I got to Alpha Longboards, Kent's longboard workshop, ten minutes ahead of schedule. This was so that I could quickly compile a list of questions of a high journalistic quality before I sat down with him.
Unfortunately, he's standing outside taking a call, and watches me pull up. My prep time vanishes.
He's wearing his usual kit of flatcap, high skating socks and well-worn takkies. It's cool in the workshop, a nice change from the heat that never seems to leave the concrete and tar of the Woodstock streets. There's skateboards all over the place. Some being made, some being repaired, and some just there for gees. Graffiti on the wall and, unexpectedly, Tracey Chapman is playing. Tools litter a workbench and a flight of stairs on the west wall leads up to his office.
I sit down at the collection of armchairs in the corner and take out the fancy DSLR I borrowed from a friend for the occasion. It's way nicer than my one, but I've never used it before and while I'm trying to figure out how it works, I notice that the battery is flat.
Kent is attaching some trucks to a longboard that he's finishing up for a client. He's made so many of these, it's basically muscle-memory performing the actions, and I notice he's focusing on my floundering with the camera and list of questions. "Shouldn't you have done that beforehand?" he asks. I laugh dryly and mumble something about touch-ups.
We'd been chatting since I arrived - first just catching up and then quickly crossing over into interview-type-content. I quickly set up my recorder and scribble like mad to catch his answers in his rapid speech.
Kent: You're from the eastern cape? A lot of whackjobs are from there.
Me: What, no, we're actually known for being the friendliest people in South Africa. The friendly city and all that.
Nah. A lot of people think JBay's a nice place, actually it's full of verkrampt whackjobs.
Aren't they building a new nuclear reactor there also?
Ya, that'll spazz them out even more! Jannie, hoekom lyk jy soos snaaks?
Okay, okay let’s start.
When did you start skating?
I started skating in 1994.
What kind of boards were you skating then?
Um, street boards, cause I mean I started skating street, cause I grew up in the Cape Flats so there weren't really any hills, so it was just normal street boards.
Actually a cousin of mine - I took scraps of one of his old board's lying around and then kinda Frankensteined myself a board.
That was the beginning.
Amazing. And then when did you start the shop? I'm assuming that was a lot later?
Um ya, I started cause... My first downhill skateboarding race was in 1999, and I started Alpha Longboards between 2000 and 2001.
So I mean it's not that long after I started skating.
So you were saying about the downhill skating competition - was that in Cape Town?
Ya, down Kloof Nek, the Glen, down to Camps Bay.
Crikey. What are some of the injuries that happened? I mean there must have been people that sort of swakked out hardcore going down that hill.
Ya ya! But actually like down there I haven't had my major injuries. It's on other hills actually that I've had my major injuries.
So which hills are the most injury-prone in Cape Town you think?
Not to sound full of ourselves, but like, there's a few of us that have been doing it for almost two decades. So I know like, for example, we make it look easy, and then all the other groms or I dunno, weird people, think that it's easy and they go hurtle themselves down... But I can literally do it with my eyes closed. Um so, but I mean there's another hill, Franschhoek Pass, I mean that's where I've had my biggest injury - I snapped my femur in half. My left femur.
You must have taken a hard fall hey!
Ya I know. But the thing is hey like just the day before that I had booked my ticket to World Champs in Australia, so I only had four months to kind of recover and get skating again before I had to do skateboard champs in Australia.
Can a femur recover in four months?
Nah, they gave it like minimum six. I remember the physio said when I woke up cause I saw the physiotherapist and I was like "so when can I skate again?" and she was like "well you can walk again" and I'm like "that's what you tell normal people".
I'm guessing there's two different types of skateboarding competitions? You get street skating and longboard yeah?
Yeah so street skating is like what people do in a skate park, with a shorter board like kickflips and ollies and stuff. Downhill skateboarding is when you're racing with three other people down a hill.
Ya. And then whoever gets to the bottom over the line first wins.
So basically who's the most insane?
Pretty much. Like who takes the most risks and who's got...
The biggest death wish?
The biggest childhood problems!
The person who feels like their mother doesn't love them - that's the guy! That's genuinely the guy!
I actually got into downhill skateboarding because for two years, about when I was fifteen, we lived in Woodstock in Mountain Road for a few years, and when you live in Mountain Road, everywhere you go is pretty much a hill. So you can't not downhill skate and live in Woodstock. So this is where I learnt to downhill skate.
