Interview by Sanele Mawisa

Nwabisa Mda, Thembe Mahlaba and Bongeka Masango are the three tenacious, determined and humble creators of popular YouTube channel Pap Culture. Their topical range is as diverse as their rich personalities, re-imagining and re-packaging popular content in a uniquely South African narrative. Fresh from being listed as part of The Plug 100 and after their historic Cannes Lions nomination for their eye-opening and inspiring project Liberesse, The Vagina Varsity, I sat down with them to discuss their upbringing, the challenges they have faced and what their dreams and aspirations are.

Q: Where did you grow up?

NM: I was born in Durban, but grew up in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Limpopo, back to Joburg and now I live in Cape Town.

TM:  Born and raised in Durban, didn’t move much around outside the province, just around Thekwini, Umlazi, eToti and then finally Pinetown.

BM: So keeping with the theme, born and raised in Durban, I actually met Thembe at Pinetown Girls.

Q: Why did Pap Culture start?

NM: I’ve always just wanted to entertain. I always wanted a YouTube channel; I actually started a YouTube channel in 2012, and at the time I really loved music covers. My friend and I watched YouTube all the time and I was like ‘oh wow these people can sing’ so I decided to try it out but I only posted 2 videos. I was really just hungry to be creative and when the conversations around Pap Culture started I was already in that creative frame of mind. This was a platform for me to express my creativity. I initially wanted a podcast and I had all these ideas and I approached Thembe about it and we always used to talk about popular culture and I liked how different her viewpoints were, they weren’t commercial. I’m more commercial and she is a bit more thought out. And it was an idea that just came to me but I had decided to go against doing a podcast. And then Bongeka was like well I’m getting a camera soon so we might as well start something and we went with it.

Q: What challenges have you faced and how did you deal with it?

NM: We just recently had a difficult situation with regards to our Amber Rose video, the video went up and the intention was to debate a tweet about the naked image of her. But then it was perceived that we were essentially violating her body by talking about the image. We asked ourselves what happened, because throughout the day when the tweets were coming in, we felt we can’t really say anything, we just have to let it go, ‘cause if we say something we’ll come across as defensive, ‘cause there’s fighting for what you’re saying but then there’s also acknowledging that maybe what you thought isn’t right. On the day we were shooting for Elle, and we saw the first tweet and we were like what the fuck? I told Thembe and Bongeka that twitter is melting but observing was the only thing we can do, but we were affected by it. We never want to make content that offends people.

TM: It was a critique on the execution of what we did but what I’m grateful for is that it only stayed about the work, people can always get personal and it never became about well you’re fat and you’re ugly.

BM: The magic with Pap Culture is that we have 3 individual responses to things which is very different and then we have a Pap Culture response to things. So of the 3 of us I’m probably the most nonchalant, but they’ll read it and then fill me in about what’s going on. And then we sit down together and discuss as Pap Culture, do we respond, what went wrong and how do we avoid this situation. I mean obviously sometimes you can’t help it, but if it is possible then what do we do, do we want to put the video up again, do we leave it? Do we respond to tweets? The video was taken down by YouTube but if the choice was up to us we would have taken it down.

Q: Which other YouTubers inspire you and why?

BM: I really like a lot of the UK YouTubers; not to say that the SA ones aren’t great, I just think they have a lot more variety, and their commentary is hilarious and you’ll find that a lot of the black YouTubers are from different parts of Africa and I really enjoy that. I watch Shirley Niang, Patricia Bright, Backchat London; I used to watch a lot of Casper Lee and then The Breakfast Show too.

NM: I would say Issa Rae, back when she was Awkward Black Girl and it was my first introduction to her and I was obsessed. When I came across her, it was interesting that someone made a whole mini-series; it felt like a TV show online. It’s inspiring because people think that YouTube isn’t a career; people like Sibu have gotten a lot of flak for quitting varsity to do it full-time but I don’t think it’s impossible. She used minimal resources and made something of it. I also really like Foxy5 locally.

