Above: African National Congress (ANC) [PHOTO: CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR]
Miriam Makeba [PHOTO: RCA RECORDS], Letta Mbulu [PHOTO: A&M RECORDS]
Written by Kgosi Sikelele
Modern music in South Africa has been influenced by western genres like jazz, hip-hop, and house. If you are familiar with Kwaito and Mbaquanga music then you know what I am talking about. Africans are adept at taking something they like and bending it to their own purposes with a heavy flavoring of our indigenous culture. Our languages are peppered with English words that we Africanize and repurpose. So in Kwaito you will hear house music intermixed with African sounds and samples.
I often find arguments about cultural appropriation dubious when you see how much cultures actually take from one another – borrowing is rife on both sides, how can it not be? We belong to one family after all. (The question over who should get paid, for said appropriation, is another discussion altogether.)
Music has served a purpose over and above its purely aesthetic function in its capacity to galvanize movements for social justice. The great hymn “Nkosi Sikelele Africa” which has been adopted by South Africa as its national anthem is a case in point. It was born as a Xhosa melody by Enoch Sontonga in 1897.
Later it was taken up by the African National Congress (ANC) and became the rallying cry of the anti-apartheid movement. I’ve heard that powerful song since I was a child, and it evokes in me still a sense of the depth of the human struggle and its importance. Perhaps there is no greater indication of a country’s character than the depth of its music.
During that period in the anti-apartheid struggle there were other songs that were subversive in the poignancy of their hopefulness. A singer with whom I grew up and for whom I have reverential feeling is Letta Mbulu. She was born in the 1940s in Soweto. Her voice had such hopeful vibrancy that to my young ears she sounded like the call to freedom. If you can find it on YouTube listen to “There’s Music in the Air” and remember as you do the suffering of those who were the victims of that inhuman system. She and Miriam Makebe met as exiles in New York City where Letta would go on to work with people like Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte.
Miriam Makebe you must know as the one of the singers in perhaps the most important concerts (at least for me) of the late twentieth century, Paul Simon’s Graceland performance and tour in South Africa in the mid 80s. He faced wide criticism for breaking the global cultural ban and was even banned himself by the ANC.
However, I saw this as something else. This album introduced the music of Southern Africa to the rest of the world and was a collaboration between black and white artists and so was resolutely anti-apartheid. It celebrated the best of the African spirit and in my fanciful imagination it was like the horns outside Jericho whose thunder brought down the walls of South African imprisonment. It was the music of change.
Kgosi Sikelele, the writer’s pen name, is a spin on Nkosi Sikelele Africa which means God Bless Africa. It is now the South African national anthem, but was once a song of resistance.