Selema Masekela is a generational voice. Not just because he’s articulate. Because he’s put time in. He started answering phones at Transworld as an intern in the nineties. He announced every beach, skate, and snow event he could as a side hustle, then became the face of the X Games. And he can actually surf and snowboard. Like, really well. Aside from the athletes, there’s no one more respected in the world of action sports than Selema Masekela. Then he branched out, moving into the mainstream realm with ESPN, and E!, the celebrity gossip show we only watched because he was hosting.
But talk to Selema for even a minute and it’s clear, at 49, he doesn’t really give a shit about those accolades anymore. Yeah, he’s good at his job. But he’s focused on something bigger. After George Floyd’s murder, Selema’s role in our world took on a whole new meaning. He’s been there to guide us and to remind everyone that yes, racial injustice really does exist in this space. Not everyone has been given the opportunity to take off on a set wave or ride powder. This isn’t new territory for him. He’s been reminding us for years, putting the work in with his Stoked Mentoring program to get more kids of color involved.
Last spring, when things came to a boil socially, Selema was there to disseminate the chaos, to inspire change, which started with himself, taking back his birth name, and leading rallies. He’s not done. Not even close. In fact, he’s just getting started. I ran into him recently in Japan while he was covering the Olympics for NBC (his second), and I was hustling for The Inertia. I hounded him for an interview. Shit got real. But Selema’s always been real.
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So what’s your takeaway from surfing’s first Olympic showing?
I feel so incredibly lucky that I got to be here in the front row to experience it. It was unlike any surf contest I’ve ever been to or will ever go to. I don’t think any of the other Olympic surf events will ever feel like the first time. It was just rad to see all these surfers who had done the work to be here get into it and be like, “Holy shit, this is something else entirely.” I’ve never seen such a combination of wide eyes at being part of a giant spectacle, and being under a global microscope. For a moment, the whole world cared about surfing. Just to see how bad everybody wanted it, the collective passion and how everyone wanted to do well. As we got towards that medal ceremony, it was powerful. I’ve never seen so many athletes so broken at a loss. You could see them immediately process the loss, all the work that had been done, and it was over. We saw them not just as surfers but as human beings.
Surf culture’s general attitude towards the Olympics was interesting.
The amount of people wishing for the Olympics not to happen was sad. People underestimated what would happen if an American won gold. Now we’re seeing Carissa Moore go through the international superstar car wash and what it means for her. And Italo and his story and where he came from. As for a dying surf industry, it’ll be interesting to see if they can get out of their own way and capitalize on it. The reverberation of this can expand surfing, and that’s cool. It’ll also be interesting to see which other countries get into development of building a surf team, what it means across the landscape of Africa. That’s a thing that excites me. If you’re somehow pissed about it all and think you’re the only one who can enjoy this magical thing, you should quit.
As far as a ton of new people surfing because of it, it takes so much to build a relationship with the ocean, to make this lifestyle work, most people aren’t gonna stick with it anyway. I’m at a point where I celebrate the weekend warrior. I used to make fun of ’em. To work all week so you can go catch a couple of shitty waves, waves that make all the difference in who you are as person. If more people would do that, how much of a more beautiful, different society it might be?
I know you’ve talked about it, but can you explain again the significance of changing your name back to Selema?
I always wanted to take my name back. I’ve tried unsuccessfully before. I wanted to do it more from a professional standpoint. I had executives tell me, ‘But you don’t understand, that’s the brand.’ Sal was a nickname. They thought that Selema was too difficult to say. I was just a kid when I moved to Carlsbad (California). There were two black kids in the whole school. Names of different cultural backgrounds were difficult to pronounce, I guess. Friends were like, ‘Dude we figured out a name for you: you’re Sal.’ It went like wildfire and really continued until I started working at ESPN. I wanted the font on the programing to say ‘Selema.’ I was fine with the compromise, call me ‘Sal’ on air as long as it said, ‘Selema.’ Executives said it was hard for people in the Midwest to understand the name. They were like, finger quote, ‘We wanna make you a star,’ so I kind of relented. I always felt like that name was a caricature, it was supposed to be the shred version of me. But last summer in the wake of the George Floyd killing, I just woke up and thought, I don’t want to make myself more digestible. So I changed everything on social media and anywhere else my name appeared. It took people a second. People slip, I don’t mind. I appreciate that people make an effort. It’s a bold thing to do, but you spend all this time building this brand, I was building a small piece of myself. I felt like I didn’t get to exist in the whole story of me. I felt like a Sal Masekela could surf and snowboard more easily. But it always felt like I made a compromise in order to be accepted in this space I didn’t need to be accepted in. It’s my space. These are my people.
You’ve been working on getting more people of color involved in board sports for a long time, way before the recent social unrest. Where do you think we’re at with it all?
We still have a long way to go. Two things need to happen: A) The landscape needs to expand. The established status quo of the community needs to embrace that. That’s part of the barrier, people having an inability to embrace that the landscape needs to expand. People in snow and surf need to understand that if they see someone different, it should be their job to be welcoming. Like, ‘I can see you’re new here, here’s what not to do, nice to see you,’ while also maintaining and regulating what I believe to be a safety-first environment. How do we enjoy this type of stewardship as opposed to it being localism? There are plenty who would argue against that point of view. Some people think their status in lineups should define who they are as people.
