From perfect stranger to brother

Telling the story: D Michael Cheers and Hugh Masekela collaborated on the writing of the book Still Grazing, and in the long process of chronicling Hugh's life the two became firm friends (supplied by author)

Telling the story: D Michael Cheers and Hugh Masekela collaborated on the writing of the book Still Grazing, and in the long process of chronicling Hugh's life the two became firm friends (supplied by author)

Coming to South Africa

I first came to South Africa during the time of apartheid in the 1980s. There was a crackdown on journalists trying to enter the country. I came there on a tourist visa.
I had bought a ticket to Mozambique. When I got there, I got a transit visa to come to South Africa. As soon as I got through customs, I tore up my Mozambican ticket. I was there for three weeks on that first visit and got a chance to see South Africa. Then it rolled into my doctoral studies work.

I got a PhD in African studies at Howard University. My doctoral dissertation looked at African-American kinship ties to South Africans, especially during the anti-apartheid movement and vice versa. It was that research on my PhD dissertation that formed the basis of my research into Still Grazing. And so I was able to look at Hugh through the lens of this country.

I was in the country when FW de Klerk made the announcement to release Nelson Mandela. I was there that Sunday in February 1990 when Mandela was released. I was there at the Grand Parade. I saw South Africa throughout all of those years. I saw its potential. When the country was working on its Constitution. Mandela’s presidency and all of that.

Meeting Bra Hugh

I first met Bra Hugh in 1978 at a concert in Park West Club on Chicago’s north side. I covered the concert [as a photojournalist], met him backstage and that was it.

Since 10 years earlier I had been familiar with his music, even though I was quite young when I first heard Grazing in the Grass. I was only about 13 or 14 years old. The music just captivated me and I began studying his music, and that of other South Africans living in the United States.

Fast forward to 1995, I’m in South Africa on a Fulbright Fellowship and I was about to embark on the Ebony South Africa project and then I met Bra Hugh again when he was at the State Theatre.

I did an interview with him and the article appeared on the first edition of Ebony South Africa. I thought that his story was so rich that it was more than just a feature article.

It took a while for him to grab hold of the concept because of what the process entailed — a huge commitment on both parts.

This was during a time when Bra Hugh was going through his addiction challenges and we had several meetings prior to him undergoing treatment in London for his addictions, but when he came out of that, we got serious about the project and used every opportunity that he had when he was in the country.

Five years later, in 2000, we had a book contract. Then it was just hard work for the rest of it to get the book done. And that’s what happened in April 2004.

Co-writing Still Grazing

Our agent to this day here is Marie Brown in New York. Marie Brown is one of the most respected literary agents in the United States, period.

Marie made me rewrite the proposal for five years. She kept telling me, “Michael, it’s better but it’s not there yet.” It was five years before she said: “I’m ready to pitch this to New York publishers.” Most people would have quit, but I didn’t. I just kept rewriting it, adding a chapter, rewriting it, tightening it up. And it made me a better writer.

I’d spent thousands of dollars out of my own pocket in terms of research and travel before we got any kind of advance or contract on this book.

Bra Hugh would tell me things, he would write out things, episodes from his life, but then it all had to be checked out and verified. He also introduced me to so many people that helped me: Miriam Makeba, Caiphus Semenya, people on both sides of the Atlantic — a lot of his managers — his band members, his business partners. I interviewed, literally, hundreds of people for the book.

Hugh had attempted to do his memoirs in the 1970s. He had got to a certain point with another African-American writer by the name of Quincy Troupe (who later went on to write Miles Davis’s biography).

I don’t know why that didn’t pan out. But what Hugh did for me was he saved a lot of those handwritten notes from the sessions that he had with Quincy. That helped fill in a lot of blanks and it also helped Bra Hugh to recall a lot of things.

What also helped our collaboration was that he took me to these places. He took me to Witbank, to the township in which he was born. He took me to Alexandra where he grew up. He introduced me to Trevor Huddleston when he was still alive and living in a nursing home. Bra Hugh took me there. Huddleston gave me a long interview. He took me to Sophiatown. We would just drive for hours throughout Soweto, just all around the areas he had known as a child.

