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The Protest Music Of Hugh Masekela

In the decades-long struggle against apartheid in South Africa, Hugh Masekela was one of several musicians whose music came to represent the sound of resistance to racist oppression by the government.

On January 23, Masekela, 78, died from prostate cancer. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) mourned the loss of a “soldier of the revolution.”

“Bra Hugh used his music to champion the cultural revolution to educate our people to hate and reject oppression, domination, discrimination and exploitation. He told the oppressed and discriminated against to fight to claim their dignity. He was against all forms of violence against women and children,” NUMSA added.

NUMSA also declared, “It was Bra Hugh’s high levels of revolutionary consciousness expressed through his songs, where he made it very clear that there can be no space in our hearts and minds for being xenophobic towards our brothers and sisters on the African continent as an attitude of mind and a way of life. For him, all true revolutionaries would not recognize the fake borders created by imperialists in their scramble for Africa when they divided the continent among themselves in Berlin in 1884.”

The jazz musician left behind a body of work that includes more than 40 albums and a legacy of activism that went hand in hand with his music.

About 7,000 Africans demonstrated outside of the Sharpeville police station against the country’s racist pass laws on March 21, 1960. Hundreds of police deployed and killed 69 Africans and wounded 186 Africans, many whom were shot in the back. The massacre introduced the world to the terrible nature of apartheid in South Africa. It also intensified resistance to the white government’s oppressive policies.

The South Africa government sought to ban gatherings. This escalation led Masekela to go into exile.

Masekela came to New York in the 1960s and was a protégé of singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte. He attended the Manhattan School of Music, and in 1964, Belafonte and South African singer Miriam Makeba convinced Masekela to stay in the United States and record music.

From an interview with journalist Danny Schechter in 1985, Masekela recalled, “They both said to me, ‘If you hung around a little bit, you could make records that would reach more people. You might even get a hit record. And then when you talked about the way your people in South Africa were being treated, you’d have a big listening audience.”

“And I said, ‘Yeah, but how can I guarantee that I’m going to have a hit record? But bless their souls, less than four years after that, the Fifth Dimension did a cover version of my song, ‘Up, Up, and Away,’ and it went Top 40. And my next single, ‘Grazing In the Grass,’ went to number one, and then I had an international audience.”

Makeba, who collaborated and was briefly married to Masekela, escalated her protests against the South African government after the massacre. Toward the end of 1960, when she arrived home for her mother’s funeral, she learned her passport was “withdrawn.” She addressed the United Nations Special Committee on Apartheid in 1963 and was designated a “banned” person.

Despite attacks against her by the South African government, according to the book, “Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music, and Politics in South Africa,” Makeba made an “inestimable contribution to the early period of solidarity campaigning.” She also inspired Masekela.

“I think that there is nobody in Africa who made the world more aware of what was happening in South Africa than Miriam Makeba,” Masekela said. He, too, felt an obligation to “talk about what was happening here. It was natural for me to say: ‘Hey, you might be enjoying the music I make, but it’s not mine. It comes from the people and the people are getting hell out there!'”

Masekela helped expose Americans and others in the world to African forms of music. He confronted the reality of what it was like to be black, colonized, and endure imperialism.

The music Masekela produced was inspiring to other black American artists of the 1960s. Masekela recalled, “Once Marvin Gaye said to me—I was touring with him—he said, ‘Hughskie, man, I wish I could sing all those kinds of songs you’re singing, because we be just singin’ about love.'”

“I said, Marvin, why don’t you? Eventually [in 1971] he came up with ‘What’s Going On,’ which was a turnaround for black artists in the States getting into social consciousness.”

He had a deep desire to return to South Africa in 1972, but “out of principle,” he would not go back until it was a “human area again.” So, he traveled to Guinea, Liberia, Zaire, Ghana, and Botswana. In that time, he collaborated with several African musicians, including a band from Ghana, Hedzoleh Soundz, which Fela Kuti introduced to him.

