South African Idols Competition 2014
South African Idols Competition 2014

Two weeks ago while listening to the Redi Tlabi Show presented by Nikiwe Bikitsha on Talk Radio 702 , I found myself suddenly, stunned. I stopped what I was doing and listened. The host Nikiwe Bikitsha asked a question that startled me. “Idols yes or no?” she said opening up the lines for people to call in and share their views. To further expand on the topic she took a moment to share some of her personal views saying: “I think that reality shows like Idols should be discontinued, I think Idols has run its course, it’s boring” she said. I found myself hoping that, that does not happen.  I heard a part of me responding to her thinking you shouldn’t watch it if you don’t like it. Because what she said made me sad. It pained me to think that with her words she could shut the door to so many people’s hopes and dreams, let alone laughter. Discontinuing Idols would be a shame I thought. It’s hard enough finding something uplifting to watch on television.


I asked this question as I felt myself becoming more agitated with each passing comment on her show. Those who called in, agreed with her!  Idols, on its 10th season in South Africa this year, is a popular music talent show, originally from the US which draws thousands upon thousands of young people from across South Africa, some of whom travel for days and wait in line for hours for a chance to prove to the world and to themselves that they have something of value to offer and share in the form of song. Each year people stand in front of the South African stage and ask – can I sing? Once the initial nationwide auditions (which are the most interesting part) are over and those who can sing have been selected, the competition begins. Each week South Africans vote for a singer they like best. At the end of the competition only one Idol (singer) is chosen based on their talent and votes from the public.

Between comments from listeners Bikitsha added that she was particularly fatigued with the sentimental, personal drama stories used to enhance viewership and help the audience to get to know the contestants better. At which point I thought, hawu?! But that’s the best part of the show! She had ignited a fire in me.

I had to pause for a moment again to remember that I too once held those exact same views but now find myself disagreeing with her completely. The premise of her question; posed in a dismissive tone, was completely negative. Designed to generate answers that affirmed and confirmed her point of view. Meaning if you answered yes to Idols you would surely be relegated to the idiot box.  What I  observed from her voice was  judgment, categorizing Idols as one of those useless shows which made money from exploiting, desperate and ignorant masses, intoxicating them with a dream that is, ultimately impossible for them to achieve.  Had the question been asked differently perhaps one would be able to have a more open conversation about the value of Idols. What are the benefits of reality TV shows such as Idols? I knew, felt somewhere deep in my heart that there is value in talent reality shows like this one, however invisible they may appear  be to  with the naked eye, benefits that no money can buy. I didn’t know how to frame a plausible argument for why Idols SA should continue until I experienced it again, from a very different perspective.


Last week a good friend of mine, a sister, called me from Toronto, Canada telling me that she will be home at the weekend.  Her mother was due for an operation and she didn’t know how long she’d be in town, could I come and see her? She asked. I agreed to go and spend the weekend with the family, it had been a long time since we were together. On Saturday afternoon, after a long taxi ride, driving through the monotonous dry township landscape, I arrived to find the family huddled around my friends’ warm apartment watching Idols. After my greetings and brief inquiries into everyone’s well-being, it became clear to me that everybody was worried or concerned about the impending operation and they didn’t want to talk about it any further either. Auntie was as busy as ever-moving from one room to another with regular stops in the kitchen making sure that everyone was fed, the dishes clean, and that the house was warm. While everyone else was busy on their phones, sleeping or just being. The family only came together to watch idols, a show, everyone in the family could agree to enjoy together. Other subjects were either taboo or just simply too painful to discuss.  I was also tired from my own life lived in intense introspection that I needed to focus on something else, something hopefully more cheerful. Seeing the smiling faces of Ma, Auntie, my niece, and sister I thought – let me give Idols a chance. We laughed the whole weekend. We parted in high spirits despite everything with me promising to audition for idols in the next season. I realized, that it is better to make people laugh or smile than to make them cry.  The next weekend after that I went to visit my sister for her birthday, her mother and father in law were there and Idols was the on program that we all agreed to enjoy together, we laughed the whole night. And comments were made about who could and could not sing. Which is a great thing about idols, it is a great program whether someone gets in or not, especially the auditions.  People who came to the show were such characters and were simply amazing to watch.  The most fascinating element of the show is the fact that everyone who goes to the auditions believes that they can sing, and sing beautifully. So the surprise when they are told No they can’t sing is what makes it so funny. “Yo, j I don’t wish to be one of these judges on this show, they are ruthless, yo!” Said my friend squirming on the sofa from pain and laughter. How can families allow their children to go out to the world believing they can sing, while it’s clearly evident to everyone that they can’t? “Hhayi my friend, even I can sing that song better!” She exclaimed each time a screeching sound emanated from the TV monitor reached her ears. We were all in stitches, laughing.  I felt bad about laughing at the contestants because it felt as if I was laughing at their misfortune. They really can’t sing, even though they truly believe they can. One contestant almost broke my heart when she said through her overpowering weave post her audition, that it must be my looks, while crying painfully. She believed that it was her looks that were not “right” even though we all heard and understood that she cannot sing. I almost wanted to reach out to her and say it’s not your looks, it’s because. It was painful to listen to you. The truth doesn’t hurt, it’s the death of an idea, a death of a dream that hurts.


