Amidst the clouds of legal racial segregation and inhumane apartheid laws in 20th century South Africa, music was a silver lining for the masses. Songs werepowerful political tools that subliminally shaped the opinions of the people and encouraged protest against the regime.
Freedom songs sang praises of the anti-apartheid heroes and lifted the spirits of the oppressed. Within Africa, anti-apartheid couriers such as Miriam Amoeba, Hugh Masekela, Youssou N’Dour and the Malopoets expressed outrage through song. Brenda Fassi, popularly known as the ‘Queen of African Pop’ and ‘The girl with the golden voice’,was a notable figure that vehemently protested the apartheid through songs such as Black President and Abantu Bayakhuluma (The People Speak).
Support poured in even from outside the African continent in the 1970s and 1980s as popular artists such as U2, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder sang out on behalf of the cause.
Any article on the anti-apartheid movement is incomplete without mention of Nelson Mandela. Known for his life-long struggle against the movement and a 27-year long imprisonment, Mandela was also a jazz music enthusiast. He was at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement and his actions sparked hope in the hearts of the people.
Although it is almost inconceivable now, at the dawn of the 1980s Mandela’s name was not widely known outside South Africa. By the time he was released from prison a decade later, his name, face and story were synonymous with the anti-apartheid struggle, and pop music played a major role in that transformation.
While he was jailed on Robben Island, the government did its very best to obliterate his existence and rob the people of an icon. Extreme measures were taken such as a nation-wide ban on his image and the control board stifled any kind of music that referred to either Mandela or freedom. In 1980, Stevie Wonder released clippings of himself singing “Happy Birthday” to Mandela. The South African government retaliated by promptly placing a ban on all of Wonder’s songs from the country. In retrospect, music played a crucial role in Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom.
Rough estimates show that between 400 and 500 albums and recordings were banned during the years of oppression. However, artists of the day constantly tried to circumvent the censor board and slip in underlying messages of support into pop music. Even banned songs soared into popularity behind closed doors. For instance, the “Free Nelson Mandela” song by the band Special A.K.A., although officially banned in South Africa, worked its way through the charts in Britain. The song provoked embargoes around the world on South African products and many other harsh economic sanctions until the end of apartheid. The lyrics referred to the physical abuse Mandela endured while at prison and called to let him out, stating, “Shoes too small to fit his feet” and “His body abused but his mind is still free”.
Looking beyond the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, music plays a key function in every struggle against socio-political oppression. From the civil rights movement’s “We Shall Overcome” to the “Rockers” music of Jamaica, it is difficult to find a resistance movement that did not utilize the power of music in some form. Even today, the rhythms of rebellion continue to play on.