There are few surfers in the world who look cool just going down the line, but Michael February is one of them. You can study the placement of his knees or hands or every limb in between, but it probably won't get you anywhere—according to February, these things happen on accident. "I used to try to surf way more conventionally," he says. "But no matter what I tried, my hands went here, knees went there. It was all just stuck. I couldn't change it, so I just had to embrace it."
But while February's surfing embodies the timeless qualities of good surf style, he's a distinctly modern entity. Born in South Africa at the end of apartheid, February understands the history and the gravity of racial tension and segregation along his home coast in Cape Town, but he feels unburdened by the past. For February, it's all about the future, whether that means bettering his position on the World Tour (he is the first black African to qualify), volunteering with organizations to teach the next generation of South African children to surf, or drawing new and dynamic lines on wave faces around the world. Either way, February is determined to make his mark on surfing—and it will undoubtedly be a stylish one at that.
When did you start surfing? I know you didn't take to it right away.
Yeah, it's funny because when I was 6 or 7 years old, my dad would try to take me surfing a bunch. But for whatever reason—maybe because it was my dad's thing and I didn't think it was cool—I was super fussy and didn't even stand up or anything. But later on I went with a friend of mine to a beach called Muizenberg for a surf lesson and stood up on my first wave and was immediately really into it. I think sometimes you maybe need to find something on your own for it to really stick.
Your dad has been a surfer in Cape Town since the time of apartheid. What was that like for him? Were many black surfers in the area when he first started?
I don't think there were many, but he ended up finding other black surfers kind of by default because during apartheid you couldn't go to certain beaches if you were black. So all the black surfers would end up at the same spots, and he grew up surfing with guys like Cass Collier, who was a great surfer and big-wave charger back in the day. They ended up forming their own little surf community.
Though apartheid is over, do you feel that those tensions still exist in surfing in South Africa? Even in America, I've heard people of different backgrounds say that surfing can feel exclusively white and alienating at times.
I feel very fortunate because I was born around the same time that apartheid was ending, so by the time I started surfing, segregation at the beaches was long gone. In my experience, I never felt any kind of racial tension within the surfing community. Or maybe there was tension and I just didn't recognize it because I was so young. But I only ever remember everyone in that community being very open and friendly toward me.
One of the great things about surfing in South Africa now is that there are a lot of projects that encourage black kids from different communities to surf, whether it's Durban or Cape Town or Jeffreys Bay. Helping kids from disadvantaged backgrounds learn how to surf and connect to the ocean has become a massive part of the surf culture here. Programs like Waves For Change and Surfers Not Street Children have done some really amazing work. I'm not sure if those types of programs exist in America, but I think they've made surfing a lot more inclusive in certain communities here.
What has your experience been like working with these groups, getting kids into surfing and seeing the way they react to it?
It's been insane. In Cape Town, a lot of these kids live very close to the ocean, but they never went down to the water or experienced surfing before. But once these projects started, the kids realized that they had this playground right in front of them and they just love it. Their enthusiasm is crazy. One of the places we go inCape Town with Waves For Change isn't a great wave, so the kids there don't see a lot of other surfers, and when you surf with them they get so fired up on any little turn that you do. You can honestly just do a cutback and all these kids on the beach will start cheering. It's pretty epic to see their excitement and it's definitely a contagious feeling.
Seems like that'd be a great way to get pumped up for a contest—just go rip into a few turns in front of these kids. You'd feel like Superman heading into your next heat.
[Laughs.] Yeah, for sure. They really pump you up. You've gotta understand that a lot of these kids are living in really poor conditions, but when they're at the beach, they're just nothing but smiles. It definitely puts things in perspective and makes you appreciate surfing and the things we take for granted much more.
As a kid surfing in Cape Town, did you always want to eventually get on Tour? Did that seem attainable?
[Laughs.] Well, when you're a kid you obviously don't have a realistic view on things, so yeah, I was probably claiming, "I'm gonna make the Tour one day," or, "I'm gonna be World Champ when I grow up." But in South Africa it's probably a lot different than America because the surf scene is much smaller and when you compete there are fewer people to compare yourself to. The same four or five guys would make pretty much every final here, so you get a bit of a shock when you go overseas for the first time and see the amount of people competing and the level at which people are surfing all over the world. But I kept at it and just tried to surf a little better every year, improve my ranking every season once I started on the 'QS, and that's the headspace I've tried to keep the whole way through.