TM: Mine are The Breakfast Club; I chowed data at varsity for it. I don’t know if it counts, but Odd Future when they put up their vlogs, I really loved their show. Those were like my YouTube binge watches.

Q: What is the YouTube community like locally?

NM: The community is huge, there is a Facebook page called Youtubers SA, but all these kids are releasing content like they’re getting paid. But the main thing is more people of colour creating content online. There are lots of opportunities available, but you go into it knowing that you have to collaborate. And it’s easier to navigate the platform through collaboration, outside of getting greater views, it’s about the sharing of knowledge. When we opened up the channels with Sibu, that was the first YouTube relationship we had, and that went great and through that it opened more doors to us, even now when we have issues such as lighting or whatever we’ll pick up the phone and call Moyin from A1TV and it’s the behind scenes support that really helps. When twitter switches off its those relationships that really build us.

Q: What campaign highlights have you had so far?

BM: Highlights are exposure and the relationships that we’ve built out of the campaigns – Computicket with Austin and Cedric, we loved working with them, that was amazing. Meeting people and creating work with new people is awesome.

NM: I think a highlight was working with Cedric but I’ve personally been obsessed with both of them and it was a no brainer, the output was different which was a nice break from what we do. We’ve worked with Carvella, Libresse, and Frika right at the beginning. I think Libresse for me has become a highlight afterwards, because going into it, I mean we’re black people talking about vaginas, and when we shot the content, and it was like yabona le, it felt like it was for high school kids. I think Kenny was one of the first few people to comment and that was a surprise that people our age were interested in the content. I think the Cannes nomination, for them to trust it and believe it to enter even was incredible. It still blows my mind.

Q: How do you handle brand collaborations?

BM: We’ll sit and discuss whether we have time for it, does it make sense for us; I mean we can’t promote like Khaki clothing because that’s not us. We have to stay true to us and what we’re about.

TM: We try to make sure that we’re involved as much as possible, for instance with Vagina Varsity we workshopped the entire campaign with the team. We need to be in boardrooms and be part of the decision making, that’s important for us. Kerri Washington operates how we want to work, apparently she works more as a consultant than a brand ambassador and that’s how we want to work with brands.

NM: For us, a discussion that we’ve had is how does the content show up on camera? The branded content space tries to sometimes dictate how you should deliver your content. We need to be able to push back to clients to protect our brand. It’s about the willingness of the brand to adapt to how we want to create and deliver the content. With Libresse we worked in total collaboration with the team and it shows in the content.

Q: What does the future hold for Pap Culture?

NM: This conversation starts and stops, for example we just got an email from someone that potentially wants to house content on Pap Culture and that’s quite interesting, but beyond what we want to do with Pap Culture, I don’t think I would want to be in web series or TV series. I’m more keen to see the platform house content that isn’t ours. Also honestly just seeing the channel mean something to people who think TV is where content is meant to be housed. I would like to see YouTube reach out to us to educate people on the platform maybe in the form of roadshows; as to when, where and how, I don’t know.

BM: I think I’ve given a different answer to this question every time. I want to keep entertaining but I also want my corner office so that’s the struggle. Sometimes I want a TV show, sometimes we could be producers, and the brand can be bigger than the 3 of us.

TM: Someone asked me the other day if we think we’ll do this forever and I don’t think we will. I want us to live outside of this. We need to start consulting on content, there is an internship, there is a school, and we’re going into communities holding workshops. Pap Culture is the platform we have now but we want to do more.

Regardless of what we can expect in the future from this eclectic and magnetic group, we will be amazed and continue to be inspired by their drive and passion. There is the acute awareness that what they’ve created has the potential to be much bigger than them and at the core of everything Pap Culture is that they want to make a difference. There is no doubt that they are well on their way.

Click here to check out more of Pap Culture’s amazing videos to subscribe to their YouTube channel.