I hadn’t watched idols in years while experimenting with an idea, a dream I have long-held which has taken me up and down, all over the place trying to place a home for it.  Before embarking on this venture, a good friend invited me to try bungee jumping, to prepare my mind for what I was about to do. It was something I considered suicidal. I was scared. But because she had done it before, she assured me that I would be glad I did it. My sister had done it too and more than anything I was curious. In literal terms signing up to bungee jump is like saying, I’m ready to die, because the very act itself could be fatal. You are literally jumping off a bridge. Even though there are precautions taken to ensure everyone’s safety, the reality of it is once you jump off the rail, there’s a real possibility that you will die. Unless you truly believe with all your heart that you will live, you won’t be able to jump off the bridge. It was a very scary experience for me.   I don’t think I would have been able to do it, had I not had the chance to watch the man at the end the bridge, the guy who says jump speak to the jumpers. He was kind and sweet and allowed each person to take their time. I decided that I want to speak to him, so he can tell me his story – I thought he must be an amazing person. When I jumped, I let go and decided that my fate had already been decided and I would accept any outcome, and I will talk to the guy on the bridge. I closed my eyes tightly and experienced a darkness I had never known. It was like jumping into nothing an endless silent space where nothing and no-one existed except time, which didn’t move. I didn’t know I was safe until someone shouted, Breathe! I didn’t know for how long I had been hanging there – upside down with my feet tied together with a rope, I felt the catch and hear the shout then  I exhaled, and all sorts of emotions came through which I had no control over.  From the depths of my stomach came the most excruciating, painful cry I have ever heard. I cried for what seemed like forever, until I heard myself landing safely in someone’s arms, and watching my friend applaud me with such a wide smile I had never been so happy to be alive, and to see her there waiting for me at the finish line. I had done it. Jumped off a bridge and lived to tell a story about it.  With that jump I felt I had released all negativity, all thoughts and ideas that said: you can’t. Watching the video I saw that I dangled on the rope for what seemed like an eternity – my body, quietly and limply swinging in suspension. I think everybody breathed a sigh of relief when I screamed. My jump was such a free-fall head just dangled in suspension as if there was no one inside. Even for me it was scary to watch. It was the most intense thing I have ever done and most probably will never do again. In that way. But it is still an experience which I will always cherish and value in my life, because it taught me something invaluable. It matured me. I realized that I could face death and not be scared of it.  I realized that I did it despite the spine chilling fear which had me shaking like a leaf as the countdown started. I realized that it was not as frightening as I thought. I believed in myself.  Idols is the same thing. It’s like bungee jumping for the first time. It’s a moment of truth, testing an idea in front of the camera with millions of people watching you. Failing is a huge risk. And yet year in and year out people line-up to try. Why?


Like most talent reality shows Idols gives people the opportunity to try. An opportunity to test an idea or belief you’ve had about yourself. A way of either confirming what you know or what other people have said about you. Or discovering something completely new and unexpected, discovering things about yourself that you never knew existed, before you tried. It’s an opportunity to try something new, to pursue a dream,  to create. To show yourself and others that you too have something of value to share with the world. That you believe you have a gift.  This is core stuff.  So going out there and facing the three judges including the entire nation is not a small feat. It can be as scary as Bungee jumping. It’s a kind of death or a kind of re- birth of something. I value this about the show.  Because it made even those at home watching – who have no desire to sing for the world that they too can sing and they are not alone in their insecurities. I found myself thinking of how music has shaped my life, how beautiful voices have helped me through difficult lonely moments, telling me that I was not alone. Voices which celebrated with me pushing me to move and dance as if I was a part of the sound that made music possible.  Propelling me to not only see, but feel and experience beauty in life regardless of the circumstances. In music I found I belong, I have a home. Someone understands, or has seen or felt like I do, and come out of it with a beautiful song. Music is amazing. I love music so much that I find myself more often than not singing out-loud at home, imagining myself in some corner of the universe being a star – singing and mesmerizing people with my sultry beautiful voice, drawing out a smile from their hearts that is so wide it fills their eyes with tears, illuminating a shared love of beauty which binds us together, just by being myself and doing what I love. When I sing out loud and think this way, I think my voice sounds amazing, although not many will agree with me. It’s not a fact it’s a belief, an idea. But I have never tried auditioning for idols because I know people who can sing beautifully. And sometimes you have to test an idea, because you might just be the next Bjork or Nina Simone.  I support any initiative that will add beauty in my life.


I don’t think Idols should be cancelled. If anything I think Idols needs an exciting host, someone who loves to have fun, who enjoys to play, who can see the light side out of everything and sensitive enough to offer words of advice and comfort to those who need it most. Someone who is playful, whimsical, a storyteller who can take audiences on a magic carpet ride as it where a journey of discovery.  Someone who loves live, adventure and has a lots of energy, patience and a love of people. A host who will make the show even more magical that it already is, someone who will bring added spunk and intrigue to the show.  Someone who can ask questions that allow a person to shine, that reveal more about people, someone who can encourage them as they go in, knowing how they must feel, and be there at the end of the “jump” to genuinely celebrate or empathise with them and help them realize that no matter the outcome, there’s always value in trying. Someone who cares, care free and a bit of a performer. Someone who understands the emotions that go with winning and losing. And someone who knows how to balance both, and take both the contestants and the audience at home on journey, opening up a whole new world to people. I think that’s what Idols a host who can create and find magic in everything and everyone, someone who can be still in the moment, go with the flow, and be the mediator the link, between the Judges, the audience and people at home. Idols needs a Host who is a storyteller. An entertaining storyteller, a lover of stories.  Add a great host to a list of already entertaining judges then bob’s you’re uncle. This is the only call I would support. To those of you brave enough to take the plunge, thank you. For entertaining us in these time which I can only describe by quoting Charles Dickens opening line to a tale of two cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…”   Thank you for being the Light!

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