Black Music Under Apartheid South Africa

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Atiyyah Khan explains how music has been a battlefront for Apartheid South Africa and the Black liberation movement against the white supremacist settler colony. To read the text with a playlist made by her, listen to the 28th episode of our Moment of True Decolonization show on The Funambulist Podcast.

Article published in The Funambulist 30 (July-August 2020) Reparations. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

A photograph stands out from the many taken of South Africa under Apartheid. Shot by renowned photographer Omar Badsha at the Rainbow Restaurant and Jazz Club in Pinetown, Durban, in 1985, it shows musicians marching with the banner “The Struggle for Jazz. Jazz for the Struggle.” The struggle for Black music in South Africa has always been inextricably linked to the struggle for freedom. Because of colonialism and apartheid, there are gaping holes in these histories told. What is evident however, is that Black musicians have always challenged the divide-and-conquer strategies of their suppressors.

What came to be considered jazz can be traced back to the 1920s in South Africa. In the slum yards of Johannesburg, a style of music called Marabi developed. Shebeens became nurturing homes for marabi. There, women made homemade beer that flowed and music played throughout the night. This evolved into Concert and Dance nights which started around 8pm with a vaudeville group, followed by a jazz band playing till 4am. Community spirit was central to these events as people enjoyed music and danced all night. The influence of jazz from the United States (which spread via record and movies) fused with local sounds of the time. Trombonist Jonas Gwangwa explains: “Our people were listening to American records and seeing from the movies what people were doing out there — the Cab Calloways, the Duke Ellingtons […]. Some of that core of musicians were also people who’d played in the entertainment unit of the army in World War II. People like Gwigwi Mwrebi, you know, who was a sergeant in the army.”

Towards the 1940s, a new sound emerged called Mbaqanga, translated as “steamed cornbread” in isiZulu, evolving from marabi. A multi-racial area called Sophiatown developed on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Originally a farm, after the building of a sewage dump next to the area, the white population moved out allowing space for a racially-mixed population to grow. Out of its vibrant music and arts scene emerged the popular musical King Kong and writings by Can Themba, Todd Matshikiza, Nat Nakasa, and other prolific writers based there. On the other side of the country, a similar cultural community was growing in District Six in Cape Town. By 1955 however, the threat posed by Sophiatown was too great for the authorities, so it was destroyed and all 60 000 of its residents were forcibly removed. The bulldozers arrived for District Six residents later in 1968 — and in other regions around the country.