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Selema Masekela said he will never forget the moment police tried to arrest him for simply trying to surf.
It was just months after apartheid ended in South Africa, during a trip to visit his father, a political exile who had returned to his homeland. The beaches in Africa had previously been designated for white people only, and Masekela said it was clear he was still not welcome to enjoy the ocean.
“Police dragged me off the beach,” he said. “That was an interesting moment that really shook me to the core.”
Masekela, a well-known figure in the surf and skate world as a sport commentator and entrepreneur who has now authored “AFROSURF,” will be hosting a panel discussion at the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center in San Clemente on Saturday, March 19, to launch the exhibit “The Rise Of African Surf Culture.”
The discussion will explore Africa’s rich ocean and surf culture, how Black surfers have faced racism in Southern California and beyond and how a tide of change is rising with more groups spotlighting surfers from different cultural backgrounds.
Growing up surfing in San Diego, Masekela said sometimes years would go by without him seeing another Black surfer. Reactions from fellow surfers to his skin color ranged from people saying how cool it was to see a Black surfer out in the water, to countless times being told he didn’t belong and wasn’t welcome.
In 2017, he met the founders of clothing company Mami Wata, a small start-up in Cape Town, South Africa, that was aiming to create the first African-driven, global surf lifestyle brand. Masekela, a common fixture at surf industry events and often the only Black person in the crowd, said he knew the brand represented something missing in the surf world.
The images of surfing culture are largely made up of blond-hair, blue-eyed Southern Californians, he said. “Growing up, I didn’t have brands that said, ‘You can do this too.’”
But Mami Wata is different, he said, with the brand’s founder, Nick Dutton, showcasing modern African design in a lifestyle brand that revolves around the communal love of the ocean.
Masekela signed on as a co-founder to help expand into the United States. But then, the coronavirus pandemic hit, making it tough to ship products or get the word out about the venture.
So they decided to spend their down time creating a coffee table book, “AFROSURF,” detailing, they feel for the first time, African surf history and culture, telling stories from a different viewpoint.
The 320-page book is filled with 200 photos, 50 essays and first-person accounts about the surf experience from an African perspective.
Typically, the continent is discussed as a safari destination or a place to do charity work, Masekela said, not a place rich with culture, design, food and art that can contribute to the surfing world.
The book hopes to change those perceptions and celebrate the surf landscape many people don’t know exists – not just the well-known Jeffrey’s Bay or Cape Town beaches, but the emerging surf scenes in places such as Senegal and Ghana.
“I think that it’s making people curious and say ‘I want to go to those places,’” said Masekela, who now lives in Venice Beach.
The project started with a Kickstarter, which immediately sold 1,400 copies with all the royalties from the book going to two African surf therapy organizations, Waves For Change and Surfers Not Street Children.
Then, the publishing company Penguin Random House reached out to print the book, with more than 13,000 copies sold worldwide since. New York Times called it a must-have coffee table book for the holidays.
Masekela just returned from an African surf trip a few months ago, scoring world-class waves and experiencing something new: 95% of the other surfers in the water were Black.
“I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face, everyday,” he said. “It feels good to be able to, with this book and brand, help Africa and African people enter the chat, so to speak, when it comes to what global surf culture looks like.”
In Southern California, Masekela said he also sees the tide turning for Black surfers finding community and encouragement in and out of the water.
Surfing paddle-outs, like one he hosted in San Diego that drew thousands of people for the Black Lives Matter movement, started conversations among surfers about racism and inclusion in the line up, he said.
But also during the pandemic lockdowns, people were exploring the outdoors and the ocean, thinking about the things they always wanted to try, like surfing. “You stand up on the wave and your life has a strong possibility to change,” he said.
More social media groups are popping up such as Textured Waves, which recently launched an apparel collaboration with Vans, and Ebony Beach Club, which held a “Peace Paddle” a few weeks ago in Manhattan Beach.
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Those stories, images and videos will help encourage Black people who may have been hesitant to try surfing feel more welcome, he said.
“They are redefining what California cool and beach lifestyles looks like from the perspective of young Black kids,” he said, “which you haven’t seen because people thought that wasn’t a story that could be told.”
Masekela said he’ll talk at the panel about what he learned through researching the book, the history of explorers from Africa and documentation of Ghanaians riding waves and navigating the sea as far back as the 1600s.
“It doesn’t replace our Polynesian origin stories, it compliments it,” he said.
African people who lived by the coast were expert sailors and fishermen, adept watermen – but when they were sold into slavery, they would be beaten if found near the ocean for fear they were trying to escape, he said.
“Imagine the trauma of those things being stripped out of them,” he said of losing their connection with the ocean.
In a conversation about race and surfing in Southern California, Masekela spoke candidly about beach-access barriers and systematic racism that he said have deterred Black people from the beach.
Those approaching a surf break might a face “localism,” he said, a term for surfers who give trouble to outsiders who try and paddle out at surf breaks they claim as their own home turf.
“It’s intimidating enough to go out and fight the ocean for a few seconds of pleasure,” Masekela said. “People think because they grow up there, it’s theirs. But that’s not how it works.”
And someone who has to travel miles to get to the beach – that lack of access issue – likely has to endure a lot more stress to get there, he said.
The ocean is meant to be “a healing place,” he said, “somewhere they can forget about the stresses of their life.”
Surfing in Manhattan Beach’s El Porto recently, Masekela said he saw six or seven other Black surfers – a big change from when he was growing up.
“For us, that feels like hundreds,” he said. “Which means we have a long way to go, but we’re starting.”
The event at the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center in San Clemente, 110 Calle Iglesia, starts at 5 p.m. and is free to the public. For more information: shacc.org
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