The Cultural Explosion

By Whitaker, Charles F. | Ebony, August 1994 | Go to article overview

The Cultural Explosion


Whitaker, Charles F., Ebony


One cannot underestimate the tremendous political and cultural impact that South African entertainers and writers have had both in their native land and in the international community of artists and activists. For decades, as White South Africans thumbed their noses at diplomatic efforts to end apartheid, it was the country's performers, playwrights and novelists - most of them banished to platforms in exile - who helped galvanize world support against the oppressive Afrikaner regime.

Following the example of African-American artist/activists like Harry Belafonte, South African artists such as jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela, singer Miriam Makeba, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (also known as Dollar Brand), actor Zakes Mokae and producer/playwright Mbongeni Ngema wisely and effectively used their time on the stages of the world to keep the plight of Black South Africans in the international spotlight. And the works they've produced, songs and stories of the hope and joy in their homeland as well as the pain and struggle, have expanded the cultural vocabulary with rich new sounds; sounds that - while influenced heavily by Black Americans - are distinctively South African.

It is perhaps on the musical front that South African artists have gained the most recognition and the greatest impact. For that, many of these artists say, they owe a great debt to African-Americans. Black American culture, including styles of music, dress and department, has long been a popular force in Black South African townships. Our urban life was greatly influenced by the African-American experience," Hugh Masekela has said. "Not only how people sang, but how they dressed, walked and talked. When was growing up there were a lot of children named Duke and Count in the townships."

In the heyday of the jazz era, swing and be-bop bands flourished in South African townships where residents couldn't get enough of the new music. Ultimately, they infused the Black American sounds with traditional rhythms and harmonies, forging their own musical trails.

Still, there was no denying their Black American influences. Masekela, for example, grew up emulating late trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. As fate would have it, Gillespie later helped Masekela come to the United States. It was the late 1950s, a time when the world was beginning to learn about the wealth of largely untapped musical talent that was muffled under the oppression of apartheid.

Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim and Miriam Makeba were among the first Black South African musicians to achieve fame during this period of discovery. Ibrahim, born Adolphus Brand - "Dollar" for short - is believed to be the first Black musician to make a record in South Africa. He was "discovered" by Duke Ellington in the mid-1960s. Actually, Ibrahim had already gained a measure of fame by the time he met Ellington. He and Masekela formed a band that had a hit record in South Africa in the early '60s. But Ellington, who met Ibrahim in Europe after the young pianist had fled his homeland, is generally credited with introducing Ibrahim to the world.

From the moment their profiles started to rise, these young stars began using their musical skills to expose the evils of apartheid. By the late 1960s, Makeba, in particular, increasingly denounced the South African government in as many forms as possible. "My life, my career, every song I sing, every appearance I make, are bound up with the plight of my people," she once said.

Makeba rocketed to fame as a "folk" singer at a time when her pure, unaffected alto defied any conventional label. Her outspokenness, as well as her striking good looks, made her a symbol of Black beauty as it was coming to be recognized in the dawn of the Black Power movement. She is even credited by some with ushering in the popularity of the "Afro" hairstyle.

But as Makeba and other artists spoke out more defiantly about the atrocities in their homeland, the South African government dug in more fiercely. …

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