Khuli Chana featuring JR
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.”
- “As oil workers prepare pipes for deepwater installation at the port of Takoradi, and the Ghanaian government passes legislation regulating the oil, Ghanaians are wondering whether the oil will benefit them.”
- “Naija Lingo is an online Dictionary for all your Nigerian pidgin/broken English needs. It is a dictionary for people who want definitions to Nigerian words or slang, names and phrases and created by the people (you) who know them”
- “In the case of one woman Brenyah mentioned, the efficiency of a new irrigation system gave the mother free time to walk her kids to school. For another, her mastery of machinery and greater participation in the family’s business encouraged her husband to start asking her opinion in family matters. “If a women helps to earn the household’s money, then she doesn’t have to depend on her husband,” says Brenyah, “and she will have a say in what the money is used for.””
- “the space in which we narrate Africa is changing. The “we” is changing, too -– as much in the posture as in the biography of the writer. Probably one is a reflection of the other, even for those of us who were not born to inherit the continent. The narrative space is changing, and what we’re finally starting to see is something complicated, something troubling, something beautiful. And we’re finally getting smart enough to hold all those things in our head at the same time. Dear Journalism, will you ever catch up?”
- “My biggest criticism is not that they are going to Africa to shed light on these “lost” recordings and forgotten about artists. I’m instead worried that they concentrate too much on those forms of music that fit nicely into the story that they, the DJs, want to tell about the music. The cataloging tendency tends to be a colonial one. Also, many of the DJs and label owners, perhaps because of its shared lineage with Hip Hop, have concentrated on Afro-Beat, or have given more weight to genres that are popular in the west like Rock and Funk.”
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When the phrase “MTV Generation” was coined in the 1980s this is not what they were referring to. “This” is Thursday night at Steak Out; a bar, restaurant and club in tropical Kampala, Uganda, also known as “Rock Nite”. At the table beside me, a guy cradles his beer bottle like a microphone, singing every word to the 30 Seconds to Mars song playing; the tendons in his neck straining, the drops of sweat on his forehead shaken into rivulets. I don’t know whether to cringe or laugh, so I just look away.
The kids of Kampala’s growing middle class have been raised on MTV videos beamed into their living rooms by South African satellite television. Now they can go out to enjoy their favoured angst-driven guitar riffs and catchy pop tunes in the company of like-minded, equally inebriated individuals. Club scenes that were once dominated by Lingala music out of Congo, Western reggae, rap and hip-hop, and their African permutations, have been forced to make room for new tastes. Where young people once Ndombolo-ed, tonight they are head-banging.
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was a Nigerian musician, the creator of Afrobeat, political activist, thorn in the side of six different Nigerian administrations and it is impossible to discuss African protest music without discussing him, his music and his politics.Of his music Tejumola Olaniyan writes in his book Arrest the Music! Fela and his Rebel Art and Politics,
“To listen to Fela’s music then is to listen to a kind of cultural, specifically musical, “biography” of the postcolonial African state: an account of the state’s crisis-ridden life so far as seen by oppositional music”
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. 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?”