Pushing African Pop Culture Forward
The introduction of DSLR cameras with video functionality meant better access for independent content creators to shoot their own videos and see their ideas realised. Along with self-publishing on the internet, it meant that people who couldn’t before could now open doors for themselves. It started a wave that Batandwa Alperstein and Zunaid Green saw coming. Three and a half years ago, they quit their advertising jobs to go into production as Visual Content Gang.
From a gang of two directing, producing, shooting and editing it all themselves, to building a team across two cities, Visual Content Gang is an example of knowing that staying business-minded and street smart in a changing industry is as important as creative ideas. At their core though, their mission is bringing African content to the world through the work they do for brands, agencies and artists. A recent highlight was capturing Damian Marley’s first ever tour of Africa to be streamed on TIDAL.
We asked Co-Founder of Visual Content Gang Batandwa Alperstein about how it all got started and what the ride’s been like so far.
How do you know and VCG Co-Founder Zunaid Green know each other?
We met in 2012 on set for my first and last time on camera, when I starred in Max Mogale’s fashion film (watch it here) for the legendary Cape Town streetwear label 2Bop. It got something like 8000 views in the first week which was practically going viral back then. I had seen some of Zunaid’s work online and always wondered who the mysterious guy behind the videos was. When the agency I was working at as a strategist/copywriter at the time, The Jupiter Drawing Room in Cape Town asked if I knew any potential in-house videographers, I suggested Zunaid. He started within a month and that’s where it all began.
What were the conversations you had before starting VCG?
Zunaid and I shared a love for hip hop and content. In our opinion, hip hop basically created the idea of content as we know it today by fusing together a whole bunch of popular culture machinery into one unstoppable force. We would discuss the similarities between the DIY/punk mindset of hip hop and the new wave of digital filmmaking sparked by the DSLR and software revolution. We can probably thank Jay-Z for the fact that we’re creative entrepreneurs doing what we’re doing today.
Anyway, we would watch and discuss all the content being released at the time, and try to brainstorm ways of doing branded content with an edge, connected to the streets… and eventually we decided that the only way we would see this new type of work was if we did it. So we decided to quit and start our own little content studio to prepare for the huge wave we saw coming.
What were the biggest challenges in the beginning? How have they changed as you’ve grown?
The biggest challenge in the beginning was everything! Figuring out how to quote properly was a major learning curve because we were inventing a new way of making content that was outside the traditional production methods. But everything was a challenge, from finding an office space after starting in my spare room which we called “The Garage” (‘cos all major start-ups start in a garage, who doesn’t know that?), to registering for VAT, to setting up payroll, networking, meeting new clients, developing our own workflow.
Things have changed dramatically, we now have two offices and about 15-20 full-time and regular staff. The stuff we used to dream of doing is now happening. I mean we just did a project with Damian Marley and TIDAL! It’s unreal as a little studio that started on the foothill of the southernmost tip of Africa!
In the industry we’re in, everything is changing every day and we’re constantly evolving too to make sure we’re staying at the front of the curve developing new ways of making dope content. I studied Business Science at UCT so I’m always pushing us to evolve the business at the same time as evolving creatively. We’re growing all the time.
For me, the most gratifying change that is happening with our growth is all the young people who contact us to get a foot into the industry and the fact that we’re now in a position to open that door for them. It’s like a full circle, we started this to open doors for ourselves and now we’re opening it for others.
We’re only 3 and half years young, it’s only just begun.
What are you interested in making work about?
We’re creative individuals and we all have our own interests. But I think what connects us all is that we want to make dope work that speaks to people like us and contributes to pushing African popular culture and mentality forward. This can mean many things and it comes out in many ways but I think at the core of our ambition is to see Africa prosper.
What would you say is the thread that runs throughout your work?
Nothing can beat a work ethic with talent to match it.
What do you take into consideration before taking on a new brief or collaboration?
One of our 10 Gang Commandments is to “Protect The Energy” and that is something we take very seriously. Either the idea energises us or it doesn’t. Good money helps, but it can’t make up for a bad vibe.
Can you tell us how your latest project with Damian Marley came about?
The team at Mochilla was looking for a partner to co-produce content for TIDAL around Damian Marley’s first ever tour of Africa. We were suggested to them and they liked our work and we hit it off immediately.
They’re basically an OG version of what we’re doing. I mean these guys took photos of Biggie, NWA, Kendrick Lamar, MF Doom; some of the most iconic photos in hip hop history. It was an amazing experience. For me it was my first big project since stepping away from shooting to focuss on directing and being able to assist the Director B+ was massively inspiring. And getting lots of my fellow gang members involved in the production was a great thing to share.
Basically, it came about because there are higher powers at play in life and there’s nothing you can do to stop an idea whose time has come.
What do you hope for your portfolio of work to say about you or the world?
Real recognise real.
What are the pieces that most reflect what VCG is about?
We treat our first like our last and our last like our first.
More of their work at visualcontentgang.com.
Interview by Alix-Rose Cowie | Photogtaphs by Zunaid Green.