Get full access to Outside Learn, our on-line education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and venture courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+. Sal Masekela steps off a helicopter onto the white sands of Tavarua Island Resort, a bantam speck in the Fiji archipelago, and walks into a gorgeous alfresco restaurant that overlooks a world-famous reef break appropriately knight Restaurants. He greets the fijian staff by name, hugging them, asking them about their lives since his final visit .
Masekela, you may recall, was the confront and voice of ESPN ’ s X Games, hosting both the summer and winter events for more than a ten. With his iconic dreadlocks and smooth baritone, he was a repair at the center of the action-sports population, narrating about every history-making here and now at the games, from Travis Pastrana ’ s double backflip on a motorcycle in 2006 to Shaun White ’ s perfect halfpipe ladder in 2012 .
today, six years since a dissolution with ESPN, Masekela remains profoundly entrenched in action sports. He is hera, on the surf mecca of Tavarua, for a vacation with a group of friends comprised of athletes, movie stars, entrepreneurs, Instagram influencers, and their families. As he makes the rounds, a guest compares him to Ricardo Montalbán, the debonair Mexican actor best known for playing Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island. Somehow, despite the fact that Masekela is a compact black man, and recently bald, it ’ s a quite apposite observation. It can be challenging to walk anywhere with Masekela, because everyone who sees him wants to stop and talk with him and he wants to talk to everybody. He is Larry David ’ s worst nightmare.

This is Masekela ’ s 16th trip to Tavarua but however a particular one, because it ’ s his first visit since his father died from prostate cancer six months ago. Hugh Masekela was a herald and is much credited as the founder of confederacy african jazz. He played and toured with everyone from Paul Simon to Dave Matthews and was nominated for three Grammys. During apartheid, Hugh left South Africa to study music in the United States, but he remained outspoken against the ferociousness of south african racial segregation. In 1986, he recorded “ Bring Him Back Home, ” a song demanding the release of Nelson Mandela that would finally become a rally cry for the anti-apartheid movement .
Tavarua is Masekela ’ s front-runner target on ground, and he ’ d implored his father to travel there with him. They made plans for the fall of 2016 and even purchased tickets, but at the last minute, Hugh postponed. A year and a half belated, he passed away. This trip, these waves, Masekela says, are for his dad .
Masekela hosting Lollapalooza in Chicago Masekela hosting Lollapalooza in Chicago (Jeremy Deputat/Red Bull Content Pool)
The vacation besides comes at a significant here and now in Masekela ’ s career—a moment when he hopes to find a path back into the limelight. Since walking away from the X Games, he has continued to work in television, hosting a series for Red Bull Media House, reporting stories for NBC at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and hosting a sports documentary series on Viceland, among other gigs. He ’ s had piece parts in movies. His band, Alekesam, which blends jazz, soul, and R & B, has been featured on HBO and Showtime and released its second album final summer. still, Masekela has grander ambitions, though he struggles to define them .
Like many major figures from the flower of legal action sports, Masekela is silent coming to grips with the fact that his universe has lost much of its cultural and commercial cachet. adenine recently as 2011, an average of more than a million viewers tuned in to watch the four-day-long Summer X Games on television. By 2017, that number dropped to 385,000. ( ESPN says viewership is actually up when you account for streaming and social viewers, but declined to partake year-over-year numbers. ) The once rebel sports of snowboarding, BMX, and skateboarding have been adopted by the Olympics. The bad-boy stars of yesterday are immediately middle-aged dads .
Masekela has ridden the action-sports wave as far and well as he could ’ ve hoped, but no depend on lasts everlastingly .
That Masekela became the face of the X Games in the first place was wildly improbable. He was born in 1971 in Los Angeles, the first child of Hugh and Haitian immigrant Jessie Lapierre. By the time he turned four, his parents had moved to New York City and split up, and his mother was remarried to a Jehovah ’ randomness Witness, who raised Masekela in the church. But despite his stepdad ’ randomness best efforts, Hugh ’ s influence endured. Masekela split meter between marijuana-clouded wind clubs and going door to door spreading the Truth. “ Growing up between those worlds gave me a strange set of skills, ” he says. “ For a farseeing time they felt like a burden, like I was always working to fit in. ”
His ma and stepdad moved around a lot, ultimately abandoning the East Coast for Carlsbad, California, at the startle of Masekela ’ mho senior class of high school. Relocating across the country was difficult for him. During the drive out, he spent rest-stop breaks at give phones. “ I was calling my female child second east and not saying anything, ” he says. “ Just weeping on the earphone for like ten minutes, that high gear school grief crap. ”
But on his first morning in Carlsbad, he discovered that his new house sat on crown of a steep hill with a view of the ocean, a feature that he credits with shaping the trajectory of his life. “ Imagine, you walk out of this house onto this lawn, and you look and you ’ re like, Oh denounce we ’ rhenium correct here. ”
Masekela with his father, Hugh, in 2016 Masekela with his church father, Hugh, in 2016 (Abby Ross)
Surfing became the focus of Masekela ’ sulfur life. As a Jehovah ’ randomness Witness, he was discouraged from playing organized sports, but respective of the members of his congregation surf, and they loaned him a board and a wetsuit, which he put on backward the first time. He spent his downtime at educate paging through back issues of Surfer, neglecting his school assignment to study board sports. He refined the basic skateboarding skills he ’ d started developing back east, and he learned to snowboard. “ nothing else sounded as good, ” he says. “ I didn ’ triiodothyronine want to be around people who did it. I wanted to be around people who lived it. ” He became a full-on disciple of what he would call the shred life .