What happens if you downhill skate on a normal board? I mean those wheels are tiny.
Ya, but you know like at that point we didn't really know any better, so we were just kinda doing it. Now if I try to do it one one of those boards we used to do it with, I'd be like "what the..!"
So have you been in Woodstock for your whole life?
No, not really, I lived here for a few years and then I moved back to Mitchell's Plain.
So tell me the story from the beginning. Born in Cape Town?
Ya, born and bred in Cape Town. So I spent most of my life in Mitchell's Plain. Born in place called Bishop Lavis, which is kinda like the northern suburbs, and then ya, lived in Mitchell's Plain most of my life, went to school there, finished school, lived in Atlantis for a bit. Ya, like moved around quite a bit. Went to like seven different schools. Which kind of made... Which kind of made sense with skateboarding because you don't need other people. And when you're not living in a place long enough to make friends, you're just like, you don't have friends.
Why were you moving around so much?
Just cause my parents got divorced when I was four or five. And I was always kind of moving around between my mother and my father.
I was at the same school most of my life and I still didn't really have any friends. I don't even have the excuse of moving around.
Now if you were competing in downhill skateboarding you'd have probably won.
I’d definitely be pro!
What speeds to you hit going downhill?
My camera has a speedometer, so I mean my fastest isn't that fast compared to the rest of the world. But my top speed is about 107.
Yaaa. No man but the world record is like 135.
And I mean generally when I go out, I mean there's a hill I skate out in Durbanville, like whenever I go there I kind of clock between 90 and 95.
When people start skating, where would you recommend they learn? The skating nursery, say.
When I give skate lessons to complete beginners I normally go out into a empty parking lot.
You give skate lessons?
Ya. So I normally just do that. Just something flat, just so that you can play around, like go around in circles, do figures of eight. Just understand how the board responds to your body movements. I mean I wouldn't recommend going out onto the streets. Especially with drivers in Cape Town... it's not lekker.
Sounds good. Until you klap a dik pothole! So you were skating at school?
Ya, started skating when I was standard seven. And then... I matriculated kinda early. Umm, I matriculated when I just turned seventeen. I was living on my own already in matric. I didn't come from a rich family, so I kinda had to make my own way. So what I did in the last part of matric year, I had a little coffee business on Green Market Square. Cause the church I used to attend is on Green Market Square - the big Methodist one. So for three years, from matric onwards, I would walk around - I started at seven in the morning with a crate of two flasks of hot water and a tin of coffee some biscuits and walk around and sell coffee to the people and that was kinda my thing.
So that's how you made your way in matric?
K Ya I made my way in matric and then just skated, got into downhill and then when I started travelling I was eighteen.
Was this for competitions?
No. I was... The first I travelled I was... I went to live in a French Monestry, because I was considering becoming a monk. No, I lie! The first time I travelled was for a yoga conference in Wales.
I did not expect that.
I was always kind of exploring spirituality and those kind of things at that point, at that age. So then I got invited to attend this Yoga course, intensive Yoga training course in Wales.
Do you still practice yoga?
No. I mean sometimes I think I should've kept at it. But I kind of got to the point where like the stuff I do is skating, keeping fit, is kinda like my yoga, cause I'm active everyday. It'd be different is I was sitting as a desk at a 9 to 5.
So I just ended up staying there. Cause back then as South Africans we could just get six month visas for the UK. Then I worked in Dublin for 5 months as a barman, waiter, etc etc, then I came home. Sort of early 2000. Then I went to the monastery in France. It was a place where young people can go - there's a communal space where you can work. And there's a whole different section where you stay with the brothers. You spene time in silence. And you work in community. I was considering doing that, but I was quite young, I was only 20, so I was like, hmmmm, I dunno, so then they kinda gave me a three month period and were like "if you wanna stay longer then you kind of have to commit to becoming a brother".
So then I was like nah, and then I came back, and at that point I had already done my first downhill race, which happened in 99. So then I kind of started Alpha Longboards, was skating a bit more. And then the first time I travelled overseas for racing was 2004, in Europe. Actually someone highlighted a few years ago, which I didn't realise at the time, was that I was the first black African to compete on the World Circuit. But at that point I was just trying to survive.
For those early races I only had an air ticket and entry fee for one race in Switzerland and I kind of hustled to get to the one so I just had like loads of boards, and would sell them to the other guys! That's how I got to Germany.
