Revolutions are not led by politicians, they are the result of the man and woman in the street standing up, and saying “no more!”. While the arts are seldom given the respect they deserve in society, often it is musicians who give a voice to the public, allowing their message to be heard the world over.
The late Hugh Masekela, who passed away last week at the age of 78, was a South African artist who used his fame to speak out against the South African government, and the inherent cruelty of the apartheid system. In what is perhaps one of his most famous songs, Stimela, Masekela talks of the migrant labour that came to Johannesburg to work on the mines. He speaks of the terrible living conditions of the miners, the physical separation from their friends and family, many of whom who had been “wantonly murdered in the dead of night”, and the loss they experienced when the miners thought of all that had been taken from them. Released in 1974, a time when internal resistance to apartheid was became increasingly militant, Masekela’s emotive words would have added fuel to a fire that was already starting to rage in South Africa.
In Soweto Blues, a song he collaborated on with his ex-wife, Miriam Makeba, Masekela tells the devastating story of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, which saw hundreds of children die at the hands of the police. Using Masekela’s words Miriam Makeba pleads, “They are killing all the children without any publicity…..oh, they are finishing the nation. God, somebody help!”.
In 1987 Hugh Masekela released the song, Bring Him Back Home, which would go on to become the anthem for Nelson Mandela’s world tour, following his release from prison in 1992. Two years prior to that, Mandela had written a birthday message to Masekela, which he managed to smuggle out of Pollsmoor Prison where he was an inmate. The story goes that the letter inspired the lyrics for the song, which envisioned Mandela walking freely down the streets of South Africa.
Speaking in a 2015 interview of the role that he played in the fight against Apartheid, Masekela says
I was just a musician, making a living. And it was coincidental that I came from South Africa. You can’t come from a people whose resources you use and not talk about them……They had to end (apartheid) because the country was finally rendered ungovernable by the people. Those people – and the ones who were killed – were the true heroes in the struggle for freedom in South Africa.
RIP Hugh Ramapolo Masekela, 4th April 1939-23rd January 2018
Image of Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Paul Simon courtesy of www.huffingtonpost.co.za