#BLF26 portraits

On 18 July 2016, 26 members of the Black First Land First movement (BLF26) engaged in protest action at the Office of the former Public Protector, Advocate Thuli Madonsela, which resulted in them being arrested and subsequently imprisoned for 8 days in the Pretoria Central Maximum Security Prison.

BLF had been putting pressure on the former public protector, Advocate Thuli Madonsela to investigate and report on the complaint of R26 billion as indicated in the CIEX report, stolen by white capitalists including ABSA bank, which was lodged at her office in 2011. They also wanted her to investigate and report on State Capture by white capital.

BLF26 are appearing at the Pretoria Regional Court tomorrow. Click here for the full details.

I took portraits of the BLF26, which were originally published on the Black Opinion website.

The day I met the man with the trumpet: Ambrose Akinmusire


A previously unpublished story I wrote after an interview in 2013 with African American trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire.

“Oh my, I think I am going to cry. This is too beautiful” The lady sitting next to me whispers in my ear. We are sitting right in front of the stage, on the hard-floor, cross-legged, wide-eyed with eager ears. As the Ambrose Akinmusire quintet serenades us at the 15th annual Cape Town International Jazz Festival, my mind wonders and I think of the history of jazz. From its inception in New Orleans in the 1920’s and 30’s, the radical years of the 1960’s and 70’s, to the innovative musicians of the 2000’s. I ask myself, do jazz musician consider this rich history when they make their music? How do jazz musicians respond to our current social and political climate using music? I decided to speak with Akinmusire about my questions; an award winning African American trumpeter, bandleader and composer.

We met on a Sunday afternoon at the Cape Sun hotel, where most of the artists performing at the festival were staying. The lunch time buzz of the hotel restaurant combined with the racket of exhausted musicians checking out made it a bit hard for us to hear each other, but because when Ambrose speaks, he is committed to a conversation, listening attentively and picking his words intelligently, the noise slowly died away as we became immersed in our conversation.

After briefly talking about the rise in the number of protests in South Africa, the Marikana massacre – where 34 miners were fatally shot by police – and about the minimum wage in South Africa versus America, I decided to kick off the official interview by asking him whether he felt any pressure creating his new album considering the resounding success of the previous one. “When I create an album, I really try to figure out what that album is missing or what I’m missing, then I try to address those in the next album. I didn’t feel any pressure, but I do more than ever feel a sense of obligation because I can no longer convince myself that people aren’t watching me or that I don’t matter…” the trumpeter confesses. “I feel a sense of obligation for my community that I grew up in, I’m starting to feel a sense of obligation for, I haven’t formulated it yet and I don’t even know how to explain it, for Africans… I want to bring people together, especially black people.”

Ambrose’s father is Nigerian, so he grew up with some connection with his African side of his family. “You know it’s so cliché to say, ‘you need to go back to Africa’. I’ve heard this all my life but coming here I’m like oh shit, it’s true!” Refreshingly though, Ambrose also realises how cliché it has become for American artists to think of Africa as ‘the motherland’, without making an effort to learn about African history and how that connects to Africans landing in America through the slave-trade.

We then later walked to Greenmarket square, an African market in the Cape Town city centre that is always buzzing with vendors eager to get their display items purchased by fascinated tourists. Interestingly, the market is filled with exactly those people Akinmusire speaks off, that exoticize Africa.

As we walk through the market we discuss some of the hardships that befall young black men in America and the world. One of those is the high rate of young black men being brutally murdered by the police. He addresses this problem in Roll call for those absent, a song where a little girl reads out the names of various young black men who were victims of police brutality and an unjust system in the States. He explores the same concept in a song from his previous album called My name is Oscar. There is a confrontational posture to the song, it could be the vibrant drums or Akinmusire’s repetition of Oscar’s name, as compared to Roll call… which is much calmer, meditative even as it awakens a sense of loss.

These songs then drive home the message that in the current social and political climate, black people dying in numbers with no action – or justice – is nothing new. His concern with his community and expression of that concern through music reminds me of the zeal and commitment of the Black Arts Movement in the 60’s and 70’s. A sister to the Black Power movement in the States, it focused on radicalising art so that it represented what the people were going through at the time. I therefore find it important to listen to Akinmusire’s work with an open mind, not only to the different, engaging sounds he brings, but also to what he is saying about his social and political environment.

