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Lucky Dube in full swing. Photo: Guy Adams

Written byFreddie Hiney

‘When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.’ – Plato

Music is a powerful language, spoken all over the world has helped this country through some of its darkest and proudest moments. We need to remember that there are times when music goes beyond entertainment, and dives into the world of politics and war. South Africa has seen one of the most famous examples of this happening in all of world history. Music became an instrument of mass resistance, and one which transcended our borders and captivated the world. It is worth reminding ourselves of this side of our story, to remember that sometimes the soundtrack becomes the plot.

It is more than ‘just music’ when millions of people are singing and dancing to the same songs, especially when those songs become political. It becomes powerful and hard to ignore. The ANC was founded at Fort Hare in 1912, a Methodist university drenched in the hymn-writing tradition of Charles Wesley. Its founders began and ended all meetings with the song ‘Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika’, calling for help. The lyrics “O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho” (Intervene and end all conflicts) and “O se boloke, O se boloke” (Protect us, protect us) were sung from their very souls.

In the cities, musicians would develop a new way to channel frustration – it was called jazz. Apartheid put the segregated into a dark corner of government oppression; they faced curfews; heavy restrictions and were isolated in their own towns and cities. Anyone wanting to travel needed a pass, and these were hard to obtain for professional musicians who were suspects of the Regime. Because jazz was exploding, not just in popularity, but in a new kind of power. The dancehalls were becoming potential engine rooms of rebellion.

When crackdowns began, some musicians went into hiding or even into exile; others played around with lyrics to avoid censorship while making sure everyone knew what they were really talking about. This wasn’t the first time music and dance had been used by the oppressed to delude the opposition. Back in 16th century Brazil, enslaved Africans had developed ‘Capoeira’, a dance which, to the naked eye, could seem politically harmless; however, disguised in between the passionate movements and upbeat music was a vicious and symbolic kicking. Slaves utilised Capoeira as a survival tool, a martial art disguised as a melodic African tradition. Music and dance have symbolised unity and togetherness for centuries; helping those in trouble come together under one voice.

“Because jazz was exploding, not just in popularity, but in a new kind of power. The dancehalls were becoming potential engine rooms of rebellion.”

Protestors outside Supreme Court, Johannesburg.

– Photo: Guy Adams

In South Africa, the arrival of jazz offered the same opportunity. Initially inspired by the imported sounds of Ragtime and Dixieland, these Afro-American sub-genres were being filtered through local influences to create ‘Marabi’ and ‘Kwela’. Marabi had emerged first in the 1920s, with a dance-friendly keyboard style which made it harder to sit down and have a conversation than to dance through the night. Kwela emerged in the 1950s, adding an edgy, pennywhistle call over the Marabi melodies. These sounds in turn fed into ‘Mbaqanga’, with roots from Zulu culture, heavy on guitar and brass. In South Africa, jazz was becoming a source of hope and freedom for those who had become hopeless and trapped.

Artistically, it proved an explosive development. South African jazz artists are still globally recognised today, appearing at international festivals from New Orleans to Sweden, these days drawing on the likes of funk to create proper foot stompers, but with the old strains of Marabi, Kwela and Mbaqanga still discernible. The lyrics turned to more explicit protest as the apartheid era began to dawn. Initially, they were laments, with songs like ‘Bye Bye Sophiatown’ and ‘Sophiatown is Gone’ over the forced movement of people to Soweto from their home of audible rebellion, which had been at the heart of music and activism in the 1950s.

After the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, the atmosphere became angrier, matched by popular grassroots songs like ‘Thina Sizwe’ (We the Black Nation). Jazz stars like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Ibrahim Abdullah, whose records were now selling overseas, became more and more outspoken, with Masakela’s majestic, and vibrant music capable of delivering cut-throat lyrics. His song ‘Soweto Blues’, recorded by Makeba, was taken up as one of South Africa’s first freedom songs, featuring lyrical reportage: “Well children were flying, bullets, dying/ Oh the mothers screaming and crying.” This was enough to send them both into exile.

The eighties brought an atmosphere of full-on protest and saw protests adopting the ‘Toyi-Toyi’, a dance originating from our neighbours in Zimbabwe. At a time when protesters were rarely armed, the awesomely syncopated toyi-toyi was accompanied by yells of Amandla! (Power!) and Awethu! (Ours!). Speaking in the 2002 documentary Amandla!, Vincent Vine put it like this: “We didn’t have guns. We didn’t have tear gas. We didn’t have all the sophisticated modern technology for war… for us, Toyi-Toyi was like a weapon of war.” By now, there were laws preventing black musicians from moving around (and thus earn a living) and preventing artists of different races playing together.

“Music and dance have symbolised unity and togetherness for centuries; helping those in trouble come together under one voice.”

Toyi Toyi.
– Photo: Guy Adams

Mothers grieving.
– Photo: Guy Adams

South Africa felt the power of music not just within, but worldwide, as her musical revolution spread overseas. On 11 June 1988, the British Anti-Apartheid Movement staged an 11-hour rock concert at Wembley Stadium in London to pay tribute to the imprisoned Nelson Mandela on his 70th birthday. This was no ordinary concert but featured an array of Western musical stars who joined Masekela and other exiled South African artists to play in front of 72,000 people, with an estimated television audience of a billion people in sixty countries. They did it again two years later with Tracy Chapman and Neil Young. The success of these events placed massive pressure on the regime and their allies, and eventually Mandela would travel to Wembley for a concert to celebrate his release in 1994. Very few professions could create this much awareness and global unity.

Music has always been a beacon of belief, a token of freedom and hope. Throughout all the anti-apartheid struggle, there was music. We are still world beaters when it comes to talent, be it in the worlds of beats, jazz or gospel. In our national anthem, we have a powerful memento of this uniquely musical revolution, which all of us can memorise and come together as one to sing, intertwining 5 different languages into the song which made many weep in those famous scenes after the Rugby World Cup victory in 1995. In which all our cultures united in the beautiful and occasionally crazy language of music.

For more of our Visceral features, click here.

“Music has always been a beacon of belief, a token of freedom and hope. Throughout all the anti-apartheid struggle, there was music.”

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