Letters in song to the land of our dreams

The letter. The note. The dispatch. An important leitmotif of our history. Writing as an act of generosity. The song as a reminder, a quickener, an act of love.

While reflecting on Thandiswa Mazwai’s performance of A Letter to Azania a few days after her show at the Lyric Theatre on Saturday, my eyes wandered to the book of letters closest to my bed. It was Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. I had not read it for a while and pulled it out of the bookshelf and opened it randomly. Page 93 contains a letter written on February 23 1966, which begins simply, “Dear Mama”.

Politicised in prison after being arrested for his role in a 1960 robbery, the letter was written after Jackson has been detained for six years. Facing no prospect of release (he would eventually die in 1971 in a prison shootout during an escape attempt), the young revolutionary tells his mother that he has come to understand “never again to look for mercy, never again to hope for justice”.

A lone sentence, underlined by the book’s previous owner in pencil, reads: “Right here at this juncture of time we as a people have nothing, absolutely nothing, but each other, some fresh air, the blue and gold of day and silver at night, a clean conscience and the promise of cloudless days to come.”

In the lead-up to her show, Mazwai spoke about the idea of Azania, as a “utopia”. A promised land beyond a physical place. As a framing device, the idea of A Letter to Azania allowed us a moment to reappraise Mazwai’s work in the context of a liberation we can now consider aborted. Reduced to ashes by the humiliation of it all, the songs become necessary tools in helping us to remember our origin stories as a way of surviving the purgatory of the present.

It was important for the artist and others accompanying her to allow moments for declamation. “Your history doesn’t begin with being conquered, it begins with empire,” said Mazwai, and also that our existence precedes our definition as “black”.

The presence and not merely the poetry of Koleka Putuma contributed to what was an emotionally charged atmosphere; charged not only in the sense of the electricity of her words but also because Putuma and Mazwai’s presence in each other’s works symbolised a lengthening of “the lifeline”, as recorded in Putuma’s collection of poems, Collective Amnesia.

“The lifeline”, a roll call of sorts, could also extend to the idea of ancestry, something that remains foremost in Mazwai’s work, both as a connecting thread and as the guiding context of specific songs.

Songs such as Abenguni speak of the protective shroud of our immediate genealogy, but they also zoom out to track our migratory paths throughout the continent. So when Mazwai speaks of Kush, Kemet, Azania and Nubia almost as if they are interchangeable, it is because she is trying to connect pasts, presents and futures as existences that can transcend interruptions.

The songs, transformed sonically, enter fantastical dimensions, but they also hold their own as historical documents. In a sense, what was happening on Saturday was a return into the music, a metaphor for the larger project the singer was asking us to participate in — that of continuing the search for ourselves.

Transkei Moon, for example, enters the realm of a collective sojourn broader than its geographical confines suggest, and Ndilinde becomes less a love song than an expression of generational compassion.

By insisting that the songs be opened up, slowed down, dubbed out, Mazwai imagined them as chambers, alcoves, sanctuaries, bodies of water. And, as they do every December 16, December 24, December 31 and January 1, as referenced in Collective Amnesia the masses were submerged and were baptised, connecting their dead selves to their living cells. After all, what are our artists if they cannot be our compass.

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.


Salie-Hlophe accuses Goliath of lying and racism

In response to Goliath’s gross misconduct complaint, Salie-Hlophe says Goliath has ‘an unhealthy obsession with my marriage’

Treasury is still seeking SAA funds

The government has committed an additional R2-billion to the airline, but has yet to pay it out

‘There were no marks on his neck’, Neil Aggett inquest...

The trade unionist’s partner at the time he was detained at John Vorster Square says she now believes his death was not a suicide

Press Releases

Boosting safety for cargo and drivers

The use of a telematics system for fleet vehicles has proved to be an important tool in helping to drive down costs and improve efficiency, says MiX Telematics Africa.

Silencing the guns and firearms amnesty

Silencing the guns and firearms amnesty

Gender-based violence is an affront to our humanity

Gender-based violence is an affront to our humanity

UK-Africa investment summit 2020: Think Africa Invest SA

UK-Africa investment summit 2020: Think Africa Invest SA

MTN unveils TikTok bundles

Customised MTN TikTok data bundles are available to all prepaid customers on *136*2#.

Marketers need to reinvent themselves

Marketing is an exciting discipline, offering the perfect fit for individuals who are equally interested in business, human dynamics and strategic thinking. But the...

Upskill yourself to land your dream job in 2020

If you received admission to an IIE Higher Certificate qualification, once you have graduated, you can articulate to an IIE Diploma and then IIE Bachelor's degree at IIE Rosebank College.

South Africans unsure of what to expect in 2020

Almost half (49%) of South Africans, 15 years and older, agree or strongly agree that they view 2020 with optimism.