South African Queens

Today I am thinking about female African pop stars, the ones who inspired and interested me when I was younger. Intrepid women who kicked down doors and destroyed barriers with the power of their vocals.

I am thinking in particular of three South African women who made a special place for themselves in the music industry and in my heart.

“Princess of Africa”

Ask anyone who lived in Africa during the eighties and they will be happy to sing some kind of localized version of Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s song Umqombothi. It is a song about home brewed beermade from sorghum or mealie-meal. It is first and foremost a party song, and I have fond memories of watching the adults get drunk and dance to it at parties when I was a child. It is also about the women who made umqombothi, and ran shebeens (speakeasies) in order to entertain the working men and feed their children in the poverty stricken townships. During Apartheid especially, shebeens were a cultural centre, an oasis of peace hidden from the burning South African sun of oppression.

Yvonne Chaka Chaka grew up under that sun; in fact she was the first black child to ever appear on South African television. When asked who she admired most, Chaka Chaka said

“My mother because she has always been there for me. My mother raised three daughters single-handedly on a domestic workers salary. That took great courage and strength. She is my mentor and hero. When I was born in 1965 in Soweto, it was during apartheid, and those were extremely difficult times. My dad was a great musician who could never realize his dream. He died when I was 11 years old. I inherited my talent from both parents, so music has always been in my blood .When I was little I would strum an empty tin and blow into a broom stick pretending it was a microphone. I sang in church choirs. I loved singing. I am blessed that I achieved my destiny, and been able to accomplish what my father could not.”

Continue reading

Advertisements

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?”

Continue reading