South African Dispatch

Music Features

During the Apartheid years, I remember watching a black guitarist play with a white band dressed in overalls. He had a bucket and mop standing near his amplifier—strict laws prevented musicians of different ethnic backgrounds from playing together, and if the police had raided the venue he would have simply put down the guitar, picked up the mop and started cleaning the floor. So it’s deeply ironic that more than a decade after South Africa’s titanic and painful transition from cruel totalitarianism to democracy, the country’s music scene is as fragmented and directionless as ever.

Sure, musicians are now free to play to whatever audience they choose. Local radio stations play more local music, and South Africa’s far-reaching constitution allows
musicians freedom of speech. But the nation’s music industry is still desperately trying to find its identity and place within the global scene.

Despite claims to the contrary, the Apartheid State did not face broad-based resistance from the music industry. Very few South African musicians raised their voices against the State, and those who did were quickly and severely dealt with. Politics instead found their way into songs sung at work, funerals or in church. Even today, artists are discouraged from creating work that reflects on the country’s recent past. National Reconciliation has played a huge part in healing the pain and injustices of the past, but at the same time it has allowed certain questionable aspects of South African society to remain unchanged and unchallenged. Producers call it “struggle fatigue” and claim, perhaps correctly, that South Africans are more interested in the future. Others point out that it’s only those who did nothing to change the previous regime who suffer from struggle fatigue.

With 11 official languages and a population just shy of 50 million, South Africa is divided among cultural and ethnic lines—each with its own important musical traditions. But the music business has always emulated the American and British industries, often to the point where South African music sounds no different from pop in England or the U.S. These outside influences have had an adverse impact on local subcultures. Where crime is out of control, kwaito—a fairly recent genre that borrows from hip-hop—often glorifies the “gangsta life.” In a country with one of the highest per-capita rates of HIV, its American-influenced R&B stars sing about very little apart from sex. The country also has an abnormally high rate of violence against women and children, and yet one regularly hears punk songs that are blatantly misogynistic.

Because of language barriers, Afrikaans music has little hope of finding a market outside the country, so young Afrikaans musicians have looked inside themselves to keep their culture alive. The result is a vibrant, challenging culture dominated by an explosion of young artists seeking a new way of co-existing in the new South Africa. Even with the limited support of mass media, Afrikaans music is in a much healthier state than its English-speaking counterpart, which still looks to England and the U.S. for guidance.

Many musicians have realized that there is a career to be had outside of the established music industry, and while it’s a difficult path to pursue, the number of independent music festivals and venues in the country attests to a vibrant alternative-music business. But young progressive musicians, especially those who have something to say about contemporary South African society, have little chance of making it onto the airwaves.

Diversity is at the root of South Africa’s potential greatness, but its diversity in the past also fanned the flames of internecine strife and violence that almost brought the country to its knees. For the artists in the country to develop, there must be an end to the dominance of the bland, homogenized multinational music industry and the South African radio stations that follow along. As one wag recently said, “The only problem with the new South Africa, is that it is full of old South Africans.”

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