Music is the weapon of the future: Amandla! Music of the anti-apartheid struggle

African culture has always been a musical culture. While our music was early on misinterpreted by Western ears to be largely rhythmic, a closer listen reveals the African love of word play, put to great use as a pedagogical device to convey African moral values.

The griots and praise singers of old have become Africa’s modern musicians; Papa Wemba, Youssou N’dour, Rokia Traore, to name a very small percentage. As chroniclers they have recorded the tragedies of the people, they have inspired our struggle, celebrated our victories and mourned our fallen heroes. A specific category of musicians have dedicated their careers and often their lives to raising critical questions about the way Africans are being manipulated by powers both foreign and local. These artists often make use of and are inspired by Black Nationalist thought which they apply to African problems. A much larger body of work would be required to do justice to all the talented and dedicated musicians, well known and unknown that Africa produces. Instead, in this series, I will attempt to discuss a few, who I believe add much to the discourse on African protest music.

Amandla! Music of the Anti-Apartheid struggle

I would argue that any discussion of protest music must begin, not in the slave plantations of the Southern States of America as chronological and Western-centered thinking would place it, but in the Bantustans of South Africa.[1] These “homelands” as they were euphemistically called by the Apartheid government, were more like Native American reservations in terms of the economic despondency they fostered. It was to these homelands, thirteen percent of South African land, that eighty percent of the population were confined. Anywhere else in South Africa, blacks had to carry a passport or passbook in order to prove their legitimate presence in the country’s urban centers. Many of South Africa’s tribes have a cultural tradition that is inseparable from music. As an unnamed schoolteacher in Helen Kivnick’s book Where is the Way: Song and Struggle in South Africa put it,

“Singing is what we do. We don’t think about why. We don’t sit down and learn how. We just do it, from when we are small, small, until we are dead. If we wouldn’t sing how would we be ourselves?”

Indeed, being oneself is a vital question when the imperialist state consistently affirms that you are nobody.

Like in the United States, protest in South Africa was initially tied to the black church, and for similar reasons. Church was often the only reason for blacks to congregate legally, and the early protest movement was dominated by a middle class, Christian elite. In the 1920s the African National Congress (ANC), the vanguard of the anti-apartheid struggle, took many of their leaders from the black separatist Ethiopian Church. The Ethiopian Church was closely tied to the African American African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, from whom it took much of its inspiration.

It is in this context that Nkosi Sikelel’i Afrika was written and popularized. Composed as a hymn by Enoch Sontonga, a mission school teacher in 1897, the ANC used it as a benediction during their meetings and soon adopted it as their official anthem. This African We Shall Overcome soon came to be used at all-black gatherings, religious or otherwise and is today the national anthem of the Rainbow Nation.

As apartheid became more violent and repressive, a new generation of more militant leaders, including Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela came to dominate the ANC and the struggle as a whole. Urbanization and migrant workers also had a significant impact on the protest music of South Africa after 1950.

Migrant workers came from the homelands, where there was no sustainable employment or viable subsistence farming, for yearlong factory contracts in the cities. In order to bring their families migrant workers had to fulfill a list of absurd requirements, including fifteen years of registered, consistent employment, before being placed on a waiting list several years long. As a result, most migrant workers lived in single-sex dormitories with little privacy and poor facilities that kept them isolated from the general black urban population. Many of the men sang in choirs or danced on teams as a much-needed creative and recreational outlet. Out of this came Mbube, or Isicathamiya singing. A ten or twelve member choir, with a lead vocal part, two high parts (necessitated by single-sex living) and several basses produced a smooth, highly disciplined sound with deep registers, from which the name Mbube or Lion comes from. Lyrics spoke of rural living, ancient African heroes like Shaka Zulu, and the traditional Zulu values quickly being eroded by apartheid policy. Songs were accompanied by light-footed dancing, a product of secret practices in overcrowded dorms that earned the genre the name Isicathamiya or to walk on one’s toes. Isicathamiya was popularized by the song The Lion Sleeps Tonight and the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

