"I believe the two things that bring people together and help them understand one another are music and sport."
It was a little more than 10 years ago that Meja Shoba, a first-year graduate student in film production at UCLA, was spending her weekends holed up in a movie theater in Oakland watching the latest releases and feverishly penning her thoughts.
At just 13, she dreamt of following in the footsteps of Gene Siskel or Roger Ebert.
"I'd watch three or four movies a day and just write about them," she recalled. "I had this really thick notebook. I'd watch the movie, go get a newspaper, get the clipping of the review, paste it in my notebook and write my own review. I was always really into movies, but I thought I'd end up reviewing them."
Although she expected her path to go one way, her journey instead followed a different route, and she is now studying writing and filmmaking in the master's program at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television. And at the end of March, Shoba, now 25, will take her vision and talent to South Africa — the country where she lived for several years as a child — to take on an exciting new role as a Fulbright–mtvU Fellow. The program is a partnership between mtvU, MTV's 24-hour college network, and the U.S. Department of State's Fulbright Program.
For nine months, Shoba will go behind the scenes as a documentary filmmaker, exploring how youth use local kwaito music as a vehicle to renegotiate their cultural identity in liberated, post-apartheid South Africa. Kwaito is a fusion of house music and African beats and lyrics that emerged in Johannesburg during the 1990s. She will collaborate with local filmmakers, deejays, kwaito artists and elder musicians to illustrate how music reflects and articulates South Africa's political transition and social climate.
"I believe the two things that bring people together and help them understand one another are music and sport," said Shoba, who speaks Sotho and Zulu, two of South Africa's 11 official languages. "I think music helps in terms of cultural communication, because you get a taste of what's going on in a different country."
Her subject matter was inspired by a trip to South Africa to visit her grandfather in December 2010. There, she spoke with some of the young people she met about how they consume American media and culture and how they view their role in contemporary South Africa. Through these conversations, she noticed there seemed to be a "gap" — young pople, unlike older generations, placed a lot of value on American culture and symbols of success and didn't seem to have a lot of interest in their own culture, language, tradition and history. Having lived in South Africa as a child, Shoba found this surprising and disappointing.
"In producing my documentary, I want there to be complete honesty," she said. "I really want to capture the story of music through the personal experiences of both youth and the musicians they listen to. And in exploring these stories, I hope to uncover what music reveals about the state of the country and the generational chasm that is happening. I want to make a film that shares a story from a South African voice, perspective and experience."
The Fulbright–mtvU Fellowship program, established in 2007, promotes the power of music as a global force for mutual understanding. Four recipients are selected each year.
Shoba is the second UCLA student to have received the award during its five-year history. In 2009, Michael Silvers, a doctoral student in ethnomusicology, received funding to travel to Brazil to study the relationship between the culture of forró, a kind of popular dance music, and the climate and environment of northeastern Brazil.
Read a Q&A with Meja Shoba. For more information on her film, visit Shoba's Fulbright-mtvU blog.