Flying home: He was always free

“My meaning is specific: [Song of Solomon] is about black people who could fly. That was part of the folklore of my life; flying was one of our gifts … It is everywhere — people used to talk about it, it’s in the spirituals and gospels. Perhaps it was wishful thinking — escape, death and all that. But suppose it wasn’t. What might it mean?” — Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s book Song of Solomon is an exploration of the idea of what it might mean if slaves could fly. Morrison is not the first black mind to have contemplated the idea that Africans subjected to slavery developed the capacity to simply fly away — to grow wings and leave.

This idea appears again and again as part of the canon of black survival. Those who flew were compelled to soar. They were what the colonisers and slavers called witches and “witchdoctors” — those who we today call our spirit guides. For what else can we call the genius forms of jazz and kwaito and rap and dance, if they are not forms of flight? They are nothing if not sages who sail the sky.

What is Mam’ Sophie Mgcina when she sings Madam, Please, if she is not a bird gliding and then swooping in close, pecking and pecking and pecking?

Madam please, before you shout about your broken plate/ Ask me what my family ate.

Madam please, before you laugh at the watchman’s English/ Try to answer in his Zulu language.

Madam please, before you say that the driver stinks/ Come! Take a bath in a Soweto zinc.

Madam please, before you ask me if your children are fine/ Ask me when I last saw mine.

Madam please, before you call today’s funeral a lie/ Ask me why my people die.

From Muhammad Ali to Steve Biko to Sojourner Truth to the anonymous hair braiders who make whiteness recoil, we have always sought to fly as a response to the suggestion that we are not free.

When Bra Hugh blew his trumpet, you felt as though you were watching a human being in full flight.

He had what all black creatives have always had — an intellectual capacity he trained on his instrument of choice. Josephine Baker danced, Zora Neale Hurston wrote and Hugh Masekela played.

He was smart. Smart enough to teach — to stand behind a podium and conduct a course — but he opted not to. He had a way with words and with images so that you wanted to weep and jump for joy when you heard him say: “The train was always something that took away your mother, your father, your loved ones … The train was really South Africa’s first tragedy.”

For many of us, Masekela had the consistent forward momentum of a train. As he put it so memorably in Stimela: A-chugging, and a pumping, and a smoking, and a pushing, a pumping, a crying and a steaming and a chugging and a whooo whooo!

He was unstoppable.

This interplay between being an active participant in the freedom struggle and being a free man defined Masekela’s life. And so he was a powerful avatar for the idea that at an existential level, we are all free.

Masekela was not free because he was in exile. If anything, he stood as an example of how ridiculous it was to define a human being’s freedom in relation to a set of laws. The architects of apartheid could not determine the boundaries of Masekela’s humanity. He knew this — as all black people who fight to be free know this. It is written in their bones. To listen to Bra Hugh’s music was to understand this.

At the Lusaka preschool I attended in the late 1970s when I was about five, family legend has it that the children in my class were asked to come to school prepared to sing a children’s song or a lullaby they often sang at home. On the morning of our performance, I arrived with my shiny face well greased with Vaseline, and my little shoes polished and sparkling, looking like the picture of innocence.

When my turn came, I belted out my favourite song:

Sizoba dubula nge mbayimbayi bazo baleka/ Sizoba dubula dubula, dubula, dubula nge mbayimbayi.

Music, like everything in our exiled lives, was a vehicle for freedom. For South African children in exile, music was not merely entertainment. We sang to be free.

And yet we also sang because we were happy. We sang because we were free. One of my favourite hymns in church for the few years I attended regularly was pure sweetness:

I sing because I’m happy/ I sing because I’m free/ His eye is on the sparrow/ And I know He’s watching me.

Fighting for freedom did not preclude happiness, nor did it mean we were not ourselves already free. We were perfectly free — in our very essence. In our minds and in our hearts and in our laughter and tears, in our very existence — because we were human and more convinced of this than our enemies. We were free then as we are now, and Masekela always knew it.

At an existential level, Africans are virtually the only people whose very claim to humanity has always been subject to debate. Western philosophers have discussed the qualities of freedom for centuries but the application of the very idea of freedom to Africans has been a question mark for many. Are they, in fact, human? What is the circumference of their craniums? Are they built for labour and not for reason? These are the questions others have asked.

We ourselves have never had doubts, of course. Freedom has been our birthright, even as it has been withheld time and time again by those who had accumulated the resources to oppress us, so that even now in this century, even as we marshal all the technology human invention has mustered, across many spaces and in many ways — we still need to proclaim that our lives matter.

For black people, the urge towards freedom is now as it has always been — both a burden and a joy. Even now, while many others take their humanity for granted, black people everywhere find themselves still chasing political freedom, still having to state that we too are intrinsically worthy of the state of freedom.

Masekela understood the heaviness this legacy bestowed on the artist. He understood that his task was to make music, and to find words for sorrow and rage and to express hope. He wore his responsibilities like a crown of diamonds. As contemporary artists across the world of black creativity increasingly find their political voices, Bra Hugh’s death reminds us that for some artists, politics has always been woven into the praxis of art.

I am sitting in the car listening to the radio. I am stunned. I want to cry at the enduring gift of black music.

Freedom, freedom I can’t move/ Freedom cut me loose/ Freedom, freedom, where are you?

I want to weep at the rawness and the genius, at the breakthrough. Pop music thrumming through my speakers, speaking a truth as ancient as slave ships churning across the Indian Ocean headed to the Cape, as old as the songs that kept human cargo alive and accompanied the dying across the Atlantic.

Thirty years ago, Masekela asked Beyoncé and Kendrick’s question but he infused it with hope. Freedom, freedom, where are you? He answered:

Bring back Nelson Mandela/ Bring him back home to Soweto/ I want to see him walking down the streets of South Africa/ Tomorrow!

Masekela always knew how to navigate the desire for freedom without losing hope. He painted a picture so that hope had a face, so that our desires danced a two-step — always forward. He may have had his private doubts about political freedom but he rarely allowed them to find their way into his music. For black people the world over who encountered him, Masekela mattered because his music was an embodiment of this innate and intrinsic freedom. He managed to both play for freedom and because of freedom.

He understood that freedom is an essential ingredient in the character of all humans. It was not by accident that he chose jazz as his medium — that genre that refuses to be bound, that is tied only to improvisation.

And thus — through his decision to pick up that horn and through his ability to move through the world and occupy it like a boss — he managed to accomplish that rarest of feats. He was at once formidable and fearless. And, above all, Bra Hugh —our beloved, most feisty dlozi — was utterly, triumphantly, unapologetically free.

Hamba kahle, mkhonto. 

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Sisonke Msimang
Sisonke Msimang is the author of Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home, and The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela. She is a fellow at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research

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