The passing of Hugh Masekela made me reflect on his life, his music and his contribution to South Africa. How his music evoked emotion and spoke to people in a time of oppression and beyond.
What he gave us was music as the food of love. As an artist I believe that we need more music that speaks to us as the people. Music that evokes different emotions from the listener. Music that brings healing and hope. Music that helps in the development of the people – our hearts and minds. From the 1940’s recorded music played a big role in the struggle against apartheid both in SA as well as in the international opposition to apartheid. The songs were about raising awareness, expressing pain, solidarity and generating support for the struggle against apartheid. Most importantly, building unity between the oppressed and presenting hope for a future democratic South Africa. Through its history, anti-apartheid music in South Africa faced significant censorship from the government, especially through the South African Broadcasting Corporation. Moreover, musicians opposing the government faced threats, harassment, and arrests.
Musicians like Masekela, Mirriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim, Vusi Mahlasela, Caiphus Semenya, Letta Mbuli [to name a few] knew that they had a role to play in this struggle. They were not afraid to challenge the government through their talent, their art. Their legacies and their music lives on to inspire and as a reminder what it took to achieve freedom. Musicians today need to learn from this group of musicians. Need to understand the power of music as a tool for reconciliation and use this tool today. Before it is too late.
Let me explain.
Hugh Masekela was born in SA in 1939 and has been described as the father of South African jazz. He was also known for his compositions and for writing well-known anti-apartheid songs such as Soweto Blues and Bring Him Back Home. In his time, a large number of musicians were driven into exile by the apartheid government. Their songs were prohibited from broadcast. Most of the anti-apartheid songs of the period were censored by the then apartheid government. According to SA History online; Masekela was deeply affected by his life experiences, and therefore made music that reflected his understanding of the harsh political climate of South Africa during the 1950s and 1960s. Masekela’s music therefore portrays the struggles and joys of living in South Africa, and voiced protest against slavery and discrimination.
‘All my experiences removed geography from my world’ Bra Hugh said, a man who lived his beliefs with links to many dimensions: a pan Africanist because he lived and performed in so many different African countries; a reconciler of note – he performed with people from different races, countries and cultures; a collaborator – he worked with different musicians both old and young, standing in solidarity through his musical talent. His music was and is always about conscientising society.
Masekela’s passing reminds us that music can be entertaining and address social justice. It’s not one or the other, whether it’s Gqom, Hip hop, Afro pop, rock, and other genres. We need musicians to take a leaf out of Bra Hugh’s life and write music that challenges new forms of oppression, that challenges government, that challenges us; music that speaks about ‘white supremacy’; about racism; about corruption; about the state capture and music that speaks about the state of living of the majority of South Africans and so on. Masekela said, ‘I grew up with protests, marches, demonstrations, struggle. But I come from a clan of community workers.’ Even today, in 2018, 24 years after the first democratically elected government came into power, people are still protesting, marching, demonstrating and struggling. But there are a lot of community workers in the form of artists and musicians who can help challenge the status quo.
During the December holiday I noticed again the power of music as a tool for reconciliation. People from different backgrounds: race; class; geography; culture; economic backgrounds and so on were dancing to a gqom song Omunye phezu komunye. Imagine if a song like this that got the whole of SA youth dancing to it was addressing gender justice, if this song was addressing economic justice, if this song was addressing racism? Musicians today can stand to fill in this gap, take up that challenge and confront these issues. Some do, some are making music that continues to fight that fight, but struggle to get mainstream recognition. So, the challenge is new. It’s not just censorship, but breaking through norms and assumptions about what will play and sell well. Today a protest musician won’t be harassed or censored, but they face new hurdles. And we as consumers should also be challenged to recognise and support these artists more.
In a recent radio interview with Metro FM, Oliver Mtukudzi stated that musicians like Hugh and himself wrote music that spoke about ‘what was happening in their communities’ and music that would ‘bring healing to people because of the trauma that they were going through’. As bra Hugh used to say, ‘I think it is incumbent on all human beings to oppose injustice in every form.
Musicians…our country needs you.
Nosindiso Mtimkulu is a Senior Project Leader for the Sustained Dialogues Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation