We caught up with Sal Masekela

2017-06-04 14:00
Sal Masekela
Sal Masekela (Photo: Supplied)

Cape Town - The Masekelas are not just a family that has contributed to culture; they are kind, selfless and just plain old cool people. The kind of people you want to be your people.

Son of Hugh

Selema “Sal” Masekela is the son of the legendary Bra Hugh Masekela. He doesn’t fight to stay out of his father’s shadow, nor does he try to expose the privilege of his surname.

“I have a father who’s not just famous, but who has had an impact on the world. Over time, I’ve had to learn and appreciate what he went through, what he was fighting for and what it means to be South African.”

Raised in the US, he visited South Africa for the first time in 1991. “It was a hectic time ... I saw and experienced things that I thought I never would in my life and got a real taste of the evils of racism. I thought I had experienced racism in America, but that was country club racism compared to what I saw and felt here, and I didn’t come back for a long time.”

Sal was recently back in the country for the announcement of the Afropunk Fest Joburg 2017 line-up, which includes his band, Alekesam. “As a kid when my dad was exiled, miserable and homesick, and you would literally have to watch him have to deal with it emotionally and process it, while trying to hold on to hope that this thing is actually going to end and that he’ll get to go home, not taking citizenship anywhere and basically being a no-man for over 30 years … as a kid, if you told me that not only does my father get to go home and live out his full days, but that I will get the opportunity to also go back and share in a ground-breaking moment for the culture and play my music? That’s the craziest dream ever: I get to play a show in South Africa and my father will be able to be there and watch.”


Apart from his father’s lit jazz, growing up in the 80s during the birth of hip-hop shaped a huge part of Sal’s musical influence.

“When we moved to California when I was a teenager, suddenly I was being exposed to alternative music that I’ve never heard before like Depeche Mode and New Order – all of that influenced me when it came time to make music.”

And that time came later since the expectations of being his father’s son weighed on the younger Sal. “I reached a point in my career where it didn’t feel like this has to work. I was at the point where this is something that I want to do so it wouldn’t make a difference in my life if people didn’t like it.”

The name Alekesam is Masekela spelt backwards. “There’s already a Masekela that makes music and it’s a name that is so powerful in the industry that I felt, let me do it this way and see if people hear the music, vibe with it and if they find out later this is the story, then that is cool. I didn’t want my name to get in the way of the music.”

He adds: “People always ask me what’s your music called and I say it’s surf R&B with a sprinkle of very specific 90s hip-hop. That’s the best way that I can describe it.”

Alekesam’s other half is his cousin Sunny Levine, the son of Stewart Levine, who has produced a lot of music for Bra Hugh. The band’s music has been featured on the hit TV shows Entourage and House of Lies.

“We grew up like brothers, so it’s really fun for us to write together and really dig deep.”

Sex tapes and sports shows

But this Masekela is not only a musician, he’s also a journalist and TV producer – you’ll remember him as the host of E!’s popular Daily 10 news show.

“I left E! in November 2010 after an incredible four-and-a-half-year run. I had fun, but when it got to the point where they wanted me to treat the information like it was real news, that’s when I couldn’t work there anymore.”

Sal has since become the executive producer and host of Vice World of Sports, which takes viewers across the globe to explore people, politics and culture through sport.

He unloads about E! a bit: “For the most part, very rarely do you get to talk about the actual art that people make, you’re talking about who they may or may not be f*cking, what they may or may not have done last night and it just starts to feel like really dark energy.”

After the Kim Kardashian sex tape hit, Sal was the first to sit down with her for an interview.

“Her mother, Kris Jenner, brought Kim to my desk because the day before she decided that I was going to be the person to do the interview and not Ryan Seacrest. The next day I’m sitting at my little cubicle writing and I feel a tap on my shoulder. I take my headphones off and there’s Kris, Kim and my producer with the president of the network all there like, ‘Hey Sal, this is Kim and she’s here for her interview today and we wanted you guys to sit and get to know each other a little first’. So she joins me at my cubicle and it’s uncomfortable because this girl is about to tell the whole world that this tape is the real thing and in that moment I knew that her life was going to change forever. I wasn’t quite sure whether she really knew what she was getting into. Her mom was focused. It was clearly about business.”

His big moment was basically his last straw. “When I saw in which direction the work was going, especially after we broke the Kardashian story, I got tired. It just didn’t feel right. You watch people’s lives change in front of you and no one is seeing the real damaging part of that style of entertainment.”

Trump’s America

Sal may find himself spending more time in South Africa than he expected, given the nightmare unfolding in America.

“It’s strange to have a president who has no basic grasp of the history of the country or how laws work. You don’t have a sense of what the person stands for. After eight years of a presidency that seemed to be rooted in trying to figure the best ways to move forward, now we have a presidency that is rooted in how do we go backwards, way backwards. When they talk about the 50s being the golden era of America, that’s some scary-ass shit. That’s before civil rights. That’s segregation. It’s a strange time in America. I’ve never been this curious and unsure about our ability to move forward and progress.”

Afropunk Fest Joburg 2017 happens at Constitution Hill on December 30 and 31, and celebrates music, style, art and food.

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