It's interesting because you've got this kind of artistry in your style that you typically see in freesurfing rather than competition. What drew you toward the jersey?
Growing up in South Africa, there's no real path for freesurfers as far as sponsorship goes. The industry here is just too small to really support anything other than the competitive route in surfing—doing the 'QS and trying to get on Tour. But obviously there's a big part of me that really enjoys competing, because I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't.
But after doing the 'QS for a bit I got a chance to do the "Radical Times" series with Quiksilver [a freesurf video project with competing pros] and that got me fired up on other ideas for freesurfing projects and things outside competition. The funny thing is that once I started thinking about trying to pursue freesurfing a bit more, I didn't feel as much pressure to perform in contests, and then all of a sudden everything started going really well for me competitively.
Beyond contests I want to leave my own little mark on surfing and be creative and do different projects. But being on the Tour, even with the pressure that comes with that, just being able to travel and surf good waves and compete on that level is really fun and a cool opportunity. I definitely enjoy both competing and freesurfing, but it's hard to manage the two because you don't have much time to do anything else when you're competing.
Do you feel like style is underappreciated in competition today? Obviously style can define a freesurfer's career, like Craig Anderson or Dave Rastovich, but on the competitive path it seems undervalued by design.
I definitely don't think it's a major factor in the way that waves are scored. A lot of surfing goes down that's not too stylish but it gets the job done in terms of scores. It would be really interesting if style became a bigger part of the criteria. That'd be quite nice to watch, actually. In competition, though, I think what people care about most is just the energy that people put into it and the sense of drama. But a lot of times there will be one wave ridden in a contest where someone just draws a really nice line and that's what stands out to people more than the guy who just packed crazy amounts of power into his turns.
That reminds me of that heat Heath Joske had at J-Bay a few years back where he just soul arched through a high line and that stood out more than any turn of the event.
For sure. I don't even remember who won that heat, but I do remember everyone watching that wave and the atmosphere was just buzzing. People really loved that.
Now that you've made it onto the World Tour, does it feel significant to be the first black African in the top 34? I'm sure that there are a lot of people who see you on Tour and feel able to relate to surfing more, and that's a pretty special thing, but I wonder how much you internalize that.
Yeah, I definitely do think about it. But I was very lucky to come from where I did, and to have a family that worked very hard so that I'd have all the opportunities and support in the world. I don't feel like it was more difficult for me to get to where I am because of the color of my skin. But I definitely have a respect for the past and the struggles that happened before me. I feel like I'm part of a generation that's more free from that weight, and I like looking forward and looking at the positives. If a young kid in South Africa has never seen a person of color surfing well or competing at a high level and they go, "He looks like me. I can do that," then that's sick. But I'd hope that I'd be able to get people of all shapes and sizes and colors psyched on surfing.
But another part of it is that when you grow up in South Africa, there's a quota system to promote diversity in sport. For example, if you had to make a national team for ISA [International Surfing Association], you'd have to have one or two people of color for the team, so if there were four spots and the only person of color got fifth place in the trials, they'd still get in. For me, growing up, I was really determined to make it on merit and not have that come down to the color of my skin. So yeah, in a way it's always been something I've thought about.
When I hear that, I wonder if surfing in other places could benefit from those types of programs. Like if surf teams around the US were given a mandate to be more inclusive, it would probably lead to much more diverse lineups over time.
Yeah, I think that after apartheid in South Africa, everyone went looking for ways to make things more equal—obviously not just in surfing, but in everything—because so many people of color here are very disadvantaged because they come from poor areas and just don't get the same opportunities. It's crazy because you have this huge percentage of the population that have never even thought about surfing, and have never even had the chance to do it. You don't know how much it could improve their lives or how good they could be at it if given a chance.
The next Kelly Slater could be a kid from a township in South Africa who just hasn't gotten a chance to surf yet.
For sure. There are so many people living by the coast in South Africa, and so many kids who would love surfing if they got to try it. You never know where that next talent is going to come from.
[This interview originally appeared in the September Issue, on newsstands now. Subscribe to the print or digital versions here.]