Songs that defy oppression

2011-04-23 11:17

The past continues to be the present. This is particularly true with the current and ongoing publicity for struggle songs in the media today.

This is as a consequence of the hate-speech case against ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, who was brought into court for singing the struggle song, Dubul’ ibhunu! (Shoot the Boer), by AfriForum.

I ask my compatriots – South Africans, regardless of colour and race – do African people have to lose their struggle songs as part of the price tag we have to pay for reconciliation?

James Baldwin writes in Price of the Ticket that “it is only in music that the negro in America has been able to tell his story”.

This statement is also true of the what the struggle songs in Africa and the African diaspora have been able to do and provide for the oppressed majority and peoples throughout the epochs of slavery, colonialism and apartheid.

Songs played a crucial role in virtually every dimension of African liberation movements in the world and South Africa is no exception.

Just as it was the case in the civil rights movement in the US, song and singing was the key force in shaping, spreading and sustaining the movement’s culture – and through culture its politics.

As the great singer, activist and ethnomusicologist Bernice Johnson Reagon argues in Songs of the Civil Rights Movement, “freedom songs are one of the best records we have of the transformation of consciousness in the ordinary people, the masses, who took part in the movement”.

In the African and black traditions singing is very much a participatory event.

Thus, going to a meeting, even just to listen, could quickly lead to a deeper level of involvement. Get their voices, one might say, and their politics will follow.

Music becomes more ingrained in memory than mere talk, and this quality makes it a powerful organising tool.

It is one thing to hear a political speech and remember an idea or two.

It is quite another to sing a song and have its politically charged verses become emblazoned on your memory. In singing you take on a deeper level of commitment to an idea than if you only hear it as the spoken word.

The dispossession of African lands and oppression of the cultures of the indigenous peoples are central to this context and content in African liberation struggles on our continent in particular.

Consequently, it came as no surprise that one of the very earliest songs of struggle in 20th century South Africa is about the land of the African people that dates back to the Native Land Act of 1913.

That song, iLand Act, communicated the African loss of land in the year following the formation of the ANC in 1912.

This song was adopted as the first official anthem of the South African Native National Congress in 1913.

In the aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre on March?21 1960, Motsoko Pheko writes in Apartheid: The Story of a Dispossessed People that: “After Sharpeville Africans could no longer hold political meetings or publicly discuss their national affairs.

But it soon became clear that their aspirations could not be banned.

New freedom songs were sung.” After the Sharpeville and Rivonia trials of the early 1960s – when Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, Nelson Mandela and their co-accused were imprisoned on Robben Island and elsewhere – Miriam Makeba responded with a song, Nongqongqo, while in exile.

This history of struggle songs is like a library, an archive of the African people in struggle, expressed in their own voices.

And in that library, in that archive, our sources are our songs.

As Steve Biko tells us: “Nothing dramatises the eagerness of the African to communicate with each other more than their love for song and rhythm.

“Music in the African culture features in all emotional states. When we go to work, we share the burdens and pleasures of the work we are doing through music.

“This particular facet strangely enough has filtered through to the present day.”

» Ramoupi is writing his PhD on the subject of struggle songs.

He is a research specialist at the Africa Institute of South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity

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