By 1980, Masekela setup a studio, Jive Records, in Botswana. He sought to create an entity where people would not be exploited. “The studios in South Africa [were] notorious. Musicians line up outside and a black guy who works for the record company [said], ‘That one, that one, and that one.’ And the musicians [said], ‘Good boss,’ and they [were] paid a few bucks.”

The South African Defense Force (SADF) attacked Gaborone, Botswana, on June 14, 1985. They targeted the homes of artists and cultural activists, including Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa, a South African jazz musician who played trombone with Masekela in the Jazz Epistles. Fifteen people were killed—one of them George Phahle, who helped Masekela organize shows.

The 1980s, according to the “Sounds of Resistance,” was viewed as the “People’s War.” Music articulated a “new urgency and a new direction.” Black South Africans had the toyi-toyi that combined dance and song into moments of empowerment.

The toyi-toyi showed up at demonstrations and would be used to frighten the white soldiers. Masekela said, “Because we can’t beat these people physically, you can scare the shit out of them with the songs.”

Although Artists Against Apartheid were upset with singer Paul Simon when he recorded his album, “Graceland,” in 1985 and 1986, because they believed his work violated a cultural boycott, Masekela joined Simon on tour. The tour brought together South African musicians, like Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

“South African music has been in limbo because of apartheid,” Masekela contended. He believed the global exposure was good for black South African musicians. “Exile and the laws [had] parted us and caused a lack of growth. If we’d been free and together all these years, who knows what we could have done?”

He viewed the boycott as a bit of a “double-edged sword. It sometimes got in the way of anti-apartheid South African musicians who wanted to take their message abroad.

Masekela recorded what became an anthem for the anti-apartheid movement in 1987. It was called “Bring Him Back Home,” a call to the South African government to free Nelson Mandela who was in prison for 27 years.

In September 1990, the anti-apartheid movement declared victory and many political prisoners, like Mandela, were freed. Masekela returned home after thirty years in exile.

He recounted in his autobiography, “Still Grazing,” “After I landed and disembarked, it took forty-five minutes for the immigration officer in charge of returning exiles to clear me through customs. She had gone on her morning tea break.”

“During my wait, I became afraid that perhaps something sinister was afoot. Outside, my father, sisters, distant relatives, old friends, and reporters were all waiting for me to emerge. When I came out, a chorus of roars and ululations pierced the air.”
Here are some of the protest songs Hugh Masekela wrote and recorded:

“Stimela (Coal Train)” (1974)

The steam train, which transported migrant workers, was the sound of colonialism in South Africa. It created quite an impression on Masekela and inspired this song, where he uses vocals to recreate the experience of hearing the train powered by coal and communicate part of the dreadfulness of apartheid.

From the book, “Soweto Blues,” Gwen Ansell wrote, “It was the steam train that made large-scale extractive industry economically viable in a place like Johannesburg, far from the sea, and created tough navying jobs in its construction. It had been the need for rail lines that had provided the occasion for land grabs and conflict between imperial powers in South Africa before the Anglo-Boer War, and rail lines that had determined some new military tactics during it.”

The lyrics acknowledge there is a train that comes from various countries in southern and central Africa. It carries “young and old, African men, who are conscripted to come and work on contract in the golden mineral mines of Johannesburg.” They sit in “stinking, funky, filthy, flea-ridden barracks and hostels.” They work for sixteen hours “for almost no pay—and “deep down in the belly of the Earth.”

“When they hear that choo-choo train a-chugging, and a pumping, and a smoking, and a pushing, a pumping, a crying and a steaming and a chugging and a whooo whooo! They always cuss, and they curse the coal train, the coal train that brought them to Johannesburg.”

Like the working class members of NUMSA recalled in their tribute, “Bra Hugh hated colonization and imperialism. He hated the fact that Africans did not own their continent. He wanted African borders to be scrapped, and he regarded many governments we have in Africa as surrogates of imperialist cartels.”