And it's funny though cause I still see this guy who travels around the world that I met then in 2004 and like he still does the world series, like, he's an old guy. And he still has a board that he bought from me then! in 2004! And it's still like his little go-to board!
And it all worked out... But you know that when you're that age you just don't think man!
When you started out did you think that you could actually make this a career?
I must admit I was pretty like... I wouldn't say stupid, but I was like "How am I going to skate everyday? Let me just try this." And you know I always tell people, when you're used to... when you know the feeling of having nothing, then having nothing... you know you don't get scared. And if you know what it's like to be hungry, then you don't mind taking risks because you know it's not the end of the world. And that kind of mentality and attitude just kind of got me through. So like I didn't even think about the hardships it was just, "okay I'm in this situation", um ya, so for the first decade of my business I wasn't making money. Well I was, I was surviving, and I was still doing other jobs in between you know. And I also studied social work. Well, child and youth development. (23:00,91) So I also worked as a child and youth care worker in Hout Bay, in 2001.
That's a lot on your plate. Hustle!
Ya but I left though. Just cause like in summer, it's school holidays and you have to be on for five day shifts, and you're only 21 years old and all your homies are skating and having a jol and you're like looking after kids who wanna stab you.
It doesn't get more unfortunate than that.
Ya but you're trying to hug a kid and it's going YAAAHH!! and hitting me. I was like "why am I here? I want to be skating."
So basically if you wanna do something you just gotta make it work.
Exactly. If you love it that much then the love for it and the fact that you're doing it is enough. You know. Eating and Sleeping is just an added bonus. But the most important thing is to just do it. Cape Town is also rad like that though cause it kind of gives you the space to do it.
Reckon Cape Town is unique in that way? Where you can actually pursue... well I don't wanna say "niche" specialities cause skating is fairly mainstream.
It's mainstream now.
Is the face of skating changing?
It was quite big in the 70s though?
When I started skating in the 90s, it was on it's way down, it took a dip in the late 70s and then took another dip in the 80s and 90s. So, I was like, so we were literally spat on when we went to go skate. People were like "puh! what are you doing! Grow up!"
No really. You're like busy trying to ollie these five stairs and then someone would spit on you! I'm like "Homie I'm just trying to skate, man." No really! And especially for me also because skateboarding was kind of attached to surfing and because surfing and skating were considered more like a white person's thing. And so many of my peers in the area used to be like "yo you think you white?". So we had to fight a lot to be able to skate daily. So like I tell someone now, I still struggle with the fact that we're considered the cool kids cause we spend decades being the uncool kids. And there are times when I feel like people shouldn't be skating - you're not a skateboarder.
One of the pros from back in the day that I really admire in an interview said that there's many people who are good at skateboarding but they're not skaters. Cause skateboarding isn't always just the act of skateboarding - it's also the mentality of being a skateboarder. You know?
Most people probably don’t skate to become pros though, they just do it as a hobby.
Well downhill skateboarding is so in the spotlight and you have massive brands just throwing money at every Tom, Dick and Harry who can do a kickflip, you know I get so many emails from kids that are like "yo Kent, can you sponsor me?", and I'm like "who are you?". So they're like "ya man I can do this one slide!". Oh. Kay. Thanks. A lot of kids do that now cause their end goal is wanting to be sponsored, and when we started that was never the idea. We were just like "let's skate". So this makes me think about people's motives for skating.
How did you learn to make boards?
Making boards isn't a destination. It's a constant journey of learning. When I started I was checking out some stuff but back then we didn't have the internet, so it was just kinda playing around and speaking to people. So I spoke to some people about bending wood, the guys who build boats out in the False Bay area, like Kalk Bay and they were like "you should do this and this to the wood etc" and I was like "okay rad". And then some friends of mine were surfboard shapers working with fiberglass, so I asked them some questions and then kinda just put the two things together, and ya, now it's at a point where the boards are rad. Luckily I got it right from the beginning though, so like the mould I use to bend wood in now is the same mould I've used since day 1. I did originally have to play around with the depths of the concave.
What does the concave-ness do?
It just makes the board slightly more responsive, and it stiffens it slightly. So that's mostly how I learnt. Just playing around with different techniques and materials.
It was quite a learning curve because I never did woodwork at school.
Well Julius Malema is the real woodwork pro.
Thanks for the comparison.
Who were your first customers?
Well my friends noticed my boards and were like "yo make me a board!". I never say no. So if someone's like "Kent, can you change this, or make that?", my answer is always "Ya don't worry!" and then it's onto Youtube tutorials "how to..."