B) People who have a lived experience in this culture need to continue to be unafraid to speak and remind people where we’ve been and where we’re trying to get to. That comes from sharing your lived experience. At times it’s startling. A lot of people never thought that’s something you can experience. A lot of people within the action sports space, because they have certain status, think because these things aren’t visible, they don’t happen. I’ve experienced things that would make peoples’ heads spin: brands that are almost 100 percent white sending out company surveys asking if the work place is racist. Huh? Or shapers I’ve worked with in the industry using the n-word. I know it’s happened and continues to happen. Surfing and snowboarding are already intimidating, learning how to navigate the mountains or an ocean trying to kill you, the equipment. That’s to start with, not to mention the financial challenges.
Talk about your lived experience in this space.
I’ve experienced all sorts of racism from, ‘Hey it’s cool, you’re a different kind of black guy. You do what we do,‘ all the way down to overt, outright, very aggressive, bigoted behavior. My experience is not unique to black kids or kids of color who grew up in mostly white spaces. I have these conversations with people all the time. I’m glad to know I wasn’t the only one. People in the surf industry that get angry that we’re having a conversation about race is typical to the rest of America. If you’re a white, male, Christian patriot then any other subject is suddenly political. ‘Why are we talking about gender? Why are we talking about how the ocean’s for everybody and the people who do it and what their challenges are? I’m not racist.’ I get constant pushback, ‘We don’t need to talk about that here, why you gotta make it about race?’ Instead of listening to people tell them about their experiences, the journey to get on the mountain or get on the lift. (After experiencing this, many people of color) would just say I don’t want to come back here, fuck this. Those are the things that people experience on a regular basis. People continue to want to tell others to shut up about it. That doesn’t help. It should be more like, ‘Hey, what can I do to make a difference within my circle?’ There are brands within our industry that are aggressively choosing to take the lead in making inclusion a part of the brand identity, and how to build that into their DNA.
Are you seeing things that inspire you?
There are people doing good work out there. I see the work of people at Color the Water, The Gnar Gnar Honeys, dedicated to talking different stories within our community. Those types of people give me hope. I love to see the way the community can’t ignore a group like Textured Waves. It’s about making steps, how to reach out and have better hiring policies, figuring out ways to use the tools brands already have – creating a marketing mindset that looks to expand the landscape. All that being said, there’s a very strong piece of our community that really does believe the ocean is theirs, that they are entitled to it.
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So give me your thoughts on the difference between racism and localism. That’s an interesting concept.
The difference between having a code in the water that keeps everybody safe that maintains a balance and flow and how the ocean is shared is one thing, especially when it comes to California and Hawaii. And for the record, the North Shore is a completely different conversation for a bunch of different reasons. But the idea that if you can’t live here, you can’t surf here, or I don’t know you, I can take off on you as many times as I want or tell you to leave, is ludicrous. It’s fucking ludicrous. Because I live on a street that’s not far from here – that’s straight out of the racism handbook. But to be justified, being a protector to keep the lineup safe, there’s a big difference between going up to somebody who’s dangerous and asking them to respect the rules or leave. I saw a guy at Lowers punching above his weight class with equipment going off on these Brazilians, saying he was going to snake every one of them. That mentality is whack. Now, on the North Shore, in a place overrun by colonialism, Hawaiians are defending the last bit of their culture. You go there, show respect and might be able to earn your place with limited space. There’s some deeper and more complicated issues there. And at places like Pipeline or even Sunset, you can get people killed if you don’t know what you’re doing. There’s a lot more nuance to it.
So what’s next? You’ve had a pretty stellar run.
Funny question, I ask myself that all the time. I’m going to be 50. I’ve been enjoying what I do in front of the camera for 25 years. I basically got a broadcasting journalism degree at the World Wide Leader in Sports (ESPN), and I’m so grateful for it. I’ve covered the NBA, covered World Cup soccer. It’s been awesome. It’s allowed me to do so many things. I guess top of mind is that I want to be a bit more of a mentor for the athletes, really helping to expand their interests as far as diversity goes. It’s fun to have other interests outside the camera. I’m passionate about being able to continue Hume with Blair Marlin. I love being able to take my mindset from things I did as a part of Alphanumeric and Planet Earth and apply them to build a brand I’m an owner of. I get to flex some of my other skillsets. I’m part of Mami Wata out of South Africa, a lifestyle clothing brand. I want to continue to look at surfing through an African lens. There is more surfable coastline in Africa than anywhere else in the world. I’d like to see surfers be as curious about Africa as they are about places like Indo. And I really want to continue to use my skills to help both surf and mountain brands – especially resorts – market to people of color and expand hiring. It’s still a much bigger conversation, and I want to help build those conversations.
Editor’s Note: Selema Masekela recently released a book with Mami Wata through Random House Publishing called Afro Surf, that captures and celebrates the surfing culture of Africa. You can find it here.