Selema Masekela debuts South African surf brand Mami Wata
By Kamala Kirk
The first time Selema Masekela visited South Africa was for his father’s homecoming tour in 1991 after Apartheid ended. The son of the late South African jazz legend, Hugh Masekela, Selema recalled being uncertain if he wanted to go at the time.
“Up until that point, my dad had been a political exile for 30 years and had not been allowed to go home,” Selema said. “Then finally as things were starting to break down, the South African government started inviting exiles to come back home without having to fear for their lives or risk being thrown in prison. That was a moment that my dad had been fighting and waiting for all those years. He called me up and asked me to be a road manager on his tour, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go because there was a lot happening at the time. South Africa was going through a big transition and it was dangerous.”
An avid surfer, Selema knew that South Africa had good waves. Over the years, he had seen the results from various surf contests that took place at Jeffreys Bay and he had watched footage from surf movies, which spawned his desire to ride the waves there.
“The laws had just changed a few months before I visited and beaches that had been for white people only were suddenly open to everyone,” Selema said. “I went on that trip with my dad and by the time we got to the coast, I went to a surf shop, bought a board and went surfing in Durban. No one had seen a person who looked like me surfing there before and after the fourth day, the cops tried to arrest me. It was a wild experience to say the least. I also met many members of my family for the first time – uncles, aunts, grandparents and all these people from this fabric of who I was as a person that I’d been denied because of the crazy unjust system of Apartheid. I fell in love with South Africa and have been going back ever since. In 2019, I was commentating the World Surf League event at Jeffreys Bay, which was something I never would have imagined. Now there are many kids that look like me, surfing and embracing the surf culture after a hundred years of being denied that right. It’s very powerful and amazing.”
In 2017, Selema was visiting South Africa to help care for his father, who was undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. During his time there, Selema’s friend and South African fashion designer, Maria McCloy, told him about a group of guys in Cape Town (Andy Davis, Nick Dutton and Peet Pienaar) that he needed to meet who had a store and surf label called Mami Wata. They had made a short surf film called “Woza” that told the story of an African surfer.
“I was blown away because the film had a black protagonist as a surfer and it was normal, not a novelty,” Selema said. “It was so pivotal for me because that was something I never thought I would get to see. I reached out to the guys, we connected and started talking, then when I went to Cape Town to spend time with them we all hit it off. I was really impressed by their brand and knew it would be successful in America, so they brought me on as a co-founder and we’ve been working together ever since.”
Dutton added, “I met with Selema in Cape Town just after we launched the brand, we had some mutual friends and connections who brought us together. We knew then it was a meeting of minds and ambitions. His experience in global surf culture and the U.S., as well as his world view about the role the brand could have, led to a long and exciting discussion from which the only conclusion was that he joined the brand as a co-founder. The collaboration amongst the four of us is very productive. We’ve each got very different skill sets and experience that come together to create what Mami Wata is. What we have in common is the ambition for the brand and business and alignment around our vision to be a creative force for good in Africa.”
In West African Pidgin English, Mami Wata means “Mother Ocean.” Coincidentally, Selema’s father wrote a song by the same name in 1975. Although the brand was founded in 2017, it recently debuted in the United States earlier this fall.
“The majority of the narrative of the surf lifestyle and culture has been dominated by places like Southern California, Australia and Hawaii,” Selema said. “Most of the aspiration of what it looks like to be a surfer has been through this limited lens, but the irony is that there is more surfable coastline in Africa than anywhere in the world and their surf culture dates back historically to the late 1600s. Mami Wata is a brand that celebrates the ocean and surfing through a distinctively African lens. It has been incredibly well received in the U.S.”
Dutton said, “People love a range of different things…the mission, the designs, challenging a very tired category and perhaps most importantly, challenging the surf culture and what it means to be a surfer. The response in Africa has been fantastic, especially from black and brown surfers. African surf culture broadly has a diversity that is as energetic and meaningful as Africa is, so when people see a brand sharing the culture globally they get pumped and proud.”
In addition to surfboards and accessories, Mami Wata has an apparel line made in Africa with homegrown raw and sustainable materials. Their Spring/Summer 2022 collection features colorful and unique motifs like dice paired with contemplative sayings sewn on the labels such as “Money cannot cure death.”