Best memories skating?
I know this is gonna sound very cliche, but in December I was in Germany with my family, and my daughter at that point was like a year and two months, and we were just playing around and then she stood on the board, and she was like "wooo!", she loved it. And for me, winning is races and whatever is rad but like when your kid is that young and just stands on a board and knows completely what she must be doing, to me that was it. You know I skate with cool homies and I do rad stuff, but that to me was the thing.
Anyways, I'm sponsored for freeriding these days, I don't really enjoy competing. So I get to do all these rad events where I get to skate with homies from around the world.
How does sponsorship work?
So I get picked up as an ambassador, and then it's either money or gear. So I've got a shoe sponsor, so I get free shoes, likewise a sock sponsor, all my equipment is sponsored.
In exchange for wearing their brands and looking cool in them? So I see you in those socks, and I know that if I wear those socks I'll be...
A better skater!
Who finds who?
Generally half and half. But as an athlete it is also up to me to go out and approach them.
It is fairly common for local athletes to get sponsorship?
Not at all. I might be wrong but I think I am the most sponsored downhill skateboarder in the country. But it's really such a tough game out there. Local brands don't really have the foresight or the knack to see who's progressive in their thinking and who can push a brand you know. Like a lot of guys just buy a franchise, from a shoe brand in the states, and they just copy and paste their branding and their ads instead of being like "okay cool here's a travel budget for our local riders - go find an epic hill and film it!" Even with the art I do on my skateboards. In the 80s and 90s it was huge, but now still trying to educate the local market in 2017 on art on skateboards. So many of my sponsors are international. But even as a business owner, I sponsor people through Alpha Longboards. It's my longevity which pulls sponsors. I've been consistently doing what I do for almost two decades, so people know I'm a safe bet, I'm not just going to stop skating. You have a responsibility to them, releasing videos and stuff.
So Woodstock's changing. How do you feel about that?
Well I used to be in the Woodstock Exchange for eight years before it was the Woodstock Exchange. It was just a skeleton of a building. Ya man, I dunno. I wouldn't say I'm on the fence, like I understand why things have to happen the way they happen. And as a business owner - more foot traffic and a friendly environment promotes people walking in and coming in and getting a board. But also just the way that families and generations have been displaced. Kinda bugs me out. It does get emotionally tiring, having to always be confronted by what people are having to go through.
Ya I get you. But now the Woodstock Exchange is no longer a skeleton of a building, it's a bustling center full of businesses and people bringing money to the area, eating at local restaurants and starting up companies.
But also there's the legacy you know. A lot of affluent white people have moved into the area and now to appease their own guilt or whatever they end up just giving away stuff, you know, giving clothes, giving food, and that promotes a culture of expecting handouts from locals. And so kids are so used to getting free stuff now that they're like "okay give me this, give me this!", and then I'm like "no you must work for what you want my boy". I literally hear mothers telling their kids where to go ask for school shoes, "go ask that lady over there" and stuff. And the hustle is real out here. People are opportunistic, if they can see there's a gap, and they can feed off it then why not. But also that doesn't do much for our people.
Do you think there's a space for starting a competition for new skaters in Cape Town?
Ya, possibly. We did something similar back in the day. We had an organisation called South African Gravity Association. So ya, there is a space for that. I wouldn't do it though, because it's hard to compete in an event and organise. You wanna skate but now you're stressed from having to make sure that the bacon sandwiches are out of the sun. There's also promenade Mondays. In summer, every monday they meet by Queen's Beach on the promenade, everyone different ages, guys and girls, all just skate together down the promenade. On a good day there can be about 50 people!
Kent gets back to work on attaching wheels to a board, and I stand up, pack up my stuff, and head for the door. Outside the harsh glare of the sun blinds me temporarily and I squint to adjust to it. I watch a stray dog limp by. There's yellow cranes high in the air and the sound of building two roads down. The sun bakes down and the graffiti is bright. Urban decay giving way to the relentless tide of gentrification. Down the road I can hear someone throwing up violently, and a bunch of kids skate by, reminding me why I’m here. Woodstock is a piece of land caught in two colliding worlds. Some people with faces like broken promises and others just looking for cheap office space with an eye on future.
And next time you're taking a walk in the area, be sure to stop at Alpha Longboards, say hi to Kent, and go for a skate.
52 Wright Street