Selema Masekela’s role in framing snowboarding to the masses is unparalleled. The same could be said about his ability to contextualize worldly issues. The son of a political exile from apartheid in South Africa, Selema has been at the frontlines of snowboarding and race issues since his earliest memories. His meteoric rise through the action sports industry includes monumental and continued contributions at brands, events, and non-proﬁts, in addition to being an esteemed and vital voice in snowboarding, both on and off the mic.
The ﬁrst time I saw a snowboard was in 1986. I lived in Massachusetts and I saw it in the window of a ski shop. I was skateboarding at the time. I grew up in New York City, and then my mother and stepfather moved to a blue-collar town in MA where there were no Black people. The kids who took an interest in me and allowed me to be different were these four very punk rock skateboarders. I was fascinated by skateboarding. It got me through the three years I lived in MA. I would stand in my backyard and jump off my deck onto my board and do whatever I could to emulate shit I saw in magazines. A year-and-a-half later, my family moved to Southern California. I started surﬁng and six months after that, all my friends decided that we were going to try snowboarding at Snow Summit. I was on a Kemper Pro with Sorels and I didn’t have shred gear, so I did the next best thing I knew to stay warm: wear a full 3mm wetsuit with a bright green Lange ski jacket that I borrowed from my friend’s brother. That was my outﬁt. No lesson, no idea how to do the thing. This was December of ’88. I didn’t understand why people were staring at the time, but It turns out that I was the only Black person that they had ever seen on a mountain, who happened to be in a wetsuit.
From there, I started hanging out at Hobie. I got to know the guys and they started loaning me boards and getting me discounts on tickets. I was cleaning offices at night, I was a bank teller, I was waiting tables, just trying to ﬁgure out what my life was. Whenever I had free time, I would jam up to Summit. I started to get pretty good and I began to build my relationship with snowboarding. I then got a job at Hobie. I worked on the ﬂoor and learned how to tune. My boss would tell somebody that I was going to wax their board and you’d just see this look. People would ask for someone else all the time. They were petriﬁed. Two months later, Hobie laid me off. They didn’t give me any explanation.
I was so dumb that I would go in once a week and hang out. Finally, one day, the dude who managed the shop, Aaron, called me. He said, “I’ve got to tell you the truth. You didn’t get laid off from Hobie. The managers said we had to let you go because they didn’t feel that you ﬁt the image of a surf and snow-board shop. I will 100 percent back you up if you want to take legal action or anything. I just couldn’t live with this and I’m sorry.” I remember hanging up the phone, sitting there by myself in the break room at my job at the bank. I didn’t even realize how long I had been sitting there, crying. My manager came in and yelled at me to get back out on the line. I was in shock. I was angry. I remember thinking, I’m going to sue that place and it’s going to be my name on the outside of that shop.
I got home and I spoke with my mom. She said, “You know, you could do that and you would have justiﬁcation, but let’s just think about the landscape of this town. There’s no one else that looks like you. Who do you think people are going to believe once the story gets out? Is it going to be worth it for you in the long run if this doesn’t go your way? You love snowboarding and surfing. Are those people going to dictate what these things mean to you?” I remember getting to the point of reﬂection and sadness and then ultimately saying, Fuck it. I didn’t tell anybody this story for a very long time.
I ended up going back to hustling as a bouncer at night and bussing tables at the Potato Shack on the weekends. One day at the Potato Shack, a bunch of people came in wearing ASR tradeshow badges. I approached my coworker. I asked, “Yo, I need that table. Those are my people.” He was like, “Five bucks and it’s yours.” I gave him the ﬁve bucks. It was more than I’d probably make on the table. I just wanted to be close to that energy.
One dude, Chad DiNenna, took a real interest in me. He was a junior ad sales rep at Transworld. One day, probably his third time in, he says, “What the fuck are you doing with your life? You clearly love snowboarding, skateboarding, and surﬁng. Do you want to work at Transworld?” He told me they were looking for a junior ad sales rep and to call him on Monday. I was so blown away by the offer that a part of me felt like an imposter, so I didn’t call immediately. Three days later when I ﬁnally mustered the courage, Chad says, “Where were you? It’s too late, we hired somebody. You fucking blew it. I’m sorry.” Click. I’m just sitting there on the phone, devastated. Two days later, Chad calls me and tells me their receptionist has decided that she’s going back to school. It’s not much money, but it’s a foot in the door. That Monday, I show up at Transworld and I start answering phones. “Transworld Publications, this is Selema Masekela. How may I help you?”
I made relationships there. I would walk around the building when shit was slow and ask people if they needed anything. It was a small place then, maybe 25 people worked there. I think I was the only Black person. Once people saw how joyful I was to be there, they really started to take to me. I basically worked at central intelligence of the entire shred game. At the front desk, I would get calls like, “Hi, this is Tony Hawk. I’m looking for Grant Brittain.” Or Haakonsen calling for Jon Foster. That’s how I met these people. It was a trip.