“I love how people can take that in different directions, something as simple as a dice image can mean something to one person and something else to another,” Selema said. “I also love the way the messaging makes people stop and think to figure out what each saying means to them. I hope that when someone picks up one of our pieces to wear, that it’s mood lifting.”
Originally the plan was to launch in the U.S. in 2019, but after COVID-19 happened the group had to pivot and change plans while maintaining their momentum. During the pandemic they created and released “AFROSURF,” a 320-page coffee table book that features stunning photographs, profiles and stories from African surfers, writers and photographers that explore and showcase the unique culture of 18 coastal countries in Africa. The book was also named the number one coffee table book holiday gift by The New York Times.
“Our book has defied all expectations and it’s been crazy to see the way people have digested it,” Selema said. “It shows surfing through a very diverse lens. It gives you a taste and feel of what modern African culture looks like across the continent and how that feeds into creating this different experience of surf culture than what most people have been shown.”
Also committed to giving back to others, Mami Wata donates 100% of royalties from the book to support two African surf therapy organizations, Surfers Not Street Children and Waves for Change.
“Surfers Not Street Children is an incredible organization in Durban that helps street children and at-risk children by giving them a place to live and learn, and they’re able to build a relationship with the ocean and surfing,” Selema said. “It changes their lives and they build self-confidence, pride and joy. Waves for Change helps communities build real relationships with surfing, to help people deal with different types of trauma, as well as those who are dealing with emotional challenges. People learn to have a sense of ownership in that space and see the ocean as a place to go heal.”
Selema, who has been surfing for 33 years, found solace in the sport when his family moved from the East Coast to Carlsbad during his junior year of high school. Feeling displaced, he took up surfing and immediately became addicted to how it made him feel.
“It was the most holy, spiritual experience I’d ever had,” Selema said. “When I stood up on a wave at 16, it felt like time stopped and the heavens parted. I didn’t see it as a hobby, it became an immediate obsession for me and changed my entire direction.”
Selema went on to pursue a successful career as a TV host and correspondent, announcing at live events and working for major networks like ESPN, HBO and MTV. His work has taken him around the world, from surf competitions in Tahiti to the Winter Olympics in Sochi. He also has had the opportunity to surf across the globe and some of his favorite surfing spots include Jeffreys Bay, Toberua Island in Fiji, the Maldives, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, and the Mentawai Island chain off Indonesia’s western coast of Sumatra.
“Surfing has allowed me to see the world and build a connection with people, who despite our cultural differences, we share this thread and have become family,” Selema said. “It breaks down language barriers and it’s truly an incredible feeling to share with others.”
In 2004, Selema moved from San Diego to Venice Beach after his career started to take off and he needed to be closer to LA for work opportunities. He was drawn to Venice for its grit and the diversity of its people and cultures.
“Venice is one of the few places in LA where I can walk out of my house and see white, brown, black people of various economic levels all on the same block,” Selema said. “People who live here accept that nothing is perfect and good all the time. In other parts of LA, people want to show that their lives are perfect every day, but that doesn’t serve me. I also love the relationship I have with the ocean here, and there are small windows of really good surf, so I appreciate it so much more and am very grateful on days when the waves are good.”
Looking ahead, Selema is excited for the future of Mami Wata. The brand has two special collaborations planned for 2022 and 2023, and he also mentioned the possibility of the “AFROSURF” book becoming a docuseries.
“We’re continuing to build relationships with distributors and boutiques across the country, places that take pride in and support telling our story,” Selema said. “I love that this brand is a Trojan horse for African discovery and we’re coming into a greater awareness of what is taking place on the continent and changing the narrative of how people perceive Africa. I was recently at a book signing in Brooklyn for ‘AFROSURF’ and was amazed by the number of people standing in line who told me that a brand like ours with imagery that looks like them has done so much for their confidence when they were struggling to find others to identify with. They feel like they can walk differently and have a sense of pride now. I’m immensely proud of where we’ve gotten and where we can go.”
Surfers Not Street Children
Waves for Change