Members of Iphupho L’ka Biko and The Brother Moves On were in Soweto facilitating a week-long workshop about past and present iterations of protest during a Morris Isaacson Centre for Music’s after-school programme during the last week of June, which also happened to be the last week before the third wave of Covid-19 infections led to travel restrictions in and out of Gauteng during the better part of July.
The Soweto Theatre-assisted Youth Month programme culminated in a special Friday evening performance comprising songs composed during the week.
According to The Brother’s Siya Mthembu, who was tasked with co-ordinating the talent who delivered the sessions, the students were initially apprehensive when the concept of public protest was introduced to them. They questioned why public goods had to bear the brunt of people’s ire, and practically dismissed that approach as a barbaric act.
The chord struck when the students realised, through the intervention of the theatre-trained facilitators, that a state built on anti-poor, anti-black foundations will always have an excuse to exact maximum force on its citizens for demanding the bare minimum. Peaceful or chaotic, the same tactics used by the state to silence what the students deem barbaric acts, would be employed on them with little regard for the form of protest they chose. This happened in 2015 and 2016 when institutions of higher learning turned into militarised zones in response to students’ demands for a free education and a decolonised curriculum, accessible to everyone, across all spheres of learning.
Disenfranchised black and brown people across the Global South know all too well the feeling: of despair, of helplessness, of ultimate forced surrender in the face of global white supremacy. It’s this feeling that gets weaponised to keep us in mental cages, and to keep our voices in check. The workshops were essential because they emboldened the kids to trust their voices, and never to falter in the face of authoritarianism.
As multidisciplinary artist Pulane Mafatshe, herself a member of Iphupho, put it: “It’s absolutely necessary for us to teach young, black people struggle songs because the nature of the world that we live in advocates for white as right. So whether or not they like it, they will interact with the reality of what it means to play against, or with, Whiteness. It’s as though we’re equipping them for that moment when it dawns on them that actually, the black condition is this way.”
Mafatshe sees struggle songs as a personal repository in the toolbox of techniques to help us navigate countless instances of violence, and to stand upright and be militant in the face of white supremacist ideals.
“Space carries memories, and to be in this particular space that holds this particular history makes the exchange, even in terms of energy, become fluid and easy. In 1976 at this time, this place was a death hub. In 2021, at the same time, it’s a place where creativity is bursting at the seams.”
Two weeks before that workshop, Sakumzi Qumana of the band Johnny Cradle decamped to the countryside to film a live-streamed show for his new project, Q. He was accompanied by bassist Khanyisile Kubheka and trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana, both of whom added dynamism to the already potent funk of his roots-fied productions. Q presented songs from his debut album under his new name, titled Everything Here Is True, together with some songs from a yet-to-be-announced project.
“For someone that doesn’t do music about romance and intimate feelings about relationships all these years, I went and did an entire album about love,” he says in a film, also forthcoming, meant to accompany the project.
These “intimate feelings” — the feelings of having love lost, of having lost close ones, of finding love and embracing it — are explored on songs like Ndifile, a mid-tempo chord festival with an infectious bounce, in which he assures his lover: “You know I’ve been with many a girl, but none like you/ I’ve been around and curved many a turns, straight back to you”; and on Fire Burn for Love, in which he expresses a longing for better days, declaring: “There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do for love.”
We don’t normally think of love songs as protest music, but that’s exactly what love is: an act of protest. Be it romantic love, standing alone and unrequited, distant and resistant in a corner; love for oneself, upright and militant in its stance, centring itself; or love for community, embracing, comforting and delightful in its approach — love is a principled act that requires both steadfast grounding and a radical selflessness that is out of step with the norm.
Among the unreleased songs Q performed was one titled Gangsta Regime. It’s militant as all hell. It shatters the ceiling and bends the ground. It marches on foot and rearranges elemental sounds. It is roots reggae played by a hip-hop head with a predilection for ’90s rap classics, particularly of the gangsta rap variety.
This is chant-down-Babylon, burn-the-fuckin-house-down music. “Thina sithi hayibo!” is the refrain, repeated as protest against the ridiculous conditions Africans throughout the continent have to endure daily. “Looting since ’94, it’s time that we comment/ sithi hayibo!” goes one of the lyrics. No second guessing in whose direction those warning shots are being fired.
Q is fiery on the song. He’s unapologetic as he charges at onlookers and marches with the marchers; “We know that they are fronting/ they will do anything for what they’re wanting/ they claim the people are the ruler, but they run ting/ […]/ killing people daily, you don’t care.”
