Selema Masekela has undoubtedly accomplished a lot during his 50 years on the planet. The son of late and legendary musician Hugh Masekela, Selema (also known as “Sal”) is an Emmy nominated producer and hosted ESPN’s X Games for 13 years along with NBC’s Red Bull Signature Series, among other accomplishments.
But he’s so much more than a surfer or snowboarder or “the Black guy who hosts the X Games.” Masekela has his own podcast, What Shapes Us, where he talks to celebs and thought leaders “about the incidents, events and choices that shape who we are as human beings.” His book, AFROSURF, puts the long history of African surfing on full display, with Black and Brown faces displaying mastery of the ocean that are usually associated with only with places such as Malibu, Australia’s Black Rock, or Waikiki.
Learn more about the multifaceted author, producer, and athlete. In his own words, Masekela tells CASSIUSLife how his love of board sports fueled his philanthropic efforts with children around the world, why “white people sh*t” isn’t something weird but actually the stuff that belongs to everybody — and why you probably shouldn’t call him “Sal” anymore.
CASSIUSLife: Plenty of people are familiar with your work with events like the ESPN X Games or commentating at the Olympics, and most of us have always known you as Sal Masekela, son of South African bandleader and musician Hugh Masekela. But for our readers and those who may have cursory knowledge tell us a little bit about yourself. But also, what led from the transition of “Sal” to back to “Selema”?
Selema Masekela: Yeah, I grew up in New York City. In the St. George area of Staten Island, right by the ferry, and in Manhattan. I was a child at the birth of hip-hop, and I went to one of those schools in those days of the New York City public education system where a massive part of your education was being thrown at the arts and exposed to them in every way, shape or form. All the kids in my neighborhood were Puerto Rican, black, white, Eastern European, Dominican, Jamaican, West, East African, Indian, Jewish, Muslim. And this beautiful knowledge as a result of growing up with everybody, of everybody’s cultures and traditions and songs and music and food and holidays and names.
It wasn’t until I moved to the West Coast, to California, [when my] mother and stepfather sort of surprised me. My first week of school, introducing myself to everybody, I would say my name and they’d look at me like, “What is that? Selema?” These three syllables were somehow difficult to enunciate. And one day a kid came up to me like maybe the third or fourth time by the third or fourth day of school. And he was excited. He’s like, “Hey, dude, we figured it out, bro! You’re Sal, man!”
So that’s how I came to my nickname sort of becoming my name and being known as Sal. Especially as I made my way through the action sports world: through surfing, snowboarding, and skateboarding as my career kind of took off. That’s how people came to know me.
CL: But that’s your name, or at least your nickname. Pretty standard for any kid, I would think. Still doesn’t explain how that carried into your professional career, though.
SM: When I first started on television, I used to have them write my name as Salema. I was like, “People can call me whatever they want on camera, but they’re going to know my name.” [It started with] an executive at ESPN, when I was a sideline reporter for the Western Conference of the NBA in 2002, 2003, which was a huge deal for me. I thought, “The kid from the X Games gets to be sideline reporter for the NBA? On ESPN and ABC working with the likes of Mike Tirico and Bill Walton?!”
They were my crew that I was on. Anyway, one day this executive just came up and he was like, “Hey, we got to do something about what the people at home are seeing on screen with your name. You got to think about the Midwest. They can’t… they don’t know what that means. And your nickname, it just has a nice ring to it.” He literally took his hands and made air quotes and was like, “Sal Masekela. Sal Masekela. Don’t you want to be a star?!”
I was about to go on camera, I’ll never forget it. I was backstage, and the game was about to begin. And he just put his hand on my shoulder to be like, “Come on, we’re going to make you a star. But you’ve got to think about the Midwest.” And at that moment, being young, only a few years into my career, it was like, “Okay.”
