By Nomali Cele
We were slow to catch on: the 1980s kicked in a little late in the South African music scene. But while the aesthetic of the 1980s music industry (distinct fashion, bad hair decisions, groovy and boppy music) slowly seeped into the South African music industry, another change was taking place.
In the struggle against the National Party’s oppressive regime, Nelson Mandela had firmly emerged as the face of the anti-apartheid movement. As a tribute for Mandela’s 70th birthday, a concert took place in 1988 at London’s Wembly Stadium with a star-studded line-up. According to concert executive producer Tony Hollingsworth, the aim of this concert was to challenge the propaganda of the South African apartheid government.
“Many TV and radio news organisations around the world were still referring to Nelson Mandela, the ANC’s jailed figurehead, as a ‘black terrorist leader’, and while a ‘black leader’ could be released from prison, a ‘black terrorist leader’ could not,” wrote Hollingsworth on the Guardian, in 2013.
The concert was broadcast in 67 countries and reached more than 600 million people around the world, although many of the political aspects of the cause were censored. The Nelson 70th Birthday Tribute concert did much to change public perspective of South Africa’s political prisoners, both those in exile and involved in the anti-apartheid movement.
The move to cement Mandela as a central figure in the struggle wasn’t only taking place overseas. In 1987, Chicco Twala released his coded track titled We Miss You Manelow. The song – about a man who was long lost to his family – was one of the most popular releases in a new music genre rising in the townships called bubblegum music. Other bubblegum music hits included Sipho “HotStix” Mabuse’s Burn Out, Mercy Pakela’s Ayashis’ Amateki and Weekend Special by Brenda & The Big Dudes.
South Africa’s bubblegum music was inspired by the shift away from disco to dance pop happening in the global music industry during this period. What set bubblegum music, or bubblegum pop, apart from the rest of the world was that it was steeped in South African township culture.
Bubblegum music borrowed from the traditions of umbaqanga, marabi and kwela, which were all music genres that had evolved in the 1940s and 1950 as South African musicians laboured to find a local sound for their jazz and blues inspirations. Even though bubblegum music clearly drew its inspiration from the music style of the day, its local roots were very visible.
One of the most iconic bubblegum music-related moments of the 1980s decades came in 1990. Brenda Fassie, a growing force in music and an idol in the townships who had risen to fame as a member of Brenda & The Big Dudes, forewent her pop queen sound. Fassie got a break from her band’s 1983 smash hit Weekend Special, which would go down as one of the biggest hits of the decade. In 1989 she used all the influence she had amassed, apartheid censors be damned, and released Black President.
The music video opens with footage of Nelson Mandela’s 1963 speech: “There are many people who feel it is useless and futile to keep talking non-violence against a government whose answer is nothing but savage attacks on an unarmed and defenceless people…”
In the song, Fassie chronicles the life and times of her “black president” who was taken away and subjected to hard labour. She talks about the physical hardship and how his spirit overcame. The song came out just as Nelson Mandela was being released from prison and political organisations were slowly being unbanned. Four years later, the prophecy contained in the song was fulfilled when Mandela was elected as South Africa’s first democratic president in 1994.
The bubblegum era of music was much more lighthearted than the previous era, which prized a freedom fighter approach to music. The beats were fun and the lyric content was often about having a good time or visiting the local taverns. However, carefree as it was, if one looks beneath the surface of bubblegum music, one is sure to find a message that condemned the government of the day and highlighted the freedom fighters: it was both turn up and protest in the same track.