Not Yet Uhuru

Mzwakhe Mbuli in Mandela's South Africa

Not that such scrutiny is in any sort of vogue at the moment— in Jamaica it took a decade, and every case is different anyway. Nor is it surprising that after generations of struggle most South Africans would just as soon not encounter it in a popular music that has always made lifting spirits its first priority. I very much doubt Mbuli's enemies, such as they are, fear his art per se. Yet oddly, or perhaps not, he's unique among South African popular musicians of his stature in his refusal to let up on the scrutiny.

Right, Mbuli swore he was no longer the same— but a born troublemaker usually remains one. And right, SA pop is in postcolonial ferment— but SA pop is pop indeed. The roots styles Earthworks and others showcase have always been rather longer on guts than the likes of Brenda Fassie, Mango Groove, and the generic reggae superstar Lucky Dube, and for many reasons— most prominently the market for escape and the strictures of apartheid radio— political content has been rare. Kwaito prizes street smarts and the usual hip hop posturing and speaks to a youth for whom antiapartheid politicization already seems like history. So when Mbuli spells out "G— for Joy/U— for Youth/N— for Knowledge/S— for Psychology" or ponders the "Freedom Puzzle" ("To the bosses and farmers the meaning is different/To the rich and poor the meaning is different/ . . . To Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola the meaning is different") or praises "the only continent in the world shaped like a question mark," he's performing useful work no matter how bigheaded he may be. And if he beats this rap, I like to think that he'll emerge revitalized, even lionized— that the South Africans who care so much more about him than any theoretical "world music" audience will listen even harder and care even more.

I also like to think that nobody will try to murder him again.

Mzwakhe Mbuli performed at Nelson Mandela's inauguration. For the last 16 months, he's been in jail without trial, accused of bank robbery.
Mzwakhe Mbuli performed at Nelson Mandela's inauguration. For the last 16 months, he's been in jail without trial, accused of bank robbery.

The head of Mbuli's support campaign is Gill Lloyd, Artsadmin in London,Toynbee Studios, 28 Commercial Street, London E16LS, 44-171-247-5102, 44-171-247-5103 fax. A U.S.-based letter-writing campaign has beenorganized by Dorothy Flynn, P.O. Box 390058, Cambridge MA 02139, 781-440-9248, mzwakhe4u@aol.com. A best-of including what Herman describes as three new "prison" tracks will be released by South African EMI to coincide with the trial. It will be available, like all of Mbuli's albums, from Stern's, 71 Warren Street, NYC 10007.

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