By Nomali Cele
Music as a form of resistance to oppression has always been a part of the art, freedom music goes back centuries.
In 1963, the singer Miriam Makeba addressed a United Nations special committee against apartheid. During this time, Makeba was living in the United States of America in exile as were many other South African artists scattered around the world, where they performed and advocated against apartheid. Makeba’s address was only the beginning of artists advocating against the unjust system of apartheid.
Freedom Music: The hymn for Africa, the hymn of sorrow
Nkosi Sikelela IAfrika was composed by Enoch Sontonga in 1897 and conceived as a gospel song that was often sung in churches by choral groups. The song asks God to bless Africa. But as the struggle for freedom waged and the apartheid government retaliated in ways more brutal than the last time (the Sharpville Massacre, Soweto Uprisings and the killing of political activists) the song was adopted for mourning purposes at funerals where people were killed by the apartheid government.
As Nkosi Sikelela IAfrika was sung at political rallies, the apartheid government considered it “an ANC song” and banned it. Another song that was sung at as many funerals as demonstrations was “Senzeni Na?” The song questioned what was causing all of the struggle, strife and violence the black population was being subjected to. It asked why – and at times stated that – being black was a sin.
Reggae musician Sonny Okosun released a song called “Fire in Soweto” in 1977. The song referenced more than just apartheid or Soweto! In it, Okosun mentions all the African countries that were experiencing oppression and conflict. He refrained that “freedom is our goal…leave us alone.”
In 1980 British musician Peter Gabriel released an anti-apartheid song about the killing of Steve Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness Movement. The song was one of the first instances where a song about apartheid was on the global airwaves. “Biko” has since gone on to be covered by other artists, including Paul Simon and the band Simple Minds.
Freedom Music: Artists come together
In 1985, the American crooner and music legend Stevie Wonder was arrested outside the South African Embassy in Washington D.C. His arrest was due to him being part of a protest against apartheid. More Western artists were beginning to take up the anti-apartheid cause by the mid-1980s. Wonder followed up this demonstration with the release of “It’s Wrong (Apartheid)” a song that was blunt in its support of black South Africans’ struggle against apartheid. On the song, he featured exiled South African artists.
Also in 1985, “Sun City” – the album – was released. It had started as a song recorded by Artists United Against Apartheid, a collective founded by Steven van Zandt and Arthur Baker. “Sun City” was a protest song against apartheid and the opulence experienced by the elite white population who could afford to go to Sun City Resort. The key message of the song was the artists refusing to perform in Sun City.
The song featured the likes of Miles Davis, Joey Ramone, Peter Gabriel, Run-DMC, U2, Bob Dylan and many more. However, because a lot of the artists were very generous in the sessions, Van Zandt started thinking that maybe the project could become an album. As a result, the album was made up of two versions of the song as well as other tracks that featured cross-genre collaborations between the star-studded line-up of artists.
One other prominent song from the “Sun City” album is the rap and jazz track “Let Me See Your I.D” a collaboration between Miles Davis, Gil Scott-Heron, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Malopoets, Peter Wolf, Sonny Okosun, Duke Bootee, Ray Baretto and Peter Garett.
When Sun City – the 5:45 minutes long song – closes, a voice singing “Nkosi Sikelela IAfrika” “hear our prayers,” the voice implores as it fades out.