South Africa is a very music-orientated country — arts, culture, and music have always played a large part in the country's resilience. South Africa's people use music to convey a lot of things that are often difficult to talk about — feelings, stories, and the social, economic, and political atmosphere of the times we live in.

The father of the nation and our first Black president Nelson Mandela once said: “Music is a great blessing. It has the power to elevate and liberate us. It sets people free to dream. It can unite us to sing with one voice.”

Music styles generally develop from multiple and varied influences and this is especially true for the rainbow nation's incredible plethora of music. The rich history of South Africa is encompassed in the tunes created by artists, both new and old. The sound of South Africa tends to be an interesting mix of western cultures, stories of conflict, tales of perseverance, and the celebration of Indigenous cultures.

Songs like "Nkalakatha" by Mandoza (a song that every South African gets down to the minute it comes on) or the 2010 FIFA World Cup theme song by Shakira and Freshly Ground, "Waka Waka", showed us how we can have fun and celebrate as a nation while still prioritising our cultures. As much as we have a lot to celebrate, having come a long way from the oppression of apartheid, there is still a long walk to the unlimited enjoyment of our freedom.

To attain this freedom — and when better to consider freedom than Freedom Day, honoured in South Africa on April 27 every year in remembrance of the country's first democratic elections held on this day in 1997 — we have a few things to learn and unlearn, and what better way to do so than by jamming to songs that have a lesson to teach about what freedom can really be? Here are 17 lessons on what freedom really means from South African songs that you can listen to on Global Citizen's Spotify playlist this Freedom Day:

1. Sun-El Musician ft. Azana: 'Uhuru'

South Africans have to persevere as we have not yet eaten the fruits of our freedom.

A modern take on the song for apartheid, "Not Yet Uhuru" (Uhuru meaning free) by Letta Mbulu, Sun-El Musician — who regularly creates music that highlights the South African Black experience — teams up with singer Azana. This track is a poignant exploration of the subtle oppression still being experienced in the daily lives of South Africans. The visuals in the music video showcase riots from movements such as #FeesMustFall, #AmINext, and a call to end systemic racism, to name a few.  

2. Amanda Black ft. Adekunle Gold: 'Afrika'

We must cast away mental oppression from apartheid by celebrating our Blackness.

Apartheid taught Black people to hate everything about themselves, including their hair. The apartheid government used to use the pencil test to further divide people of colour. This test was designed to check the coarseness and density of a person’s hair to determine their race, and served as a tool for humiliation. If your hair was not curly enough to hold a pencil, you passed as white. This song by Amanda Black featuring Nigerian star, Adekunle Gold, “Afrika” celebrates the appearance of our Africanness, top-to-toe.

3. Brenda Fassie: 'Black President'

Black South Africans have the power to become great leaders.

Brenda Fassie is one of South Africa’s most beloved music legends whose lyrics had the power to move the whole nation. This song is a complete celebration of having a Black president, but it also highlights the importance of having a leader that represents the people. Today, South Africans are living their ancestors' wildest dreams. We have had five Black presidents in succession running the country following the apartheid regime. 

4. Emtee: 'We Up'

Divided we fall, united we stand.

The young rapper from Matatiele, Eastern Cape, Emtee delivers a tune of hope in the song, "We Up". This hope comes with caution however, when he expresses: “A Black person does not want to see another Black person prosper.” The apartheid regime taught Black citizens to look down on other Black people, and this is a legacy that remains in South Africa's inequality today. The song calls for Black unity, if we uplift Black people, we uplift the Black experience.

5. Natz Efx & Msaki: 'Urban Child'

Perseverance is key.

A tune for the present-day working class citizen that paints an incredible story through visuals through its words. DJ and saxophonist, Natz Efx collaborates with the formidable singer and songwriter, Msaki on “Urban Child”. The song's message is clear when you listen to it: you may go through struggle, but if you persevere you will take your place in the world.

6. YoungstaCPT: 'YVR'

Be proud of your heritage.