Gangsta Regime is one gun, one bullet, rebel music. The bassline rumbles at a righteously low frequency, and the reggae beat gallops perfectly in its digital stride, guarded by fiery, apocalyptic-sounding horns — a sign and a reflection of the times — and infused with the phattest vintage Moog sounds around.
Existence, especially as a black or brown person, a person without institutional power, is protest, as Pulane pointed out earlier. Protest doesn’t always have to be mournful, but it almost always has to be radical, and radically inclusive.
Toyi-toyi is protest. Love is protest. Getting your whistle out to re-energise revellers mid-groove is protest. Protest music and protest culture is part and parcel of being black, and of being human.
It matters not what texture or format the protest takes on. So an artist like Nozuko Mapoma, known professionally as Zu, of Zuko Collective, can make a song like The People to signal solidarity with the Fallists (“We’ve got to fight for the right to be Brown and Beautiful/ only because we’ve forgotten that united we’re so powerful”), and also make an amapiano song like Camagu in solidarity with lovers of groove and nice times on the dancefloor. Both songs are valid.
While Durban was burning, and while taxi drivers were on a murder spree in Cape Town, The Brother Moves On were in Jozi finalising their latest release, You Think You Know Me. The outfit reworked a Mongezi Feza classic, You Ain’t Gonna Know Me Because You Think You Know Me, to echo every Mzansi citizen’s thoughts and fears over the past 18 months or so of different lockdown levels; of an uncaring government with its pompous branches of governance; of heartless ministers who are nonresponsive to the needs of citizens while siphoning millions of sector funds meant for the poor — in a fuckin’ pandemic, nogal!; and of a rampant, unceasing grief that has already taken away lifetimes from us, collectively.
A Mthunzi Mvubu arrangement, You Think You Know Me is a gatvol soliloquy against all of the bullshit. Siya Mthembu, unapologetic, riffs the toughest lyrical mantras this side of black and beautiful. The weight of the words multiplies when he spits: “Eish, I hate Covid yazi?/ Social distancing/ PPE tendering/ yoh, lento iziphethe.” The whole song is a full of “fuck yous” to the state, the proverbial throwing of shit against oppressive policies, and a literal dig at the ridiculing and disarming sense of defeat from it all.
Calltime is about 3pm for the Friday show at Soweto Theatre. I arrive to find all the musicians doing final run throughs on stage before showtime, listed as 6.30pm on the programme. The hip Morris Isaacson kids form a wall of sound at the back, their different-timbred voices rapturing across the hallways and acting as directions to the main auditorium.
Basithathaphi isibindi esingaka, soku that’ iAfrika, bayenze eyabo is the song they’re singing. It is vibrant and celebratory in that way that outwardly betrays the intention behind its lyrics. The cut is arranged to the music of bra Herbie Tsoaeli’s Asiyibambeni Sonke from the African Time album. The combos are communicating, and generations are cavving each other.
The show begins promptly at 7pm.
“Ladies and gentlemen, manene namanenekazi, welcome to the first of three days of the celebration of Youth Day. Tonight, we have a presentation entitled Umzabalazo Music, presented to you by Iphupho L’ka Biko and the Morris Isaacson Centre for Music,” booms Mthembu’s voice from the speakers.
The red curtains rise to reveal Iphupho’s founder and composer Nhlanhla Ngqaqu burning imphepho while the 12-piece band and 30-member choir patiently await, their silhouettes immersed in indigo blue. As soon as that is done, vocalist Koketso Poho’s gravelly voice issues a resounding war cry, wholly reminiscent of the 2015 and 2016 years.
“Jiyo, jiyo, jiyo mama jiyo, jiyo ihlangene, jiyo jiyo.”
The response is equally spirited; the energy levels are at their peak even before a single note is struck on the instruments. One cannot help but think of koli-ea-malla, songs sung during the funeral wake; and lipina tsa litsamaea-naha, songs sung by mineworkers during distant sojourns on the road.
A teardrop is imminent.
The music is rendered so perfectly, so elegantly and so freely. Poems are recited; ukusina turns into toyi-toyi, breakdancing and into pantsula; ululations ricochet down the theatre’s hallow hallways; soprano Miseka Gaqa’s ancestral riddles open up portals; Moses Molelekwa gets a shoutout in the form of song — it’s a celebration!
The socially distanced audience’s assured responses are the pandemic-era giveaway that seals the joy.
Nhlanlha’s words from earlier in the week neatly sum up the purpose of the performance: “There’s a particular impact that ingoma [has] in our lives in terms of spirituality; in terms of when you’re in good times and in bad times. That’s another side to this workshop: To show these kids how important song is in life.”
Protest music is spirit music, is a spiritual experience.