Songs in revolution

Members of shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo are using choral hymns to share their daily reality of struggle and indignity with the world.

It is not enough to write a revolutionary hymn to be part of the African revolution, one has to join with the people to make this revolution. Make it with the people and the hymns will automatically follow – Sékou Touré, first president of Guinea.

In The Wretched of the Earth, the philosopher and revolutionary psychiatrist Frantz Fanon asks an important question in his chapter on National Culture. “What is the relationship between the struggle, the political or armed conflict, and culture?” he asks. Put differently, what is the role of music in the context of political instability and uncertainty?

Fanon posed this question in the context of the Algerian Revolution and while South Africa’s current political realities are different to those of that revolution, state-sanctioned violence cuts across cartographies and finds new expression in our contemporary political order.

That being said, it is important to analyse the links between music and the societies that produce it. Within this, it becomes critical to consider the embattled forms of creativity that emerge within those contexts, especially as struggle songs have historically been used as a cultural tool in elite politics.

When a sea of Abahlali baseMjondolo members dressed in red shirts sang Asinamali at their Unfreedom Day rally on 28 April, they were not only invoking a struggle song borne out of the collective resistance to apartheid but drawing attention to their very real and lived contemporary experiences.

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As was indicated in the shack dwellers’ movement’s press release and later reiterated by Abahlali activist and leader S’bu Zikode: “Abahlali have no reason to celebrate this so-called ‘freedom’ while we live in indignity. We have no reason to celebrate ‘freedom’ while we have no land. We have no reason to celebrate ‘freedom’ when we have no jobs, or jobs that keep us exploited and poor. We have no reason to celebrate ‘freedom’ when many of us remain without safe and dignified homes, and continually at the mercy of evictions, fires and floods in our shacks.”

28 April 2019: The Abahlali baseMjondolo Choir, ranging in age from 23 to 51, entertained the 5 000-strong crowd.
28 April 2019: The Abahlali baseMjondolo Choir, ranging in age from 23 to 51, entertained the 5 000-strong crowd.

Songs of resistance and dignity

For the members of Abahlali, music has a dual function as a form of entertainment and as a social and cultural practice. Choral hymns and struggle songs express the sociopolitical situations in which people find themselves. This is why they were able to position older anti-apartheid songs of struggle alongside new choral hymns that highlight their experiences as poor disenfranchised people in a democratically “free” South Africa.

The Abahlali choir along with the Abahlali Women Choral Society not only pulled material from the 13-song collection on their 2018 debut album, Abahlali baseMjondolo: Choral Music in Post-Marikana South Africa, to entertain the 5 000-strong crowd, but also told relatively newer stories about the kind of solidarity and community they experienced and showed to one another in the wake of the floods in Durban just days earlier.

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Dressed all in black and wearing brightly beaded Zulu jewellery, the group of choristers between the ages of 23 and 51 sang with quiet reverence about the pitter-patter of rain that later grew into the floods that displaced friends and comrades in the movement.

Choir master Thandi Ngcobo, 39, told New Frame that her interest in choral music was established as a young woman. “Choral singers sang with such respect and dignity. It was in the essence of their demeanour. This is why it is important to use this genre to tell our own stories and our attempts to struggle against the indignity that comes with homelessness and poverty.

“In the resistance context, songs are an expression of what Germans call zeitgeist: the sum of thoughts, attitudes, striving, drive and living forces of the people, expressing themselves on given causes and effects in a definite course of events,” writes Kenyan scholar Musambayi Katumanga.

Songs of resistance and struggle not only operate as a sonic archive and a site for public memory, but also as the medium through which members of collective struggle can rehearse fragments of the past and hold them up to the present through the ebb and flow of their melodies and the clear lyricism of the songs.

As journalist Sisanda Mcemili Nkoala says, “Struggle songs work because one finds historical events recorded passionately rather than with dispassionate objectivity, yet the passion is not so much of an individual singer’s personal response but rather that of a collective interpretation of events from a particular ‘committed’ standpoint.”

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