I’m Tired

My eyes are betraying me these days.
I see painfully.
My brain mashed up.
Seeping through my ears.
My bones feel like they are too heavy for my body.
Weighing me down.
Pulling me closer and closer towards the earth.
Where my momma is.
I drift along these days.
Unaware of space and time.
Trying to lift my head from drowning in a sea of blood.
I need to get out.
I’m tired.

FEATURE: What Happened, Miss Simone?

This review was published privately last year as part of  five feature assignments done for the Wits Journalism Department.  


MUSICAL GENIUS REMEMBERED: In the new documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? the life and music of civil rights activist Nina Simone are remembered.                                                                                                                                     Photo: Wiki Commons

Eunice Kathleen Waymon, more famously known as Nina Simone sits, back up right, in front of a black grand piano. Sparkling white teeth emerge from her beaming face. Her afro is pitch black and as kinky as they come.  It is 1969 and she sings cheerfully, “to be young gifted and black, Oh what a lovely precious dream.”

Later on (1976) we then see Nina sitting in front of another piano, back slightly slouched this time and speaking to a largely white audience in a fragile tone, “I’m tired.”

She starts playing but then abruptly stops and sharply points a finger at an audience member who stood up while she was singing, “hey girl, sit down! Sit down!”

At this point, her eyes are like sharp knives piercing through the girl’s ego.

This is halfway through the documentary produced by her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelley, What Happened, Miss Simone? The documentary provides one of the most thorough representations of Nina. Her daughter disapproved of the previous documentaries and films about her mother’s life, saying they never portrayed the “true Nina Simone.” The Nina that was a musical genius who despised injustice, but who also carried enormous burdens on her back. Who had massive demons. In this documentary we are shown how these demons affected not only her, but her family, friends and music.

One could argue that what each of us considers ‘demons’ is different. For her abusive husband and manager, Andrew Stroud, one of her ‘demons’ was her political activism. For him, she should have stuck to singing popular music and her career would have continued as normal.

For her daughter it was her bipolar disorder (which was unknown to both of them at the time), which created a fractured relationship between mother and daughter.

But for Nina, her demons were boundless. She couldn’t pin point them or say what they were. But she knew she was troubled.

A great feature of the documentary is the rare insight it gives into Nina’s life. For instance, in her roughly scribbled diary entries she speaks of wanting to be dead and of despising her husband.

In one of the rare interviews she speaks about participating in the civil rights movement and how that gave her a renewed sense of worth, “It was very exhilarating to be part of the [civil rights] movement at the time because I was needed. I could sing to help my people and that became the mainstay of my life. Not classical piano, not classical music, not even popular music but civil rights music,” she says.

The one event that prompted Nina to join the civil rights movement, and to write the song Mississippi Goddam which became “the soundtrack of the civil rights movement” was the bombing of a church which claimed the lives of four young black girls.

This event pushed her towards radicalism. This renewed sense of purpose was translated into her music. In Ain’t Got No (I Got Life) Nina is brutal and utterly pessimistic about black life in the United States. In the song she says, “Ain’t got no mother, ain’t got no culture, Ain’t got no friends, ain’t got no schooling, Ain’t got no love, ain’t got no name, Ain’t got no ticket, ain’t got no token, Ain’t got no God.”

As seen in the lyrics above, and in Mississippi Goddam, her lyricism showed an understanding of the bareness of black life at the time – and some might argue even now. From slavery to the Jim Crow era, blacks in the United States (and around the world) were denied a sense of place and a sense of being. And for her, translating this through music was her purpose.

As she says in the documentary, she loved black people, and she shared her hopes for a more equal future in her music. She used self-affirmatory lyrics as a fighting tool to gain and give strength to her people for a revolution. And this is why she was so popular.

Born in the Deep South Nina started playing the piano when she was 4 years old. Her first experience of racism was when her parents were forced to move to the back of the venue for a white couple during her first piano recital, “It was my first feeling of being discriminated against and I recoil in horror at it,” she said. “I never got over that jolt of racism.”

She then received classical piano lessons from her mother’s white employer, “I crossed the railroad tracks every weekend to get to Mrs Mazinovich’s [piano teacher]… In the South railroad tracks were made to divide the blacks from the whites, I was so scared,” she said.