And sure enough, it took off. All those things that he said would happen happened, but I never felt good with it. It always felt strange to announce myself to the world in a way that was more digestible, specifically for, like, a mid-Western white audience and for just white people in general.
CL: That’s gotta suck! I mean, it makes business sense, though.
SM: I tried to change my name back. And I say “tried” because, as your career starts to expand and you get a team and you have an agent, lawyers and business managers, et cetera, all these major decisions about yourself are done by committee. Like, how are you going to wear your hair? Are you f*cking up the bag just because you’re feeling a certain way? Don’t lose the plot. You don’t get to make decisions just for yourself anymore because your personal being is also the product. You are the product.
So we have to talk about whatever you’re going to be doing to alter the product. And the main thing that everyone would say would be like, “[If] you change your name, your brand is dead.” And I was like, “But I’m not changing my name. This is my name, and this is what I want to be!”
This is kind of where I came to. And it was in December 2020, in the wake of Breonna [Taylor] and Ahmad [Abrbery] and the Central Park incident. And then finally, George Floyd, like, when sh*t was essentially on fire. Plus, COVID — I just remember waking up one day and being like, “Okay, how do I function through this day without breaking?”
I just woke up one day, and this was not premeditated at all. I just woke up one day, one morning, and I was like, I was just brushing my teeth. I was in the bathroom. I was like, “This is it! We’re done. That’s a wrap. I’m Salema Mabena Masekela from this day forward. And if anybody has a problem with it, it’s not my problem! What are you doing? This is your name. This is your grandfather’s name. This is your being.”
I just told everybody, like, “This is what it is. And if it f*cks it up, it’s been a great run. But I have to be able to be in my whole body now more than ever. Because if we’re going to continue to f*cking get killed just simply for existing and looking at a certain way and be called in the question as to whether or not we belong in certain spaces and having to prove that, like, yeah, you might not be familiar with me, but look at how great I am at all these levels that you should be okay with me just being in the room. Then you’re going to have to say my name. You’re going to have to say all the syllables as we do this dance. And I’m going to be me.”
It became this great segue into what the rest of the way I get to dictate the story and not waiting for approval to be my whole self. The best way that a buddy said it to me was, “Hey, they can say charcuterie, they can say your name. Because best believe, they take great pride in being able to enunciate that “the charcuterie is being served.” They can say your name. And I just remember laughing my ass off and then also being like, damn! The accuracy, you can’t hide from the accuracy of that.
CL: What do you think are some of the cultural and economic barriers that might give us a complex when it comes to board sports, especially something like surfing? And how did that inform your creation of STOKED?
Selema Masekela: I remember the first time that someone said to me and it was as a kid growing up in New York, like maybe junior high school, when suddenly there started to be these lines of demarcation about, “Well, that’s just white sh*t” [when it came to certain] activities where you’d be like, huh? Whereas like two years before that, none of us were having that conversation. Now it could be whatever. Ice skating or cross country or all these different things, and suddenly we’re like, “No, no, that’s just white sh*t.”
I remember I wasn’t raised that way. Being a first-generation American and the son of a man who fled the country from apartheid, from South Africa, and my mother and my grandmother coming over here from Haiti. It just wasn’t how anyone ever expressed anything that way to me and my family. I think because of how hard they pursued or getting here, it was just like everything, you can do it all. And let’s be curious about all of it. And I’m very grateful that my parents worked very hard to make sure that they, like my mother and stepfather (who was Puerto Rican), didn’t have crazy means, but they saved up.
I say all that to say, and then you have the convenience of the system of whiteness that allows white people who maybe who aren’t in their mind’s eye racist, but all they see around them are themselves engaging in these activities, and they feel kind of good about themselves.
Right to say, like, well, that’s not what they do. It’s not of their culture. They don’t like to hike. They don’t like to be outside. They don’t like to swim. That’s what we do. They’re not bad people. They’re just different from us in that they don’t do our things. And what do we get from that? That’s not for us. That’s theirs. Why are you doing white people sh*t to the point where we become a part of the construct and tear each other down by default?
