Every human being has a deep connection to music. whether you’re feeling down, looking for inspiration or simply wanting to shake ya groove thang! We’re all somewhat tuned in. And that is why music has been at the forefront of many a revolution.
Looking at two of the most influential countries to myself, the United States and South Africa, we can see how a simple melody gave a voice to those whose rights were torn from them in the face of injustice. To me, both countries are like the Ying and Yang of black civil rights.
Segregation, prevalent in the states from the mid 19th century all the way into the 60s, was a system used to set blacks and whites apart. By utilising physical, social and legal barriers in doing so. Acting as it’s South African counterpart, the system of apartheid did the same, with race being the focal point.
Experiencing such conflict and suppression of rights, blacks were blocked from progressing in society in many ways. For instance, through the enforcement of the Bantu Education Act, and others just like it; there was ‘no place for the Bantu in a European society, above certain forms of labour’. The word Bantu meaning the [black] people, was used by colonialists as a derogatory way of addressing Africans.
Circumstances were no better in the states with blacks not even being allowed to use the same toilets as their white equivalents. They were completely secluded from advancing in countries that essentially belonged to them. And as most of us with eyes can see, some of these barriers are still prevalent for African Americans today.
What happens when you suppress a people’s cultural development, to promote your own?
They create new ones! South African jazz can be traced back to the early 1940s, finding popularity in townships and shabbins. At the time, it was the only instrument that truly portrayed the position of blacks in South Africa. Jazz culture not only brought about entertainment but a sense of belonging. It introduced an unspoken social hierarchy to a population that was forbidden from actively partaking in everyday society. All of a sudden people began to accept their positions, whilst looking for effective ways to breakthrough. Of course, such a feeling of freedom and power, however small, was accompanied by more censorship by those who felt threatened by it.
When a minority group begins to realise their own value and strength, the majority will do whatever is in their power to put them back in their place. For me, one of the most innovative reactions to such dominance comes from “toyitoying”, the Bantu used their knack for rhythm in tandem with their evident discontent as tools for protest. This and the pure resilience of icons like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and the Artists United Against Apartheid (group) ensured that the stories of the struggle were heard even beyond their time.
In the states, violence, discrimination, and unrest were overcome by freedom songs and singing the blues. Performed with such passion and such feeling; it was the psyche of black America personified. Such music reinforced the people’s commitment to the civil rights movement, as well as being an example of the changing face of the negro in America. Transforming from submissive and enslaved to embodying black pride, the nuance upon which soul music was born.
This genre drew influence from gospel, blues, and folk songs to create a sound fitting of the prominent atmosphere within the black community. The people wanted change and were now willing to use other forces to get it. Artists like Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Ray Charles used their status and influence to be unapologetic figures united against the laws of Jim Crow. Looking closely, the music matched the evolution of popular ideologies. We can trace this shift back to the emergence of the Malcolm X school of thought as well as the birth of the militant Black Panthers.
Of course, music was not the only form of protest, however, it has been the most consistent. With all other areas of society being well beyond black reach its fair to say this great reliance on music culture was somewhat a return back to basics. It gave a sense of identity to people who’d been forced to conform and assimilate to the image of the perpetrator. Communicating and reaffirming ideologies through a medium that ‘the man’ simply couldn’t touch. Now that’s how you fight the power!
Happy Black History Month.
‘Toyi – toyi’ a dance formed by the Zimbabwean People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) used in political protests.