The South African activist and former president Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) served 27 years in prison for revolting against the pro-apartheid government. Freed in 1990, and unceasingly dedicated to promoting racial equality, Mandela helped bring an end to apartheid and served as one of history’s most inspiring global human rights advocates.
His birthday, July 18, is celebrated internationally as Nelson Mandela Day, and in honor of the occasion, we explored Alexander Street’s music collections to find songs about or inspired by him. A quick search returned 52 results from an eclectic array of artists and styles of music, many that were unfamiliar to us.
Our curiosity was piqued.
So, we embarked on a research path that led us through complementary resources such as ProQuest Historical Newspapers, where we uncovered unique insights into the history of the anti-apartheid movement, were introduced to a version of the Congolese rumba, and received lessons in dancehall reggae.
Sure, we started out searching “Nelson Mandela” and ended up in a few unexpected places. Some people might call that “falling down the rabbit hole” or “being distracted.” We call it an adventure, and it’s what we love about research. Think of this blog post as travel notes from our research journey.
In the decades following Nelson Mandela’s arrest for anti-apartheid activism in 1962, he wasn’t well known outside of politically interested circles. Then a shift occurred in the early ‘80s. The African National Congress (ANC), the party with which Mandela was affiliated, remained committed to overthrowing the pro-apartheid South African government, and was counted as a “typical terrorist organization” by the likes of Margaret Thatcher, and other world leaders.
But around that same time, in 1984, the boisterous hit single, “Free Nelson Mandela” by the popular British ska group The Special AKA (previously known as The Specials), climbed to the top of the charts around the world. The song sparked awareness of institutionalized racism, as well as subsequent international outrage against such legislation, and the imprisonment of the anti-apartheid revolutionary.
“Free Nelson Mandela” became more than a pop music phenomenon – it became a campaign slogan for a movement. In a 2013 article about the relationship between Britain and Mandela, The Independent called “Free Nelson Mandela” “the political anthem of a generation.”
Soukous is a wildly popular African style of music derived from the Congolese rumba. One of the modern superstars of soukous is guitarist, singer and bandleader, Bozi Boziana. Some critics consider Boziana’s “highly-stylized” voice an acquired taste, but L.A.’s The Beat declared it “one of the most emotive and satisfying voices within the genre.”
Boziana’s energetic compositions are performed with his group, the Anti-Choc, which defies soukous male-centered tradition by including female singers and dancers. “The music of Anti-Choc is some of the most potent and addictive to emanate from Kinshasa [capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo],” according to The Beat.
The ensemble’s exuberant “Nelson Mandela” is a testament to this assessment, and is a rousing example of how nearly three decades after his release from prison, Mandela continued to inspire the spirit of revolution and hope throughout troubled regions in Africa.
Live At The Nelson Mandela Theatre (feat. Soweto Gospel Choir) [Streaming Audio]. (2008). Ster Musiek. (2008). Retrieved July 10, 2017, from Music Online: Listening
A white South African musician, Johnny Clegg performed in racially mixed bands in the 1970s and ‘80s – illegal under apartheid – and Clegg was arrested several times, starting as a teenager. The groups he played in struggled with harassment and censorship, but they found ways to keep making music, performing at private venues such as churches and private homes, and they managed to tour internationally.
In a Morning Edition interview, Clegg said “I am part of the generation that grew up never knowing Nelson Mandela. We were not allowed to see his likeness or mention him or carry a photograph. That would get you four years in jail.”
His song, "Asimbonanga," (which translates to “we have not seen him” in Zulu), was written in 1987, a response to increasingly violent unrest breaking out all around South Africa. He explained,
It started off really as a song about my feeling very down and hopeless. And then while I was writing I thought, well, who can actually cross these dirty waters? Who's person who can bridge you and me, every South African? And when it came down to it, it was Mandela. So I used his name. I thought this is what we really are looking for.
The lyrics, translated from Zulu, include: "We have not seen him / We have not seen our Mandela / in the place where he is kept / Oh, the sea is cold and the sky is gray / Look across the island into the bay / We are all islands till comes the day / we cross the burning water."
Dancehall reggae, “Jamaica’s homegrown equivalent (and probably precursor) of rap,” according to The New York Times, typically features performers (“toasters”) who “boast and flaunt sexual innuendos.” But the influential artist Macka B. stands apart.
He’s credited with bringing socially conscious lyrics back into the genre, taking on themes that include “politics, black pride, sexual equality and temperance, finding lessons in everything from soccer championships to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.”
His 1990 hit “Proud of Nelson Mandela,” celebrates the end of apartheid – but warily, as the work to promote a system of racial equality was just beginning: “we’ve come a long/way but we have a long way to go/because we all know that apartheid will not end tomorrow./we know that the rock is gonna be rocky/and the road might be slow,” but thanks to Mandela, Macka B “can see a little light, see a little light, see a little light at the end of the road.”
Nelson Mandela: Capetown Speech upon release from prison [Video file]. (1990). Educational Video Group. Retrieved July 6, 2017, from Academic Video Online
Nelson Mandela: Acceptance of Congressional Gold Medal [Video file]. (1998). Educational Video Group. Retrieved July 7, 2017, from Academic Video Online
ProQuest’s Literature Online database includes the full text version of Nelson Mandela’s 1978 biography, No Easy Walk to Freedom, as well as several poems inspired by him by such poets as Jayne Cortez, Lucille Clifton and Gwendolyn Brooks.
Additional insights and information about Nelson Mandela, apartheid and global human rights are available from Ebook Central, Black Historical Newspapers, Digital National Security Archive, History Study Center and ProQuest Congressional. You can also learn about more about resources from Alexander Street and ProQuest in Black History. Watch the webcast “How Does the Past Inform Today? Key Primary Source Collections for Research in Social Movements,” and request complimentary trials for your library.
Milmo, C. (2013, Dec 09). Icon or terrorist: Mandela's complex bond with britain. The Independent. pp. 8.
PARELES, J. (1991, Mar 25). Review/Music; setting agitprop poetry to the beat of current jazz. New York Times.
Sinnock, M. (1996) Bozi boziana: From zaiko to anti-choc. The Beat, 15, 32-33,81.
Why music played an important role in mandela's life (2013). Washington, D.C.: NPR.
Image: By Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science (Nelson Mandela, 2000 Uploaded by Fæ) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
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