Despite laying the groundwork for my professional career, my Transworld journey wasn’t easy, but I really got to learn the entire landscape of the industry. I only worked there for two-and-a-half years, but I went to college at Transworld. The real takeaway from my time there was that I learned I had the ability to rock the mic. The ﬁrst thing that I did was called Board Aid at Snow Summit. Board Aid was the ﬁrst of its kind, essentially a music festival with snowboarding and skating to raise awareness for HIV, which at the time was a huge deal. I literally channeled Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam. At 9 a.m. that ﬁrst morning, I was like, “GOOOOD MORNINGGGG BIG BEARRRRR!” I was on autopilot after that. That’s when I started getting calls. “Hey, we heard that you killed it at such and such. Will you come to our shop and announce our demo? We’ll give you store credit.” In a heartbeat. That was my hustle.
The journey was wild, but all the while, it was me, Han Solo, navigating this very, very white world where I always felt like I had to prove myself—prove that I’m not just the funny guy, but that I actually love this shit and I’m pretty good at it. People would always be surprised and pat me on the back, like, “You’re a different kind of Black guy. You’re more like us.” No one knew my background. I wasn’t telling people, “Oh, by the way, my father is a political exile from this system called apartheid and he’s been ﬁghting for the freedom of South Africa. When I was 15, I was on the road with Paul Simon on the Graceland Tour as a roadie with my father through Australia, Europe, and the States. I just met Nelson Mandela last year when he got out of prison.” No one knew those stories about me.
Really, I was super worldly by the time I got to Cali, just being around great music and the arts. When my parents made that ﬁrst move to New England, it was such a culture shock, and then my mother and stepfather doubled down when they moved to Carlsbad. But the beauty of growing up the way I did, was I knew how to adapt. I knew how to pivot and almost how to shapeshift to make myself be where I was. I learned how to make white people comfortable with me. When I look back at it, I was giving up so much capital to do so, energy-wise, to subliminally be like, Okay, how do I ﬁt here? How do I ﬁt there? Because any time I walked into a room in this industry, I would have to validate that I was one of them. I would become everyone’s “cool Black friend.” It’s not to say that I didn’t forge genuine relationships, but people went out of their way to not see my Blackness once they knew that I was down with the same shit as them, because that was convenient. There were only a handful of people along the way who would be like, “Yo, it’s amazing that you’re doing what you’re doing here. I get it.”
In ’96-97, I got the team manager job at Reebok. They started this company called Boks. Boks was the first major foray into action sports by major sports brand other than Nike ACG. I think everything that I had done up until then had literally prepped me. Now I’m traveling around the country, I’m going to all the events, I’m taking care of the riders. I had Kevin Jones. I had like ’95-96 Kevin Jones. I was responsible for that animal. Then, one day Reebok decided to shut the whole thing down. I get a phone call from the dude at Reebok, and he’s like, “I’ve got bad news. Take your credit card and just have at it until it doesn’t work anymore.” So, I did. I went to Colorado, road tripping and just trying to ﬁgure it out, looking for a job. In Vail, my credit card finally runs out. I ended up at a conference put on by X games. At the time, X Games was the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever seen. It was evident that Madison Avenue was jizzing off of this idea of making millions off of this new thing. They were missing the mark entirely. You’d watch it with the sound off or turn it into a drinking game every time you heard the word “extreme.” At that conference was Ron Semiao, who started the X Games, and another guy from MTV. This is a room of like 600 people, back when the industry was a living, breathing organism. There was still this “us against the world” type of comradery.
It got to the point where it was open to Q&A. I raised my hand and said, “I watch all the stuff that you guys are doing and you make us look like shit. Where are you getting these people to talk about us? None of them snowboard, none of them skate. I’m young, I’m Black, I snowboard, and I know everything about these sports. I could host any one of your shows and represent us the right way.” The whole place just erupted. Full standing ovation. That night, everyone is buying me beers, hero status. The MTV guy comes up to me and he says, “Do you really think that you have what it takes?” I looked that dude dead in the eye and was like, “Abso-fucking-lutely.” He pulls out his business card and says, “Call me.” I called him that week. He got me an audition in LA to be one of the VJ’s hosting the MTV Sports & Music Festival. Mind you, I’m still unemployed. I take an Amtrak train from San Diego to LA and then a city bus from downtown to Universal Studios to have this audition. I’m thinking for sure I’m getting this job, but the people at MTV were like, “This Black dude is not the dude.” And I killed the audition! They hired this blonde girl who claimed to be a pro snowboarder and she was hot. I sat there watching, broken.
