Lessons Learned: Selema Masekela (Free)
On surfing, growing up, and difficult conversations. This voice of action sports shares his path to self actualization.
Photos by Brady Lawrence
Editor’s Note: Last week we posted this interview with Selema Masekela behind the Stab Premium paywall because it’s premium content. Plain and simple. But following its publication and promotion we had a flood of feedback. Group 1 said, “this should not live behind a paywall, people need to read this.” Group 2 said, “get this shit out of here, this doesn’t belong in surfing.” (Essentially proving Group 1’s point.) I asked Zander Morton to do this interview because, whether he likes it or not, Selema has become the leader in helping the surf world understand and process racial justice as it fits in our aquatic playground, and beyond. His voice should be amplified. In that spirit, we’re making this article free for everyone, and handing Selema the megaphone he deserves. Enjoy. -Taylor Paul
Selema Masekela has a powerful voice. He’s used it behind the ESPN desk while calling some of the biggest moments in X-Games history. He’s used it as a correspondent for VICE; exploring people, politics and culture through sports. He’s used it on the sidelines at NBA Games. At the Olympics in Russia. During WSL broadcasts.
But these last 12 months, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic and a fight for racial justice in America, Masekela’s voice has changed. It’s taken a more serious tone while tackling more serious subjects.
“It’s been tough, man, because I don’t wake up in the morning with any desire to want to talk about race and social justice,” Masekela said. “Doesn’t make you feel good. It makes you have to dig into places and regions of yourself that you don’t really want to dance.”
Turn the music up. Take a deep breath. It’s time for an inspiring and uncomfortable waltz with Selema Masekela. —Zander Morton
SELEMA MASEKELA: Early on, my hustle was inspired by a pure love for surfing, skating and snowboarding. I got into those sports relatively late. I started skating at 15, surfing at 16 and snowboarding at 17, and they changed my life radically in a way I didn’t see coming. Especially surfing. And so it changed my trajectory. Like, surfing took wherever I was going and moved it a few degrees. When I graduated high school, I had no desire to go to college.
I worked every job under the sun, from construction to cleaning office buildings and car dealerships, window washing, waiting tables, busing tables…all of which I got fired from at one point or another for calling in sick when the waves were good. I remember when I worked at Bank of America as a teller in Carlsbad, I would go surf during my lunch break and come back on time. But the idea that I went surfing during my lunch break — rather than eat lunch — made my managers so incensed. And it was such a strange thing to be looked at like as a loser because I wanted to follow my passion
When I got my job at Transworld, that was the first time I found people who were of like mind — they worked hard, and they were passionate about these sports as a lifestyle. That job made me realize, “Oh, you can live this life and not have to go and get a regular job where people are gonna look at you strange for what you do.” It finally felt like I was a part of something. And things just progressed naturally from there.
When I got involved with Transworld, no one was getting rich. I’d say around ’99, 2000, that all changed. That’s when Madison Avenue opened the doors and got everyone interested in the fact that our subculture had money and it also had influence over culture. And that’s when things started to change. And I just happened to be in the right place. When I got my first big job at ESPN announcing X-games in ’99, everything I’d done before that had prepared me to be the person who could explain our culture to the world, while also representing our culture as best as possible. That was always my goal.
Surfing is where I go to be my whole self. As a teenager, when I started, it was a place I went to leave whatever was going on at home behind. Every time I went surfing, I learned something new from it, either from my progress or my failure, and I always came out of the water better for it.
These days I have to work so much harder on land to enjoy being in the water the way I want to, but my overall benefit from that is this healthy lifestyle, you know? The older you get, you almost start learning all over again. Because things that came naturally to you as a kid kind of go away and so you have to work harder to retain your foundation. But I have so much more fun surfing now. Just riding different types of boards and experiencing surfing in different ways, as opposed to trying to prove something.
Nowadays I go out and catch two or three good waves and I’m happy. Whereas before, there was this idea of wanting to be seen or noticed, thinking I needed to claim some space in the lineup to earn respect. And of course there were a lot of challenges in getting people to respect me and see me as just a surfer, as opposed to a black surfer. So that was a hard thing to move past.
Now, I’m that person where, if I see someone struggling I’m going to paddle up and be like, “Hey, you’re in a bad spot. Or you might want to try this or that.” I enjoy the community aspect of being in the water now so much more than I did when I was younger. But I still plan my meetings and business around surfing. I take great pride in canceling or rescheduling for swell. And I plan on doing that for as long as I’m here. [laughs]
I’ve spent the last 20 years with home being a place where I reset, but not where I lived. I lived on the road. And there were some upsides to that part of my life, but there were a lot of blind spots that I had from not being able to establish home and spend time with myself. So in that way, it’s been a gift to make decisions this year based on what I want to do as opposed to what everyone else is asking me to do. The challenge, obviously, is we’re in a pandemic and such an interesting fight for what the identity of our culture is in America. Everyone’s been forced to pay attention and that’s been eye-opening — it’s revealed to me a lot about our surf community and how reluctant it is.