The tension between his new rage and his commitment to the church began to mount. At 19, Masekela went to South Africa to meet up with his father, who had recently returned home for the first meter in 30 years. It was 1991, and Mandela had just been released from prison. During the trip, Masekela explored life a snatch besides sky-high for the church ’ sulfur standards. His sins were, in his words, “ that I made out with a bunch together of girls and smoked some pot. ”
When he confessed, the elders chose to disfellowship him. “ You have to keep going to church, to the meetings, but no matchless talks to you, ” he explains. During his exile, Masekela remained close with his mother, but the sociable isolation was a brutal punishment. “ It was without a doubt the most difficult time in my life, ” he says. “ I was sternly lower. I held a knife to my wrist in my kitchen many times. ”
He moved to a raw congregation in a nearby beach community called Leucadia. In 1993, while working at a restaurant, he crossed paths with several employees from TransWorld Media, which produces board-sports magazines and films, and he charmed his way into a job as a receptionist. In no time he worked up to sales jobs and minor announce gigs for skateboarding competitions. His traffic circle of friends expanded to include the pros he was interviewing at contests. By 1996, he was the team director for Boks, the nascent action-sports division of Reebok, where he helped build the trade name ’ second surf, skate, snowboard, and BMX teams .
The more entrenched he became in action sports, the further he drifted from the church, leaving religion behind for a newfangled gospel .
Masekela ’ s boastful break came in the winter of 1997, at a snowboarding league in Vail, Colorado. Boks had equitable folded, and his future was changeable. He knew he had to do some network .
The event took place in the aftermath of the foremost X Games, which was an overplus to everybody who cared about action sports. Purple skateboard ramps and clueless commentators left the community and industry angered at how their life style and products had been represented .
Masekela in the studio with bandmate Sunny Levine Masekela in the studio with bandmate Sunny Levine

(Abby Ross)
During a Q and A seance that included executives from ESPN and MTV, Masekela decided to speak up. “ At a certain point, I don ’ metric ton evening know what happened, but I was ­standing on lead of my chair in the bet on. I said, ‘ You know, I watch all these things—the x Games and what you guys are doing on MTV—and you don ’ t have any voices that represent our culture to tell people about what they ’ re watch. Bill Bellamy doesn ’ thymine fucking snowboard. here ’ s the cope : I ’ megabyte young, I ’ molarity black, I surf and I snowboard, and I know that I could get in front of the camera and do that. ’ ”
He got a standing ovation. “ People were buying me beers all night like I had equitable given some wyrd ‘ I Have a Dream ’ shred speech. ” At an after-party, an executive from MTV gave him a business tease. The adjacent year, Masekela was commentating the MTV Sports and Music Festival, offering the insider ’ s position he ’ five hundred cultivated since bring in California years earlier .
By 1999, Masekela had landed a job as a reporter for the Winter X Games. The pursuit summer, when Tony Hawk landed the beginning 900, Masekela was standing at the acme of the ramp. From there it was pretty much game on. The action-sports beckon was barreling into the mainstream, and Masekela was pitted as its head evangelist .
Masekela ’ s presence on Tavarua is conspicuous for many reasons, but even if he was less gregarious, he would still stick out. early than the fijian staff members, he is the merely black person on the entire island. By contrast, the kids on the trip are named Chili, Coast, Country, Fin, Hazel, Jet, Lyon, Oz, Rider, River, Roman, and Tashen. That list may not be exhaustive or spelled precisely right, but the point is : the only thing white than the sand here is the people .
Tavarua, like many tropical-island resorts, is a finish for people with money. There are health spa treatments. There ’ s a yoga space. There ’ s an artificial-turf tennis court. speak of tennis, Masekela loves tennis. He besides loves golf. When you grow up as a skateboarding Jehovah ’ randomness Witness, possibly adding golfer to the list becomes easier .