That’s why it’s so exciting now that there are these beautiful small armies of Black and Brown folks that have decided to be like,” Yo, we are out here!” And you can go online on Instagram and find the Black climbing groups and the black Mountaineers and the Black surfers. But there is at the same time, it’s like, how do we make it so that Black people and people of color have access and an idea that they can venture out and step into these things? Because that is their space, too.
When we started STOKED 15 years ago, I did so from the perspective of what these sports have built in me principally as a person. My partner, Steve Larosiliere, a fellow Haitian who grew up in New York, and he reached out to me. Cold called me about starting STOKED, and I was like, “Who is this dude?” And it turned out that he worked in mentorship with kids, and he had just started snowboarding, and it blew his mind away.
He’s like, I want to do something to give kids access to this, but I can’t do it by myself. He saw me on television and was like, that guy, that’s the guy I need to do it with. Researched me, cold-called my agent, and finally, we got on the phone. We had this five-hour conversation where it was like, “Oh, my God!”
I’ve never had to have never gotten to have this conversation with someone that looks like me. About what these activities actually are doing for us to give us life, like to help us function in the world. You have to learn how to fall down and get back up. You have to learn how to trust and build relationships with a new environment that’s extremely scary, especially in the ocean, in the mountains. And then learn how to navigate that environment to the point where you’re able to be expressive and create bodily moving art on your board and express yourself and learn how to interact within new spaces, with community, all these things that like strapping aboard your feet are paddling out into the ocean and learning how to build a relationship with the ocean.
You do that enough times you suddenly feel like you can take on anything that you want to. Those are the principles from which we built STOKED, to be able to help kids that are “of promise” — I hate the term “at risk.”
“Of promise.” That just need [an] opportunity to be able to experience life outside of these fake walls that have been put out, put up, to make them feel like if they step outside them, they’re stepping outside of themselves. So that’s where things came from.
CL: So tell me a little bit about the clothing brand you launched, Mami Wata.
SM: My friend Maria McCoy, who’s an incredible shoe designer in Johannesburg, was like, “Yo, there are these guys in Cape Town that are doing something that I think you would be blown away by. They’re doing this little surf line called Mami Wata. But the entire thing is through an African lens.”
And they shot this little short film called Woza. The protagonist in the short was a Black surfer, but [his being Black wasn’t the thing that was noted]. It wasn’t a thing. He was just a surfer.
And I was like, “I hadn’t seen that yet.” I was blown [away]. It was a beautiful little short, like maybe five minutes long. So she gave me their number. I started talking to them at the time they were just selling in South Africa and shipping to those who discovered the brand. But it was just in South Africa. So I flew to Cape Town, I met them, and started talking about the possibilities of what it could be because the surf lifestyle market is, from a branding standpoint, so distinctively “white, blond-haired, and blue-eyed.”
There is this perception that surfing is white culture, even though the Polynesians made it possible for the Californians to even do the thing. And then there’s literal documentation of Black people riding waves, of Africans riding waves in Ghana in the 1640s. There are other areas like São Tomé that go back thousands of years with this relationship of riding boards and riding widths around the continent. But again, it just became this idea that it was Australians and Californians.
So we worked pretty tirelessly the last three and a half years and then launched the brand here in June. And it’s been really fun to see the response and to see people being like, “I have no idea. I just didn’t know that was a thing.”
CL: Now, there was also a book that came out of the clothing line, AFROSURF. For our reading population out there, can you share how that came about?
SM: A year into our relationship, we started talking about what could be that moment for us as a brand where everyone had to stop, look, and, listen. And we started talking about doing this book, an Afro surf book: imagine a thick, beautiful 320-page coffee table book of just African surfing and first person African stories about why and what the ocean means to us.