YVR is an acronym for Young Van Riebeeck, which is a play on words for Jan Van Riebeeck. The man in question is historically credited with being the first European settler in the Cape of Good Hope, arriving in 1652, and marking the beginning of permanent settlements and colonisation. YoungstaCPT is a rapper from Cape Town and his racial identity is that of a Coloured person. Coloured people (or biracial) have suffered at the hands of the unjust system just as much as Black people and the rapper is a poignant voice for them. Telling the history of South Africa through this song, and also uplifting Coloured people with his lyrics. He is very proud of his roots, and that's clear in the song.  

7. Kweyama Brothers & Mpura: 'Impilo YaseSandton'

Your socio-economic standing can be improved.

The Kweyama Brothers and the late Mpura collaborate on this beautiful offering. It tells the tale of a boy who grew up without a father, and gives the feeling of nostalgia from the men who had to go work in the mines. “Impilo YaseSandton” is a song that has the spirit of a hustler, who makes it against all odds.

8. Miss Pru DJ ft. Amanda Black, A-Reece, Emtee, Fifi Cooper, La Sauce, Saudi & Sjava: 'Phumelela'

We will triumph over our challenges.

This number is very telling of the high prevalence of violence in our country. Everything from gun violence, riots, and xenophobia. However, it reminds us that we can triumph over the challenges we face.

9. Mas Musiq ft. Bontle Smith: 'Da Lawds Prayer'

Prayer is powerful.

Mas Musiq pairs with Bontle Smith on this track, “Da Lawds Prayer”. In this song, Smith asks the Lord to wipe away our tears because our strength is diminishing. South Africa is a multi-religious country but for many one thing is for certain, prayer can give newfound strength.

10. Nomfundo Moh: 'Umthwalo'

Everyone has their own baggage to carry. Be kind to one another.

Rising star and singer, Nomfundo Moh on her debut album, Amagama tells the story of someone who has the weight of the world on her shoulders. Often, we forget that we are not the only ones who may be going through a hard time. Let us be mindful and kind to each other.

11. Samantha James: 'Rise'

Nobody moves up the ladder alone. Nobody attains success on their own.

A chilled song with such a powerful message. Samantha James gave us “Rise” as a reminder that when you see your neighbour doing good, you should celebrate. You may be asking yourself why: it means love is in your neighbourhood, and also that you are capable too.

12. DJ Master Jam and RJ Benjamin: 'Change the World'

One day at a time, change the world.

From DJ Master Jam and RJ Benjamin comes a timeless tune titled, “Change the World”. You know what Steve Jobs said, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” Start small and have a big impact.

13. Vusi Nova ft. Jessica Mbangeni: 'As’Phelelanga'

A luta continua (the fight continues).

Over the past two decades we have seen the deaths of many of our apartheid-era freedom fighters. However, that does not mean that the work they have started is done. Our generation has to take the baton and continue to advocate for an equal society.

14. A-Reece, Jay Jody, and BLUE TAPE: 'blvcK kidZ'

Apartheid ended, but privilege and inequality still exist.

The two brothers from Danville, Pretoria team up with BLUE TAPE on “blvcK kidZ”. A poignant tale on the experiences of children who are born Black and in poverty, as well as the uncertainty that comes with that reality.

15. Samthing Soweto: 'Omama Bomthandazo'

Our mothers’ are the backbone of our country.

Former member of a cappella group The Soil, Samkelo Lelethu Mdolomba — professionally known as Samthing Soweto — released this single on his highly anticipated album Isiphithiphithi. “Omama Bomthandazo” is a song that expresses gratitude to our mothers for their sacrifice and hard work in raising us. 

16. Hugh Masekela: 'Stimela (Coal Train)'

The road to freedom is long and hard, but music decorates the time.

Would it be true to the South African context if we didn't include some jazz? Absolutely not. “Stimela” by the late great Hugh Masekela is a reminder of the mineworkers who travelled by train, but also of the smooth tunes of jazz that kept South Africans entertained on their journey.

17. Khanyo Maphumulo: 'Freedom Is Coming'

True freedom has not yet been attained.

Taken from the well-known apartheid story, Sarafina! comes this song by Khanyo Maphumulo. The ultimate celebration of South Africa's freedom, and a reminder that freedom is hard work that takes consistency to be obtained. The song was first released in 1992 but is still so relevant in present-day because we are still fighting for true liberation.

Global Citizen Life

Demand Equity

17 Lessons on Freedom We Can Learn From South Africa's Music

By Tshiamo Mobe