But still, as a black man at the center of a closely all-white diligence, Masekela has encountered racism many times. In the early nineties, the owners of a surf workshop where he was working let him go, telling him that business was slowing down and they needed to cut rear on staff. But a friend who was still working there told him that the owners didn ’ metric ton think Masekela matched the image of what a surf-shop employee should be—which is to say, white .
Masekela on Niue, in the South Pacific Masekela on Niue, in the South Pacific (Sal Masekela)
“ even though I had gone through all sorts of fucking racist damn as a result of starting surfboard and snowboarding—people making fun of me and calling me a nigger and telling me that we don ’ thyroxine even swim—I hush didn ’ metric ton think something like that would happen, ” he says. “ It in truth, in truth fucked me up. ”
When he got the job as the horde of the X Games, the racism became more baneful. People would assume he was a market choice made by network executives—that he had studied up on the remainder between a heel impudent and a toss off shove-it after he got the job, when in reality he could do both of those tricks. “ There were people who started to be like, ‘ Wow, that ’ s actually gutsy of ESPN to pick a blacken guy to do this. so chic. You don ’ t very do this material do you ? ’ ” The same authenticity that got him the job was on the spur of the moment being questioned because of his skin color .
“ I didn ’ thymine have an agenda to be like, I ’ m the sleep together Great Black Hope of action sports. I wanted to be the best observer. I wanted to be seen as on par with the greats in broadcast and entertainment. ”
One warm summer good afternoon on his frame in Venice Beach, Masekela was in a reflective climate. We were surrounded by boxes that he hadn ’ thyroxine unpacked since he moved to the theater 12 months ago. The front door was open, and sunlight streamed in .
He told me about his split with ESPN, back in recently 2012, saying that the network had wanted to renegotiate his contract. He said that a big argue he left was a feeling that ESPN had begun to devalue natural process sports in cosmopolitan. For Masekela, this was unacceptable ; they were his biography. A few weeks after quitting, he cut off his dreads .
“ I was kind of wrestling for identity, ” he said. “ I cried while doing it. There were people who told me, ‘ You precisely lit your career on fire. ’ And I ’ five hundred be like, ‘ If you know me and consider me a ally, and you ’ re telling me that my haircloth is my calling card, then you ’ re telling me that you don ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate hear what it is that I have to say. ’ ”
Masekela near his home in Venice, California Masekela near his home in Venice, California (Nikko LaMere)
As a host and announcer, one of the greatest strengths Masekela brought to action-sports events was his credibility. “ We had a bunch of these bro-type announcers who didn ’ triiodothyronine actually capture what was going on, ” says snowboarder Shaun White. “ Sal knew us personally, so he could kind of talk about how a guy has been wanting to do this trick for so long and what it would mean if he did it during this run. ”
today, though, being respected by effect board-sports athletes doesn ’ triiodothyronine do much for a ridicule ’ south résumé. Masekela is tidal bore to begin a new chapter but admits he doesn ’ triiodothyronine know what that will look like yet. Which is why he ’ second trying a small bit of everything. He ’ second starting a podcast, tentatively called What Shapes Us, for which he ’ ll interview the abstruse well of exceeding friends he ’ s made over the years, and possibly broadcast conversations with his forefather posthumously. He ’ south touring with his set, he ’ s hosting more traditional gamble and travel stories for National Geographic, and he ’ randomness trying to do more act. He says he ’ five hundred like to host another television express, but alone if it feels right .
One hindrance to Masekela ’ s career boot is the fact that he ’ s not the most organized person. He doesn ’ t like budgets or spreadsheets. He has a inclination to lose things, forget stuff, and neglect flights .
shell in point : he arrives on Tavarua a day late than planned, after a fund-raise event for his charity, Stoked Mentoring, ran long and he didn ’ t catch his flat to Fiji. But after he finishes unpack, he hops on the evening boat to Cloudbreak, an ill-famed wave that detonates two miles from the island on a barrier reef. merely about anywhere else, you ’ d call the conditions good to big, but by Cloudbreak standards things are looking slightly pedestrian. The wind international relations and security network ’ metric ton quite right, the lulls between sets are retentive, and the wave international relations and security network ’ triiodothyronine barreling like it should.

then, good before dusk, the hoist dies a bite, and the reef starts to grab the swell. All of a sudden, Masekela is on an absolute gem—green and gold, backlit by low-angle tropical sun. miraculously, the at heart section gets hollow, and he tucks into the barrel. You can hear him whooping with joy. ultimately, equitable before the wave ends, he kicks out the back. He ’ second credibly 100 yards or more down the witwatersrand, but he reels in his board and heads straight for the lineup .
The sun is setting, but Sal Masekela is paddling back out .
David Shultz ( @ dshultz14 ) is a mercenary writer in Santa Barbara, California. This is his foremost feature for Outside .

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