We were planning to do the book in a much different way, the traditional way of going out and strike missioning here and strike missioning there. And then COVID happened, global lockdown and it was like, “Well, we can’t go out and physically do this anymore, but we have all of these relationships. Let’s get everyone together and curate this book from where everyone is at right now, photographers, writers, people telling their stories. We’ll put together a template for what that looks like and aggregate this, like the first Postal Service album over the Internet.”
So that’s what we did. We did it as a Kickstarter, and I think we sold 1500 books, both based on a 1:30-minute video that I did with some pictures and storytelling. All of the proceeds of the book were specifically going towards two surf therapy organizations that are based out of South Africa, Waves for Change and Surfers Not Street Children, which do incredible work with kids, and also community building and helping communities build a relationship and a sense of ownership of relation with the sea. [The book] was so hot when it started to get passed around that [the next thing you know], we started getting calls from actual publishers, and we were happy.
We raise all this money, and the next thing you know, actual publishers start calling and being like, “Would you like to do this for real?” And we ended up in a beautiful partnership with Penguin, Random House, and their imprint Ten Speed. To date, I think over 30,000 books [sold] since this summer. The New York Times had it as their holiday gift guide number one coffee table book. It’s been featured all over the world.
And I think the consistent theme about it is that people say over and over again as they pore through the pages and they read these stories, it’s just I had no idea that this existed and that this is an area of black culture that I didn’t know. And that gets me excited because I think Africa is just as a whole, all 54 countries.
CL: Tell us a little bit about your podcast What Shapes Us.
SM: I had had the idea of What Shapes Us before the pandemic. But I was super tentative about the podcast space, which is so ludicrous. I talked to people for a living! It’s millions of people live on television for decades in various spaces. But the idea of doing a podcast was like, Whoa, you can’t do that. But I loved this idea of what shapes us. And so I wrote a logline of what it was, and it was “the incidents and accidents that shape us into who we are,” something like that.
And then lockdown happened, and I was at home, like everybody else, bored-ass. I went on Amazon, and I just [started typing] “podcast equipment,” and talked to a couple of homies about what mics to get, et cetera. And then I started because I needed something. I needed something during that time in order to communicate.
I just felt like I want to have some conversations about right now. And Instagram Live isn’t cutting it for me. And that’s when I was like, okay, maybe this is the time for what shapes us to come to life. Yeah, man, it’s hard podcasting. I have so much respect for the people who are mad consistent. I finally have a team around me so I can do the parts that I know how to do. I’m not trying to one-man-band it like I was doing during lockdown! [laughs] That was cute and everything until the world gets back to life. And you’re like, oh, this is a lot.
But I’m excited, man. I’ve gotten to have some really great conversations, and I’m really excited about this next season.
CL: I mean, we’ve touched on a lot. You obviously come from a strong legacy. And you’re your own man. I guess the question that I want to ask, then, is what’s your legacy as far as you can see? You talk a lot about your dad, and it’s clear that he’s had an impact not just on other people, but for you as his son. You know him not just as a famed musician, but as your father. Is it to be a father to your own future children the way you feel he was to you? Is it going to be through board sports, or is it something else that we’ve yet to see? Is it through the podcast? We’re curious.
SM: I think legacy is such a crazy thing. I would like part of my legacy to be that I helped expand the landscape and shed a light on the fact that the outdoors is for all of us, and that this is a place where everybody can play, especially Black people. I’d like to be a part of that. There are so many people who are doing it, but I’d like my legacy to be a part of helping them make an impact so that hopefully for generations moving forward, it’s not strange, it’s not weird, it’s not an anomaly. It’s not something where a bunch of brands get together and are like, “All right, it’s Black History Month. Who can we showcase that’s doing weird sh*t?”
Because it’s not weird anymore. And in turn, if I can help break down some of the fabric of the walls that continue to separate us in this country, then cool. That’s what I want to have an impact on. That’s what I’m working to do.
Photo: Selema Masekela