“Been Such a Long Time Gone” (1974)

Motivated by exile, Masekela tells the story of a journey back to the African continent. It takes him to the Saharan Desert. It takes him to the Nile River. It takes him to the Zambezi River. He eventually comes to white soldiers standing in the road, as he tries to return to South Africa. They open fire, and then, “Pop goes my dream.”

“Vasco da Gama (Sailor Man)” | “Colonial Man” | “Cecil Rhodes” (1976)

Similar in their composition, each is an anti-colonial song. In “Vasco da Gama,” he informs listeners the explorer was “no friend of mine.” He stopped in South Africa. He invented discovery for colonization. He also names Christopher Columbus.

On “Colonial Man,” da Gama and Columbus are referenced in the same way. Masekela also works in a mention of Henry the Navigator, a friend of da Gama, and Queen Victoria, who Masekela says built an empire and loved to colonize. “She was no friend of mine.”

“Cecil Rhodes” tells the story of Rhodes’ colonization of South Africa. He is Queen Victoria’s “boy,” and a hero in England for instituting apartheid. Much of it is tongue-in-cheek and much like the kind of music Fela Kuti recorded.

“Soweto Blues” (1977)

The government moved to institute an official policy that required Afrikaans, which was spoken by Dutch settlers, instead of English. A major student protest took place on June 16, 1976, in Soweto. Known as the Soweto Uprising, 566 were killed by police. It garnered worldwide outrage and led to international sanctions.

Inspired by the uprising, Masekela wrote “Soweto Blues” and Makeba performed it. “The children got a letter from the master. It said: no more Xhosa, Sotho, no more Zulu. Refusing to comply, they sent an answer.”

“That’s when the policemen came to the rescue. Children were flying, bullets dying. The mothers screaming and crying. The fathers were working in the cities. The evening news brought out all the publicity.”

In the chorus, Makeba sings, “Just a little a-tro-city in the city.”

The song appeared on Masekela’s album, “You Told Your Mama Not To Worry.”

“Bring Him Back Home” (1987)

The anthem for Mandela is forever a part of black South African history. As Masekela said when introducing the song in 2015, “A little over 50 years, a group of young South African men were arrested and thrown into prison and sentenced to death for leading their people in the fight against apartheid.” A little over twenty years ago, they were released, and they were older but their spirits were still intact.

These imprisoned men recognized they had to build this country with their oppressors. They had to forgive, but they would never forget. Never again would one group of people be allowed to dominate another again, Masekela added.

Back in the 1980s, the song was a way of growing support for a well-known political prisoner, who had the influence to end apartheid. Today, it is a celebration of black South African heritage.

“Chileshe” (1998)

From his 1998 album, “Black to the Future,” the song is a post-apartheid anthem for South Africans, black and white, to abandon prejudice and infighting. Do not allow others to treat you as a foreigner. Do not call people animals.

It reflects a disappointment with South Africans that in the aftermath of apartheid the moment was not seized upon in a better manner. “The freedom of ours/I don’t see it/All I see is our blood being spilled by our hands.”

The lyrics paired with Masekela’s fantastic trumpet represent a righteous call for introspection, and citizens from other nations could learn from the words of Masekela.

“Change” (2002)

“What is it that makes a person wanna stay in power forever?” Masekela asks on this song opposing dictatorial leaders who would not step down from power. He calls out Jonasi Savimbi, who was leader of Angola, Charlie Taylor, who was the leader of Liberia, Arap Moi, who ruled Kenya from 1978 to 2002, and Robert Mugabe, who was president of Zimbabwe from 1987 and 2017.

In a roll call of countries, where millions are dying from war, he mentions Angola, Burundi, Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia, and Sudan. He urges Africans to find a way to come together to cure all disease and end poverty. He also adds, “All the wealthy countries say they want to stop the wars in Africa. If they want to so badly, why don’t they stop selling us arms?”

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."