How Musicians Helped Sing South Africa to Freedom From Apartheid
Throughout history, music has been an outlet for those with an experience to share, a message to send, or an oppression to protest.
And it was no different for the South African musicians who were brave enough to share experiences from their troubled lives under apartheid.
Artists like Mama Miriam Makeba sang and spoke out against South Africa’s dark days, including the terrible rule of apartheid leaders.
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But those who spoke out saw their music removed from the shelves at music stores, or were punished by the apartheid government for having protested the human rights atrocities in the country.
Makeba was joined by other artists both at home in South Africa and abroad who stood and sang in solidarity with those who were oppressed by the apartheid government. The anti-apartheid songs they created have become an essential part of South Africa’s social fabric.
Zenzile Miriam Makeba a world renowned Singer, actress and importantly fought the Apartheid Regime and for Civil Rights. pic.twitter.com/xHVihTq55G— Siphosihle Nkosazana Mbuli (@siphosihlembuli) November 14, 2018
Like those men and women in America’s Deep South — who formed the blues in the late 19th century — musicians in South Africa found solace in singing about their troubles and about the heartache that was instilled on them by apartheid.
Two of these musicians, Makeba and trumpeter baba Hugh Masekela — who died earlier this year — would later be known and loved for what became the birth of South African, or African jazz, as some call this genre.
Masekela wrote music that spoke about the hardships faced by men who left their homes to work in foreign countries — the men he sang about in Stimela (Coal Train), for example, were forced to leave behind their families, only to be met by xenophobic attacks in countries like South Africa and exploitation from employers who didn’t want to pay workers better salaries.
Meanwhile, Makeba’s 1963 speech before the United Nations General Assembly was historic and gave an honest account of what was happening in South Africa at the time, according to SA History Online (SAHO).
“I ask you and all the leaders of the world, would you act differently, would you keep silent and do nothing if you were in our place?” she said, to the assembled world leaders.
“Would you not resist if you were allowed no rights in your own country because the colour of your skin is different from that of the rulers, and if you were punished for even asking for equality,” she continued.
“I appeal to you, and to all the countries of the world, to do everything you can to stop the coming tragedy,” she said. “I appeal to you to save the lives of our leaders, to empty the prisons of all those who should never have been there.”
But, after making that speech, Makeba faced significant backlash from the South African government — having her citizenship revoked, and being forced to leave the country and settle in the United States. She was banned, like many others who spoke against the apartheid government had been, and forced into exile.
“She was the first black musician to leave South Africa on account of apartheid, and over the years many others would follow her,” according to SAHO.
As well as Makeba and Masekela’s jazz and blues, Malombo music was also born to heal the nation in the early 90s, along with a new genre for the South African youth called “kwaito.”
Malombo was created by late South African artist Philip Tabane, whose mission was to heal South Africans while also connecting them with ancestral music that had been lost, somehow, in the dark days of apartheid.
Julian Bahula, who worked with Tabane, is credited with taking the genre and its message to international audiences.
“Malombo, like jazz, talks of the spirit,” Bahula told Global Citizen. “It unites people in spirit and tries, in its own way, to heal those who are hurt.”
Bahula’s contribution to the South African community didn’t end just with great music, however — he also helped organise the “African Sounds” and “Release Mandela” concerts in London in the 1980s, together with other artists in the UK.
“The concerts were meant to raise awareness about Mandela and other political prisoners, who had been jailed by the then apartheid government,” Bahula said.
“We worked really hard as artists. A lot of us sacrificed a lot for this freedom and for the freedom fighters to be released from South African prisons.”
Today marks 10 years since Miriam Makeba's passing pic.twitter.com/NXqgaIBLfQ— Zikhona Valela (@valavoosh) November 9, 2018
South African musicians came together with the UK’s Anti-Apartheid Movement (AMM), community members, and social and political activists to host the “Free Mandela” concert — held at London’s Wembley Stadium on June 11, 1988.
AMM — also known as the British Anti-Apartheid Movement (BAAM) — had a key role in organising the concert, which ran for over 11 hours, to honour Mandela ahead of his 70th birthday.
It was one of many initiatives organised by local and international supporters of the African National Congress — which was calling for the immediate release of political prisoners.
The support of the international community — both from musicians, activists, the public, and politicians — was instrumental in helping to weaken and eventually topple the apartheid regime.
“It was the anti-apartheid movements in the UK, Holland, and the USA that mounted the most serious of these challenges to the apartheid state, the UK’s perhaps being the most effective of all such organisations throughout the world,” says SAHO.
An appreciation tweet to Papa Caiphus Semenya & Mama Letta Mbulu for their outstanding service to the SA Jazz Industry. They have delivered tremendous hits and albums too. And they celebrate their birthdays this month too. Happy birthday as well. . .legends indeed! pic.twitter.com/EMw9sg2HMl— Mvuyisi Tyiwani (@MercurialSoul22) August 23, 2018
Two other jazz greats — who have been married for over 50 years — are Mama Letta Mbulu and baba Caiphus Semenya. They were also forced to leave South Africa, as a result of a rise in oppressive laws created by the apartheid government in the 1960s.
These laws censored artists who wanted to speak out, through their work, against these atrocities and those found to be exposing what was happening in the townships — such as the use of violence and regression by state police — would be punished.
“Their art should reflect on the injustices of that society as artists should be obliged to expose state repression,” SAHO said.
Makeba, Masekela, Semenya, Mama Mbulu, Tabane, and Bahula were among the many, many people who, through music, became activists and used their voices to fight against oppression.
After the release of Mandela from prison — after 27 years — in the 1990s, some of the exiled musicians returned to South Africa, but others continued living in the countries that they had learned to call home, like the US, Holland, and the UK.
Bahula, who lived in the UK for years before returning home to Pretoria, said: “These musicians did not just find refuge in these countries but they were met with a lot of support from fellow musicians in those countries, who worked with them in ending apartheid in South Africa.”
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