SA needs to give street performance air: Alice Phoebe Lou

She may be tiny but Cape Town singer-songwriter Alice Phoebe Lou is anything but a wilting flower.Lou, who has been making a living by busking in Europe, returned to South Africa for a tour this past weekend as one of the supporting acts for US pop folk band The Lumineers.

“I couldn’t believe it when I was asked to open for them,” she says over the phone from the US. “It’s an incredible trajectory that my career is going on. I never expected this so soon.”

Lou, from Kommetjie in Cape Town, is only 21, yet she is taking Europe by storm, with her backpacking through the continent taking her from street performing to the big stage.

“I finished matric and started travelling. London first, and there was no plan, no security and a one-way ticket. In Paris I had this aunt who smoked 40 cigarettes a day and I had to get out so I found this model with a spare couch who let me stay for free.”

With that start, she got into fire dancing near Notre Dame, and performed every night for very little money. “Still, it was something.”

Lou says her Belgian heritage then took her to Brussels, and every place she performed made her enough money to take her to the next place.

“I found that street performance and culture appealed to me, and when you make good friends in that informal industry, you can go a long way. I landed up in Berlin with all of these street performing skills behind me.”

Berlin, Lou says, is a different universe. “Street performance can make any space theirs and it’s not frowned upon or seen as a public nuisance.”

She says after a while she wasn’t earning enough with fire dancing, and took to the subways and picked up a guitar. “I wasn’t that confident, and felt that people were always judging my bad guitar playing.

“But it’s humbling because people are receptive, and other performers are willing to help and collaborate. It upped my confidence and I fell in love with it.”

Lou, who made her first ever trip to Johannesburg this past Saturday, says the street performance culture in South Africa needs a lot of work. “I tried gigging in Cape Town and it never got further than playing to friends.

“Now, with my experience with playing in Europe, it’s a skill I can bring home.”

She says busking is terribly undervalued, and that street art should be given room to breathe and grow. “The arts need air and we need safe spaces where we can perform without fear of being harassed or chased away. It’s something that really needs to change in South Africa.”

Now with opening for The Lumineers and acts like José Gonzales under her belt, Lou says she’s ready to take on the world.

“I’m looking forward to the next adventure,” she says. – Nikita Ramkissoon

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Nikita Ramkissoon

Editor at So Much Music
Nikita is a Journalism and Education lecturer by day and music Jedi master by night. She can be seen in the photography pit or stage left with her Wookie husband. She can also be found trying to source corn dogs. If you see her, buy her a corn dog. She loves corn dogs.