For years Selema “Sal” Masekela has entertained television audiences as an X Games reporter and media personality without revealing much of his personal history. As the subject of the short documentary Alekesam, which premiered recently at the Tribeca Film Festival, Sal finally opens up about the struggles he faced growing up as the son of legendary South African trumpeter and anti-apartheid activist Hugh Masekela. With director and longtime friend Jason Bergh, Sal uses the film to explore his father’s complicated legacy and its influence on his own nascent musical career. I spoke with Jason and Sal about the film’s origins and the effect making it has had on both their lives.
Matt Marquez: What, if any, meaning is there to the film’s title Alekesam, other than it being the reverse of your name?
Sal: When I was a kid, my dad had it as a license plate. Years and years later when I was working on this album and it was starting to come together I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t want my name to get in the way of this music that I’d made. So I said, oh, I’ll just go by Alekesam. It allowed me to get out of the way of the strength and the power of my last name Masekela, which obviously people know through my dad’s music. And I didn’t’ want to look like I was going to milk that, so I just decided to use Alekesam. And that’s how I think the film ended up being the same title since how this film came together was me making this record.
MM: Was there anything that you wanted to get out of the film personally?
SM: No. I was actually a little nervous at first, I didn’t want to come off as some woe is me child of a famous person, you know — look at how hard my life is, or some shit like that because I think that’s always pretty cheesy. So I wasn’t looking to get anything out of it, but I got way more out of it than I thought I would.
I never knew the story of Mandela writing the letter in prison and that that was the root of him [Hugh Masekela] writing the bring him home song. That blew me away. As a kid I didn’t understandd how much he just wanted to make music with Africans. I didn’t really understand how important it was for him to feel African. Because I was born here and was raised as a young black African-American child. I was aware of his history but I didn’t understand the weight of it until I got older. But it really hit to hear him speak of it the way he does in the movie. It just further impressed me, the turmoil of being a man without a home.
MM: One of the things that struck me about the film was seeing your dad in a tough place battling addiction and then you turn away from that but you still ended up pursuing a career in entertainment. How did you decide that that career was worth the possible price and dangers?
SM: I wasn’t looking for a career in entertainment; I was looking for a career in the action sports industry. And I ended up sort of by default being a guy with a microphone in his hand at a skateboard demo or a surf contest or snowboard contest where it was just basically friends putting together events for each other. It wasn’t until ’99 when I got stopped to be at the X Games, and I originally said no. I thought the X Games were cheesy. And my friends actually convinced me. They were like, you can help make it better. You can actually represent that culture because right now nobody is doing that in that world. And that’s when I said yes.
And then it started to snowball. And then I did start to enjoy it, and I started to realize that obviously I did have some sort of gift to be able to do this. So after a few years, yeah I did go for it, but by that point it was my own thing and I wasn’t even thinking of it relative to my dad’s thing or relative to my first pass to show business I had when I was young.
MM: One of the things you go into in the film is pursuing your musical career now. Was there a moment or was there something that happened that made you decide to start that career?
SM: My last year when I was at E!, doing "The Daily 10," I was pretty miserable. I had done this show for four and a half years total and the first couple of years I was allowed to be tongue in cheek and make fun that some of this shit was even up for discussion. In the beginning they were stoked on it, but then they decided they wanted to be the CNN of entertainment news and take it seriously. By the end of it I was just like, oh man, I can’t do this anymore. If I do another Kardashian story like it matters to the world, I’m going to kill myself.
The ultimate turning point was when I took a leave of absence from E! for about two and a half months to go work with ESPN [at the World Cup] as a human interest and cultural reporter telling stories about South Arica. My dad and I did a road trip documentary where he and I literally just took a drive through South Africa for two weeks and showed people the culture, and he told me stories about our family. It was probably the first time that we had gotten to drive and see all of South Africa together. And that was really the turning point because in doing that it was an instant return to who I was as a person as opposed to what I do for a living.
I came home from that, two months later my show got cancelled. They kept everybody on the staff, except for me. So when that happened, I was like, OK, what am I going to do? This thing that really started to speak to me was this itch I had to finally make a record, make my record.
It was the most fun I’ve ever had doing something. And I found a voice, I found my voice. I’ve spent my career celebrating the moments of others and putting a coda onto other people’s moments and saying the words that other people need me to say. I needed to see what I had to give and I found it with "The Sound of Alekesam."
MM: So Jason, how did this project come about?
Jason Bergh: Well it came about because Selema had just left E! and he called me up and was like, hey man, I’ve got some time and I’m going to make a record. And I was like, make a record? Alright. He made the record and sent me some tracks and as soon as I heard some of the first tracks I was like, Oh man, this is not just a record, this is something special and it sounds like it’s been brewing inside you for a really long time. Let’s put the cameras in the studio and document some of it.
I started to interview him and it went from record questions to talking about the history of who he was and the history of his family and his dad being exiled for 30 years and then it just started snowballing. And it all just started happening. I was like, do you mind if I interviewed your dad, ask him some of those harder deep-rooted questions? And he was like, man if you can get it out of him then you can ask him. And I was like, thanks that’s awesome, thanks for the confidence boost.
So I sat him down and what was going to be a 15-minute interview turned into a three-hour interview. And I just started asking questions and he just started answering them to the point where I just couldn’t believe what he was saying. He just kept going and going and going. Eleven months later we have a film in Tribeca and Sal’s got a beautiful album. It’s a trippy kind of experience. It’s surreal. It’s definitely one of the most surreal moments of my life to be able to sink my teeth into a project that’s so personal to Sal and us being friends for 12 years. It was just one of the most surreal moments of my life.
MM: How would you compare this to some of your past work?
JB: A lot of my past work has been commercialism: music videos and stuff that I’m super, super, super proud of — you know I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the biggest music people in the world and I’m so forever grateful for all of that and I’ll still continue to do all that, but this was something special because it was with my best friend and it’s a family story. I’m a father with two kids and there’s a real serious father-son story throughout this film with Stewart and Sonny and with Hughie and Selema, that it’s just very personal.
I feel like this is just the start of something for me. It gave me the confidence to go like, OK, I can tell these stories and I can sell my commercial work with my dream, art and passion work, you know? That there is a way to do that and this whole experience proved that to me in the most amazing way possible. I feel like I found what I’m supposed to be doing.
MM: What’s next for you? Is there going to be a longer version of this film or is there something else coming up for you?
JB: Right now we’re definitely talking to people about making a longer version of this film. And then for me, I’m doing these 10-minute documentaries on athletes for Muscle Milk. My last one was on the 12-hour Sebring and it’s an 11-minute documentary on the race team at Le Mans. It’s a 12-hour race and they were charging in second position the entire race until a mechanical failure towards the end there’s just a cool story. I think moving forward I want to do these documentaries, I want to turn my commercial work — all the stuff I do for all these commercial and music clients — and be able to tell more stories instead of it just being glam pieces. I don’t know if you should print that actually, I don’t want to piss off any clients [laughs].
-edited for content and clarity
Photos by: Brian Higbee