Johannesburg is a magnet for young, talented professionals from all over the African continent and the world. During my visits over the years I have met several interesting 20- and 30-somethings who are living the life of their dreams, including a Californian writer who moved there to work on a cartoon series, a Zimbabwean lawyer who relocated to take advantage of the professional opportunities unavailable at home, a Jamaican singer whose international career has taken off in Joburg, and a Ghanaian investor who moved there to run one of the largest public equity funds in Africa.
What draws individuals from such diverse backgrounds to a place like Johannesburg? My first guess would be the quality of life that can be enjoyed there. The young fabulous and chic live in beautiful apartments, drive luxury cars and take advantage of all the latest technology. They meet friends for drinks at some of the trendiest lounges, like ZAR and Randlords. My next guess would be that Joburg is so cosmopolitan that it is relatively easy to adjust to the lifestyle. The city boasts attractions that could be located anywhere in the world, such as Sandton City, the mega mall that offers luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Godiva Chocolatier, or Melrose Arch, the 21st century multi-use residential, retail and commercial complex. Nightlife and entertainment options are equally impressive and many successfully replicate a New York nightclub experience!
I last visited Joburg during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, when the city swelled with international visitors. Towards the tail end of the tournament, some friends and I attended a widely promoted party at the Alexander Theatre. I could feel the floor vibrate as we entered the venue and had our bags searched. The rhythm was insistent and relentless. It immediately pulled us in and commanded that we dance. There would be no “profiling” tonight – no standing around to be admired for being young, fabulous and chic. Tonight was a night for carefree enjoyment and movement.
DJ Neil Armstrong, a New York native, graced the stage that night. He has performed shows alongside artists across the Hip-Hop spectrum – from De La Soul, The Roots, Company Flow and Biz Markie, to Kanye West, LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes and Wyclef Jean. Almost every song he played was familiar…it either made me close my eyes and smile at a fond memory or run up to the stage in disbelief that I was hearing these tunes in JOHANNESBURG of all places!
My friends and I – a Malawian, a South African and two Americans – were pleased we had chosen this party and grateful for such a treat. As I scanned the room, looking past the pulsating disco lights and clouds of cigarette smoke, it seemed nearly everyone present was having the same reaction to this music. The tunes were familiar, as were the words I saw them singing along. From the shy-looking young girl with the oversized glasses to the tall, lanky artist-looking guy with the mohawk, everyone knew the words and everyone was being transported to another place and time by this guest DJ.
For a moment I forgot where I was. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought I was in the Bronx, New York, in the early 1990s, partaking in the nascent Hip Hop era. Once again, I was reminded that this is the cosmopolitan nature of Joburg.
But that night at the Alex Theatre, as I watched those around me more closely, I realized that there was an unmistakably South African flavor to their style of dance – a bit more “hip” than “hop”, perhaps. I am also reminded of this each time I visit Joburg; though it carries a cosmopolitan flair, the city is proudly South African.