can create.”
“For so many years, the journey was to keep on going. There was never a time when I stopped, and I breathed,” 25-year-old student Fundiswa Mbambani said. “Sometimes we connect through pain, but as time goes by, we connect through healing as well.”
DJ, vocalist, and lyric writer Zizipho Mbesi, known as Lady-Zee, was one of the first students at the Bridges for Music Academy. Last year, she ran her first workshop. Now, she mentors young girls from her community and plans to start a female DJ school next year at Bridge’s for Music; she said the all-female DJ school will be Cape Town’s first. “For me, I want to give back, to educate them, and to motivate other upcoming artists,” Lady-Zee said.
When asked what Yamkela sees as the barriers for female musicians from Langa, Yamkela named lack of opportunities, expectations for women, and societal pressure.
“A lot of guys in the industry take advantage of women,” Yamkela said. Like Lady-Zee, she said, “My dream is to open an organization that can support females in the music industry, the business behind music, and music production.”
“It starts with where you come from; it starts with being a role model,” Lady-Zee said. She stands next to another mural in Langa that says in isiXhosa “ubunye,” which means “we are together.”
“What I’ve learned from Bridges is just keep pushing yourself, that’s it, and believe whatever problem we’re facing, we’re going to prosper at the end of the day.”