This piece (previously unpublished) was written in 2014 after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white police officer. This incident proved that blacks in the States, and indeed the world over, are killed and brutalized not because they have committed any crimes, but because they are Black! At the time, I had been thinking about the impact music has had in my growing political consciousness, and how specifically, Thandiswa Mazwai and Lauryn Hill have played a role in this conscientisation process. There is a long lineage of black female musicians who have contributed to a radical political discourse through music; organizing and speaking on experiences of blackness, think Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, and beyond. Mazwai and Hill are part of this lineage and are important musicians because of their ability to translate contemporary black suffering into their music.
What informs our musical choices? What attracts us to a particular artist? Or genre? Our generation (one living through global capitalism) is marked by an over reliance on image and looks, rather than talent. For those of us who see music – and by extension art, as a tool for social commentary and as a translator of contemporary politics, where do we go to experience music that speaks to these ideals?
In South Africa, 20 years after democracy, the music industry struggles to produce voices that are consistent and principled in speaking up against injustice. South Africa is not special in this dilemma. In the United States where black radical politics pumped life into the arts in the 1960’s and 70’s, there is now a lull in radical artistic – musical – expression. Looking at mainstream media, one has to search to find these principled musicians who share the burden of having to speak truth to power to outrageously impervious ears.
Thinking of this dilemma – the burden of speaking truth to power, two voices, from two continents collide like they are birthed by the same troubled mother. Thandiswa Mazwai and Lauryn Hill.
“Why don’t you rebel?”
Lauryn Hill re-released a song she originally wrote in 2012, called Black Rage (Sketch), which she has dedicated to Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, who was shot 6 times by a white police officer, Darren Wilson.
“Black Rage is founded on suffering that worsens… Black human packages, tied up in strings, Black rage can come from all these things.” The song is painful, honest, blunt, and speaks of the gratuitous violence that has characterized black life since the Atlantic slave trade. “Obviously, this is a song about confrontation, right?” Hill says, while performing the song in 2012.
The “confrontation” Hill refers to should not be narrowly viewed as a call for ‘revenge’ or unthinking violence, especially after the Ferguson riots. Hill is a musician who understands the realities of structural and systematic inequalities that shape the existence of black life in the world. Listening to her interviews, one can tell she is troubled by the prison industrial complex; a system used for the surveillance, policing, and imprisonment of black bodies. She desires freedom and a toppling of a ‘system for the dead’ as she describes America’s white-supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist system. And in-line with these values, Hill’s “confrontation” can be likened to the kind Frantz Fanon refers to in ‘Concerning Violence’, a chapter from his seminal book The Wretched of The Earth.
A child of rebellion
“My face goes here!” says Thandiswa Mazwai, pointing to the cover of a Rolling Stone magazine. She is featured in the inside pages of the magazine and is saying that her face should rightly be on the cover of the magazine. Yes!
The infectious air of excitement in 1994 infiltrated the townships of South Africa. The role of political ‘power’ that black people were reluctantly assuming was being translated into Kwaito music. Thandiswa Mazwai became a household name during this transition. She was 18 years old at the time and a vocalist of the band, Bongo Maffin. Kwaito was loud and colorful! Played on every street corner in the townships, it represented the free yet frustrated youth of post-apartheid South Africa. It was filled with lyrics speaking of pain, pleasure, love, sadness. The lyrics spoke of dissatisfaction with living conditions, with elements of hope and desire for a better future.
Zabalaza was Mazwai’s first solo album and it’s the album that brought Mazwai’s most intimate ideas to life. In songs like Nizalwa Ngobani?, she poetically questions our generation’s historical amnesia. In it she asks, “Are the beautiful ones really dead? / Nizilibel’uba nizalwa ngobani?”
It’s evident in Mazwai’s music (and she drives the message further in the short documentary by filmmaker Aryan Kaganof), that she does not seek inclusion, but instead speaks against, Hill’s ‘system for the dead’. To put it bluntly, she is a rebel par excellence, something she does not hide nor run away from. In the documentary she admits that being born in the year of the Soweto uprising, 1976 “tainted” her. “I consider myself a child of the rebellion,” she says. “My music has always been about unpacking the ‘Black’ issues… I think it’s always been about resistance,” Mazwai says.
Spiritual yet confrontational, Mazwai and Hill make a habit of resurrecting the dead (like Fanon, Biko, Nkrumah), to remind us of our generations’ historical mission – Freedom. Liberation. Black Liberation.
Capital (power) sometimes manages to co-opt radical voices, taming and pacifying them. If not that then it distorts them, painting them as mad and/or irrational (Hill was sent for psychological evaluation after spending three months in jail for tax evasion) or as hyper-tribalists (Mazwai being reduced to a singer concerned only with retaining tribal identities). This creates a void within the music industry, shaping it to accept and celebrate mediocrity. As a result, there is silence on the objectification of women, on racism and the exploitation and demonization of the (black) poor. Silence!
The neo-liberal system in South Africa functions more or less like the one in the United States; they are both “governments that are hostile to blacks.” This system is especially harsh to black women as the intersectional nature of their oppression means that they occupy a space of invisibility in society and most definitely within the music industry. What Mazwai and Hill have managed to do is to identify the oppressive practices within the industry and in society. They have been able to identify, speak against and fight back. They don’t only identify cracks in the system; they also call us all to action.
For them, Assata Shakur’s words ring true: “I might be a slave, but I will go to my grave a rebellious slave… I will never voluntarily accept the condition of slavery.” We are blessed to be living in the times of Mazwai and Hill.