Traditionally, I think people see surfing as like, “Hey, there’s no place for that here.” And because of that attitude, I don’t think a lot of people realize how much, by default, they’ve excluded other groups from participation because they think these things can’t possibly affect us within this sacred place that we call surfing. And it’s been interesting to see people double down and dig deep and be like, “fuck you. We’re not going to talk about that here.” And like, “you’re a bad person for bringing this up.” On the flipside, it’s also been encouraging to see the people who’ve been willing to stop and open their eyes and be like, “Oh, wow, I’m going to get some education on these subjects.”
I was so blown away by someone like Tyler Wright taking the stand that she did. And also brokenhearted by how voracious the internet came for her. And especially when you look in the comments and you see, well, those are people I know. But I’m so inspired by her strength and her decision to be an ally and use her platform in that way.
It’s been tough, man, because I don’t wake up in the morning with any desire to want to talk about race and social justice. Doesn’t make you feel good. It makes you have to dig into places and regions of yourself that you don’t really want to dance. But there have been too many times during this year where I just didn’t have a choice but to speak. I see the level of pushback or fear-based ignorance within our community. And I’m just like, “Alright, I guess I’m going to have to put it in context from my own experience, only in the hope that maybe we’ll get some people to stop and ask some questions and want to learn more.”
I’m also the son of a father who had to leave his country when he was 19 years old because of a racist, apartheid regime government. A government that through the ‘80s, even our own country supported, and didn’t want to believe was a racist regime, you know? America supported the South African apartheid government and it took a long time for people to really understand what was taking place.
I watched my father fight and so I don’t really have a choice to remain silent. That’s been my motivation. It’s been hard with some of the people who I don’t talk to anymore in our industry. There are people who I’ve been friends with for a long time. You know, there are surfers who I’ve watched come up since they were young, that I don’t talk to anymore, because they have chosen to attack me. Or because me sharing my experiences has made them feel a certain way. I feel for them, but at the same time, it’s no skin off my back. I’d much rather be my whole self than try to be quiet to be accepted by people who don’t understand that yes, surfing is a beautiful thing, but we’re also affected by other things that are taking place in the world.
I had someone recently tell me that I was a racist for bringing these things up. At Lowers of all places, where I’ve been surfing since I was 16. And it’s like, alright, well, I guess if it makes you so uncomfortable that calling me a racist is what’s going to make you feel better about your antiquated views, then there’s not much I can do to help you. I wish you the best. But also, my phone line is open if you ever want to have a real conversation.
The best thing about the internet is that everybody has a voice. The worst thing about the internet is that everybody has a voice. Then there’s this crazy level of disinformation and people thinking that they’ve been armed with facts, and then they couple that with passion. It’s crazy. Like the amount of people that I’ve known for 20 years, and I see them in their Instagram stories being like, “Fuck Black Lives Matter. Fucking Marxist.” And I’m like, “Do you know who Karl Marx is?” And they’re like, “Who?” Like, I can’t engage with you if that’s your perspective. You’re talking to an actual black person, and if my perspective from lived experience is still something that you’re not even willing to hear, it lets me know that you’ve never really seen me for my whole self.
I remember growing up, so many kids loved to say to me, “Hey, you’re a different kind of black person. You know, you’re more like us and that’s rad because you surf and you snowboard, and that’s cool. You’re not like a black person on TV.” Basically saying, because you do the things that we think are white, that makes you cool. And these people actually meant that as a compliment. It made me feel nauseous. And now, people come in my DM’s all the time saying shit like, “You should just be happy that we let you in” and “Look at everything that you got to do because we accepted you, and now you turn on us.”
You know, I had one of the best surfers in the world, not too long ago, say to me, “Surfing doesn’t owe anything to black people because surfing’s not a part of black culture. It’s not what black people do. You’re different.” And I’m like well…alright. Baffled. That’s really what you think in 2020?
When we did the paddle out for George Floyd in Encinitas, that was amazing. I thought maybe there’d be a couple hundred people. Honestly. But thousands showed up, and they showed up with their kids and they made signs and they painted their surfboards and they came with passion. And, you know, I ran into a guy the other day in the water when I was home surfing Swami’s. And he told me: “I want you to know that I brought my kid down, that she’s 5 years old, and that was the greatest teaching moment that I’ve been able to have with her to explain what the world looks like. As parents, we’re going to do our part to make sure our daughter understands the landscape of how she’s grown up and how others do as well. And the difference she can make.”
That’s a conversation that I never thought I would have. That was so, so humbling. And those thousands of people in the water splashing water and screaming “No justice. No peace. Black Lives Matter.” That was an out of body experience. And that gives me hope. There are a lot of people in our industry that I see wanting to do the work. I see brands that are realizing, “Oh, these are the stories that we can amplify to help grow our community.”
The amount of kids that I run into, or who send me notes on Instagram. Black, brown or even LGBTQ and they’ll say to me: “I always felt like I didn’t fit in. And I realized I don’t have to fit in, like I fit in simply by being here. Like, thank you. I’m going to continue doing this thing that I love.” That shit feels amazing, you know? So it also gives me hope. These times are just a reminder to me that like any great change, any growth requires some struggle. And I tend to be optimistic. I tend to be optimistic because I really believe that most people’s anger or desire to be confrontational without actually having discussion is simply based in fear. I really do believe that it’s more fear based than anything, and fear is something that can be overcome. That’s what we do as surfers every day that we get in the water.
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