When we were in New York, he took me to the apartment building where he lived. He introduced me to the people at the Manhattan School of Music, especially his longtime collaborator Stewart Levine.

It took me five years to nail down an interview with Chris Calloway, whom he married for a few months in the 1960s. It was such a volatile courtship and marriage that I wanted to get her story as well. Finally I did.

So it was those types of episodes. I would go to Miriam Makeba’s home almost on a daily basis. Miriam would cook dinner and just sit and talk and she would tell me a lot of these Masekela stories. She verified a lot of the things that Hugh had told me but also told me things that Hugh had forgotten about their relationship and friendship.

He gave me complete access to allow me to show the good, the bad and the in-between.

No [auto]biography tells everything but Still Grazing was a pretty honest account. It’s gonna stand the test of time.

For me, obviously the music was important but what drew me to Bra Hugh as a researcher and a scholar, was his work as an anti-apartheid activist. I remember him telling me how he couldn’t even get back to the country to bury his mother. All of this would help me understand his love for South Africa even more.

There were times when we were writing together and as a co-author I was expected to stay in his voice but because some of the scholarship, research, this that and the other, it was a challenge for me. He would rein me in. I can hear him saying it now: “Michael, that is too academic. That’s not me.”

I had to work on keeping Masekela’s voice and the cadence of his narrative utmost in my head as I was writing this with him. The publishers (Crown Publishers here in New York, which is a division of Random House) were very deliberate that I stay in Hugh’s voice.

Illustrated biography shelved

We have for the last couple of years toyed around with a picture book, Hugh Masekela: An Illustrated Life. We discussed it many, many times with his business partners. We even got to do some proper layouts, this, that and the other. We were making progress with it. The project got tabled for the past year or so when he got sick.

I was in South Africa in 2017 and I was talking with his lawyers and managers. I talked to his daughter and his nephew Mabusha. We discussed it but, pretty much, to a degree, backed away from it because of his health, which was the most important thing.

Every idea that you come up with doesn’t have to take hold right away. Now is not the right time but in due time we will bring it up and see if it is something that the family wants to do.

There is so much more visual material out there than my work. There has to be hundreds, if not thousands, of images that have to be sourced and copyrights attained for all of that.

My new older brother

It went from a working relationship to a friendship, to one of deep respect for one another, which is what we had. When Bra Hugh would come to California to play in some clubs out here, we spent a lot of time together.

I introduced Hugh to my daughter when she was 15 years old when I was doing the interview with him in Pretoria in 1995. She is now 37 years old and an assistant professor of multi-media journalism at George Washington University in DC. Bra Hugh would call her when he played in DC and they would have lunch and he’d give tickets to her and her friends to check out the show because college students didn’t have money. He’d see them backstage after the show.

We just shared so much. It’s really hard to explain, but I never had a biological brother. I had two sisters. In a large measure he became the older brother that I never had. I had his phone number on my phone. I’d phone him, leave a message and half-an-hour or a day later he’d call me back. It was that kind of thing.

Basking in a story well told

When the book came out, we were so relieved about what we had accomplished. We knew, without even saying anything to each other, what we had accomplished. The response to the book was so overwhelming, from so many people.

As an author, that’s why you do what you do. You don’t do it for millions of dollars. If that ever comes, it comes. You do it because you want to put your work out there. I wanted the world to hear this man’s story. I wanted to tell it deeply. I would never go into the trauma of it [the process]. It wasn’t easy, but we got it done. We believed in each other. It became spiritual and all that.

Look at the artists who pass on and whose stories never get told. That’s a shame. And I believe this with all my heart. I’m not trying to be racist, but I am racial. I’m a race man.

If we don’t tell our story, it’s not that it won’t get told, others will get around to it and they will tell it from their default position and misunderstanding of us.

We wanted to tell Masekela’s not only in his voice but to be true to the story, true to his family and that’s what was accomplished.

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011.
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