Nina played everything from Bach to Beethoven. She dreamed of being the first black female classical pianist, but she was rejected by the Curtis Institute of Music when she was 19 years old because she was black.

After her rejection she released she had to work. This led her to start playing and singing in night clubs in Philadelphia, adopting the name Nina Simone to hide from her highly religious mother.

The rest, as they say is history.

Nina Simone gave her life to music. What Happened, Miss Simone? gives only just a glimpse of Nina’s genius. “Nina Simone was a free spirit in an era that didn’t really appreciate a woman’s genius,” says Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s eldest daughter who lived next door to Nina for many years.

Nina’s genius, as depicted in the documentary and in her music, was uncontainable. Her music was the soundtrack to a very turbulent time for black people in the United States, and all over the world, “I choose to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself in. That to me is my duty… how can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” she said.

In the documentary, Nina says that her happiest time was when she lived in exile in Liberia. When she passed away in 2003 aged 70, her ashes were spread all over the world including Liberia where hopefully, the restless soul finally rested.

Art in times of a coming revolution

ITAI Hakim is a folk-soul singer, guitarist and songwriter with a sense of humor and a consciousness that allows for thoughtful conversation and spine-chilling socially aware music.

ITAI HAKIM: The singer,

ITAI HAKIM: The singer, songwriter and guitarist is planning o releasing more music and more creative collaborations this year. Photo: Michelle Gumede

Born in Diepkloof, Soweto, Hakim says he grew up listening to the likes of West Life, Andrea Bocelli, and only later were his tastes in music challenged. “From the get go I wasn’t listening to anything traditional or deeply black. I think my first interaction with a black musician was Craig David, and you know he is very sanitised,” he says.

He went to a mostly white primary school “in the suburbs and I became culturally assimilated.” His first encounters with “race” as a social qualifier of space and opportunity was in high school, “when your white friend can’t come over and sleep at your house because you live in Soweto, that’s when you realise that something is off,” he says laughing.

By the time Hakim got to Wits University, where he studied Psychology, Sociology, English and Philosophy, his conceptions of the world and music were highly influenced by the “underground” hip hop, slam poetry and live music scene of the late 2000’s.

By the time 2012 came, he had been performing in gigs around Johannesburg in different bands and he would later be signed, as part of the group 8 Bars Short at Motif records (although this didn’t work out as planned). He would also perform his Tsonga and Venda folk vocals in a tour of the United Kingdom with the band, The Brother Moves On.

For him going to the UK was a sobering experience, “it was great in the sense that it felt like it was all me, you know, I couldn’t be like it was because of someone else who made it happen.”

With an upcoming international tour, an EP and an album to be released later this year, the current events that have woken different forms of resistance in universities across the country have pushed Hakim, and many other artists, to interrogate the inextricable connections between art and politics. “Will inequality exist forever? That scares me… I don’t think that, or at least I don’t want that to be the case. So we need to make a plan, so that this is not the case,” he says.

“My question even as an artist is ‘how big is your fight?’” he says. “It’s the same thing as an artist, as a journalist, as a doctor, as a policeman. You always have the issues of justice that you always have to negotiate with internally.”


CONSCIOUS MUSICIANS: Itai Hakim is also part of the group, Children Of The Wind with poet Modise Sekgothe. Photo: Michelle Gumede

One of Hakim’s interests are in storytelling, specifically writing books for young black children with black illustrations as a way to counter and speak against a narrative that feeds young black children whiteness and white values from a young age.

Pointing to a book he is currently reading by black feminist scholar and cultural critic, bell hooks, called Black Looks: Race and Representation, he speaks about how the book has helped him contextualize notions of black representation and how certain messages i.e. writing black children’s books, are important, valid and necessary.

Speaking about the student movement and the paintings that were burnt by #RhodesMustFall activists at the University of Cape Town he says: “I just found myself asking the question, ‘kanti how is a revolution supposed to happen?’ We can’t always be in dialogue debating, and in meetings, no. And I feel like South Africa has been here before.”

“What do you expect to happen? You gonna spend R2 million on secret police and tell us there is no money for kids?”

With music projects, theatre collaborations, and writing projects coming up, Hakim believes the question that artists should be asking themselves now is, “as an artist you are never neutral… are you just doing this just to be popular or are you for real for real? I think every artist needs to ask themselves that question at some point.”


Story originally published on Witsvuvuzela.com