From the ghettoes came kwela, a genre dependent on penny whistles imported from Germany and adapted to imaginative local use by black urban youth. The name comes from the sound the police vans made, for which the whistles were blown as warning . There was also Marabi, a style from the 1920s that developed in local shebeens or speakeasies. All of these styles, as well as others including sax-jive and American pop, synthesized into Mbaqanga in the 1950s, the vibrant African jazz popularized outside South Africa by artists such as Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. Mbaqanga flourished in Sophiatown, a multiracial suburb of Johannesburg that produced musicians, poets, artists and journalists before it was bulldozed in 1955 by the government to make way for a white-only residential area. Mbaqanga is named after a meatless stew, a relatable concept and essential listening for a population enduring ever-worsening oppression. Sophiatown is often compared to Harlem of the 1920s, and serves as another example of the vital connection between Black Nationalism and the communities it seeks to serve.

The destruction of Sophiatown was part of a concerted effort by the apartheid government to limit the artistic production of black South African artists, many of whom were eventually forced into exile. Of these artists Miriam Makeba was the first. Makeba began her life as activist at the age of two weeks when she was imprisoned for six months with her mother, accused of brewing umqombothi, a local beer.

Miriam Makeba’s career reads like a list of Pan-African connections. She was influenced by Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday. Her singing career took off when she was promoting an anti-apartheid documentary and came under the wing of Harry Belafonte. She performed her American debut at a famous jazz club in New York, in front Nina Simone, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. She married Stokely Carmichael and endured further oppression by the American FBI as a result. The American media called her “the Click-Click girl”, at home she is known and loved as “Mama Africa”.

Protest music in South Africa became more important as Apartheid became more repressive. In the 1960s, leaders like Nelson Mandela were jailed for life and the ANC was forced underground. During the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, eighty-eight people died when police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration against pass laws. The Sharpeville Massacre led to the beginning of armed resistance in South Africa. Resistance after the 1960s is characterized by more aggressive and militant singing and demonstrations, like the toyi-toyi, an energetic chant often punctuated by the rallying cry,

Amandla! (Power)

To which the people would respond,

Ngawethu! (Is ours)

The enemy in South Africa today is no longer the clearly defined Apartheid policy, but the pervasive poverty that affects a majority of black people. In the ghettos today, the young are jiving to Kwaito, from the words kwaai meaning anger and to which is short for township. Kwaito features a homegrown South African style of rap, a socio-political voice for youth of color or class worldwide since the 1980s. They use slang that combines many of South Africa’s languages, including Afrikaans, Kwaito is based on House [2] beats and its lyrics are often about ghetto life, poverty, violence, sex, Zionist[3] philosophy and Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness philosophy. Artists like Zola, BLK JKS and Mzekezeke continue to synthesize a diversity of historical and global influences to create music that is relevant to young African kids today. Of his music and influence, Zola said in an interview,

“Kwaito kids are made from hunger, abuse, no father, violence, guns… Now as adults we must change the game for the better… Now we must change everything we are made from.” (Zola)


[1] Examples of literature on black protest music that fail to explore the African context beyond its roots in African American music include Samuel A Floyd Jr’s The Power of Black Music: Interpreting its History from Africa to the United States and Kerran Sanger’s “When the Spirit Says Sing!”: the Role of Freedom Song in the Civil Rights Movement.

[2] House is an electronic music most famous for being the music of the 1990s European and American rave culture.

[3] Zionism is a working class Black Separatist church, one of the few South African institutions that remained untouched by white oppression for a large part of apartheid history.

Stay tuned for part II of the “MUsic is the Weapon of the Future” featuring Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Nigerian musician, creator of Afrobeat, political activist, thorn in the side of six different Nigerian administrations.

For more resources on this topic check out:

South African Music

Download BLK JKS “Mzabalazo” here (and note the toyi-toyi )

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