Meet the underground crew of creative professionals with an obsession for African popular culture
Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Nick Gordon
If a picture is worth a thousand words, what does a video get you? That’s something The Visual Content Gang is busy figuring out.
What they do know is that you can’t have a gang without gangsters, and so while the VCG was started by OGs Batandwa Alperstein and Zunaid Green in 2014, they're now a crew of six guys whose mission is to become the biggest and most respected content producers in Africa.
“We were working at the Jupiter Drawing Room,” says Batandwa. “I was doing copywriting and strategy, Z was doing editing, but we were spending most of our time studying YouTube videos all day. That’s what we cared about, that’s what we wanted to do, but it was difficult to push video at an above the line agency, so we decided to do it on our own.”
The pair quit their day jobs when they got a Yellow Pages job, which they followed up with Hunter’s Extreme. Since then they’ve been busy with a mix of corporate stuff and achingly hip clients that include Hypebeast, Boyzn Bucks and Boiler Room.
“Content is the big thing now,” says Batandwa. “Europe and the States understand that, but advertising spend here hasn’t caught on yet, even though we are definitely consuming a lot more digital. It’s no longer a case where you can flight the same TVC for a year and put up some billboards. You have to be constantly coming up with something new all the time to keep people engaged. And brands and artists have realized that people would rather watch a video than read an article.”
Woah, woah, woah, Batandwa, no need to get personal! But then maybe he’s right? Especially when you consider how YouTube gets over a billion unique visitors every month and the only channel bigger is Facebook. Now go check out your Facebook feed - how much content is video? Clearly there’s a trend here. Add to this how brands are behaving like publishers now, with a drastic shift in strategy where savvy marketers are turning to storytelling, and stories told via video using sound, graphics and dialogue create a much more immersive and stronger connection, and it’s little wonder then why video is perceived as the go-to platform for reaching audiences. But wait, there’s more, like how South Africa is receiving more global attention thanks to Die Antwoord, Neil Blomkamp and the 2010 World Cup. Clearly the VCG is onto a good thing.
The one stop shop pride themselves in making low resource, high production value videos that aren’t force-fed, but resonate with viewers instead. The type of thing that gets shared, not skipped. And then doing it all from pitching to conceptualising, writing, shooting, editing and graphics. When the gang grows bigger so do the gangsters within the VCG.
“It works hand in hand,” says Zunaid. “Strength in numbers.”
Their logo is a subversion of the Dutch East India Company’s, the concept being that they’re looking at re-colonizing.
“We’re exporting our culture and stories,” says Batandwa. “Taking an idea and shipping it back to the Dutch and getting our reparations through that. The third eye? That’s an idea we like. Being able to see what’s coming. Tapping into the zeitgeist. What the trends are, who’s on the rise, new music, fashion trends, people…”
A lot of what they’re doing is rooted in street and popular culture, and the VCG has collaborated with everyone from Boyz n Bucks to Cassper Nyovest and Youngsta.
Zunaid jumps in saying that their style has an urban youth culture edge, and that they’re able to work with a lot of the artists in an authentic way.
“What separates us is our agency background. A lot of other production companies don’t have the same agency knowledge that we have. We understand the relationships between agency and brands and how that system works. I come from a broadcast background and have done stuff for Channel 0 and Carte Blanche. Still, we have a style that’s quite cinematic where even if it’s an event video we’ll do it in a way that looks like a documentary or music video.”
It’s all about lean productions and getting rid of the fat on set, like the catering truck. And while they wouldn’t say no to a TV ad, they’d want to do it in their own style, going in-house as much as possible, bringing in the other gangsters and stretching that TV ad budget as far as possible.
“We’re not trying to waste money,” says Batandwa.
This was most definitely the case when they shot a video for Jimmy Nevis using a GoPro.
“That was a conscious decision,” says Zunaid. “It’s amazing what you can do with such a little camera. There’s a scene in there with the Klopse, where I took the camera and clamped it to their instruments while they were playing. Put it on a banjo, get a shot, take it off and put it on the drums, someone’s hand, someone’s head… We wanted to capture the real Athlone and represent coloured culture, so we immersed ourselves instead of going in with a big production team and lots of cameras and lenses. There’s much more of a realness with this tiny little camera that you can hide in your hand. It’s not invasive. There are no expectations.”
Same with the video that the VCG produced for G-Star on Gqom, where instead of simply telling a story they took the lessons that they’ve learned from being underdogs and applied it to their subject.
“We really immersed ourselves in the scene so it was like an almost anthropological approach,” says Batandwa. “Get in with your subject and understand them. Then try and represent their voice as much as possible.
The VCG explain that ultimately there’s a responsibility that as film-makers they need to adhere to.
“It’s about owning the stories that belong to us,” says Zunaid. “Telling our own stories and not having our culture taken from us.” Batandwa adds: “We have an issue with this trend of only telling utopian stories. Everybody is a role model. Everybody is trying to make the world a better place.” Zunaid concludes: “Yeah, for example, if you look at Le Mpitse we were representing one side of Ravensmead. Not its best side, but its reality. We're not glorifying anything, we’re just showing what really happens.”
Right now the gang is busy showing what really happens in a music video for Youngsta, Cassper Nyovest’s Fill Up The Dome and because dreams are free, the VCG has plans for…
“More music videos, more narrative stuff and maybe even a movie. We want to start our own platform, our own space where we can tell our own stories and where we aren’t limited to what a client wants. There are so many stories that we want to tell and need to get out there. Watch out for Hosh.TV We need to own our own shit.”