Long story short, I go to work at Planet Earth as a team manager. In the midst of this, my friend Alyasha Owerka-Moore came to me and said, “We have an opportunity to finally start our own clothing brand.” This is in 1998. It was Damon Morris, Alyasha Owerka-Moore, myself, Mirko Mangum, Atiba, and Ako Jefferson. We constantly asked ourselves, “What would a brand look like that was run by a bunch of people who look like us? That’s how Alphanumeric was born. For the ﬁrst time ever, we were able to inject our perspectives from music and hip hop and hardcore and all the different shit that we were into, because we weren’t in any sort of myopic bubble. Our passion for all of it was built from the totality of all of our life experiences and not being monolithic as Black people. We designed everything about it to be of us.
This was the ﬁrst time where I could be seen for the totality of what I had to give, because I was with like-minded people who looked like me, thought like me, and had the same experiences and challenges as me. We changed the game. We changed the way Burton designed clothing. We changed the way people did their ads. We inﬂuenced the industry in a huge way. People were like, “No one is ever going to buy a $240 shell jacket,” and we were like, “Watch.”
I got a call out of the blue for the next MTV Sports & Music Festival. That was the ﬁrst big break that put me on the map. I’m standing next to Carson Daly and making him look good talking about skateboarding, BMX, and all this shit. Six months later, they’ve got me in the mountains sitting next to Mark McGrath hosting a snowboard slopestyle triple jump with 12-year-old Shaun White. Around this time, we’re out there doing shop demos and stuff for Alpha. I’m at the bar, post-contest, and someone taps me on the shoulder and says, “You’re Sal Masekela, right? I’m Phil Orlins. I’m the executive producer of snowboarding for the ESPN X Games. Can we talk?” I didn’t believe him at ﬁrst. He explained that they were reshaping the X Games and looking for genuine voices. I sat there for three hours and just ripped him apart about all of the things that I loathed about the X Games. I was relentless, but I had gotten to the point where I had become a valued part of the snowboarding community. The crew at Alpha convinced me that going to X Games was a huge opportunity for the culture. So, I went, and I did well.
At the end of that ﬁrst X Games, ESPN asked, “Do you know anything about skate-boarding? How about BMX?” I was like, “Absolutely.” That’s when my whole life changed. Within that year, this went from being a cool thing for Alphanumeric to me dropping the ball. I was sort of in a war because Alpha was still my number one and I started to wonder why I was running up against weird battles at ESPN. I didn’t realize I was with a bunch of professionals and I still had a lot to learn about being a broadcaster. It took someone taking me aside being like, “You’re going to lose this whole opportunity if you keep this up. You have the talent to be more than a sideline reporter. This whole thing could be yours.”
I was intrigued and at the same time, we were having problems with our parent company at Alphanumeric. Because we were young, dumb, and excited, we had signed a shitty deal where this brand that we thought we owned, we really didn’t. The parent company was starting to fuck up our distribution and put us in places that had nothing to do with the shred industry, just trying to make money. We all got together and said, “It’s not ours and they’re destroying it. We’d rather just leave on top.” We wrote up resignation letters, pressed send at the same time, and walked. It was the end of an incredible era. This was probably 2001. What we did in the industry will never be duplicated. Alphanumeric gave me all the things that I needed to be able to take on the entirety of the world. If Transworld was college, Alphanumeric was graduate school. I put my head down and decided to learn to be a professional and learn how to start to say “we” and ESPN reciprocated. I was the host of the X Games the next year. I was commentating all of skateboarding and snowboarding. Two years later, I was on the sidelines of the NBA. It’s incredible what snowboarding has given me.
It’s been a blast, but It hasn’t been without an incredible amount of challenges. I started to get criticism when I really started to make it and people didn’t know my origin story. The internet would be like, “Who is this guy? ESPN hired him because he’s Black with dreadlocks. This guy doesn’t fucking snowboard.” To this day, people still are blown away that I’m actually a snowboarder.
I felt like I was really able to give back to the community when Keir Dillon started to come up. I thought, I’m going to make sure that you are sold for who you are, and no one is going to tell your story the way I’m going to. We made history when we were play-by-play analysts together. No one else ever acknowledged it, but we knew. When I would walk down the street in Black neighborhoods, people would be like, “Yo, we see you. We fuck with the X Games and all that shit because you and that other brother are there. We’re watching.” It was then that I understood the power of representation. People needed to see someone that looked like them in order to pay attention. That’s the one thing that people don’t realize about the whole matter.
I’ve been there for all of this. All of it. Every single era of this shit. I’ve watched so many generations come and go, and I’ve gotten to remain at the front of it. I’ve gotten to remain as close to the pulse as I want to be. I never in a million years could’ve dreamt that’s what that five dollars was going to get me. I’ve never been like, “Hey snowboarding, motherfucking acknowledge me!” I’ve never thought of myself that way. It’s not until I look back in the rearview mirror that I realize, wow, I’ve been here from the very beginning.
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