Once the South African poet and freedom fighter Mzwakhe Mbuli seemed poised on the brink of a “world music” career. After cutting his first album in a truck and composing his second in solitary confinement, he had recorded and released Resistance Is Defence under the auspices of Trevor Herman, the white expat who along with fellow expat Jumbo Vanrenen conceived 1985’s The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, putting both Zulu-based mbaqanga and the Earthworks label on the map at a time when apartheid was a fortress and Afropop barely a rumor. Just a few years later, in 1992, with apartheid crumbling and Afropop attracting an intense cult in Europe and the U.S., Resistance Is Defence was a formal coup, commandeering the genteel professionalism symbolized by Paul Simon’s Graceland and Mbongeni Ngema’s Sarafina! in the service of a muscular groove with angry, sardonic words to match. It was a musical leap for a heroic wordsmith— an artist famous for rising up to recite at rallies and funerals, then taking off a few steps ahead of the police. But at that still uncertain political moment, it was also outspoken enough to make me wonder whether, if things deteriorated in South Africa, Mbuli would ever consider becoming an expat himself.
Fortunately, things didn’t deteriorate in South Africa, as far as any outsider could tell; soon Nelson Mandela was president. But Afropop faltered. As Celtic and Cuban became the hot “world music” trends, Earthworks switched distribution from major Virgin to indie Caroline to strictly African Stern’s, and a new Afroprofessionalism lite— sometimes folky, sometimes dancey, concentrating on artists no longer resident in Africa— was nurtured by boutique labels like Putumayo and Tinder. Concomitantly, Mbuli dropped from sight here— no records, no tours. But he remained very active musically in a democratic South Africa whose pop showed signs of the same kind of ferment that stirred postcolonial Africa and Jamaica in the ’60s.
Recorded for EMI, the music Mbuli has released since 1992— four albums, of which I’ve heard three— lacks the focus and power of Resistance Is Defence, as far as any outsider can tell. “I am no longer the same,” he swore sweetly on 1994’s Izigi (Footsteps), yet his songs of reconciliation rarely conveyed the personal necessity of his songs of condemnation, and his strongest recent release is the most controversial— 1996’s Kwazulu Natal, whose outrage at Zulu-on-Zulu crime gave rise to a press conference in which old ANC man (and half Zulu) Mbuli joined representatives of the reactionary Zulu Inkatha party in pleas for domestic peace. While not excluding critique, Mbuli’s EMI music often seems unnecessarily ingratiating, as if he was more comfortable artistically when apartheid was there to defy, and when there was no kwaito, the booming Mandela-era style whose reflexive materialism and functional pulse take off from American rap and European house. In 1997, he surprised his secular-political following with the religious-themed Umzwakhe Ubonga Ujehova, which although it doesn’t approach the vocal glory of Herman’s 1998 Gospel According to Earthworks compilation ended up one of Mbuli’s six gold albums, which in South Africa signifies sales of 25,000. If there hasn’t been a follow-up of some sort, it’s not because Mbuli’s career is foundering. It’s because in October 1997 he was put in prison on a charge of bank robbery, and he’s been there ever since.
Judging the merits of this charge will be difficult enough in the courtroom; from here, it’s impossible. Mbuli is a notoriously bigheaded troublemaker who gathered more than his share of enemies back when he manned the ANC’s cultural affairs desk, and many are skeptical of his claim that he was set up by apartheid-trained police and government officials whose drug and arms dealing he was about to expose. But some facts are undisputed. Mbuli definitely was the target of an unsolved murder attempt in 1996. Swaziland police have definitely reported that tips from Mbuli led to seizures of drugs. He definitely was arrested in possession of a bag— which some pro-Mbuli accounts inaccurately refer to as an “envelope”— containing currency just stolen from a nearby bank. (He was lured, he insists, by an anonymous phone call promising murder leads, supposedly delivered in that bag.) Strangely, the bank’s surveillance cameras were out of order the day of the crime, and no eyewitness at a June hearing could place Mbuli or his accused accomplices at the scene— even though the singer is a well-known and highly recognizable six-four. One of the arresting officers is now reported to have committed suicide. And most striking, this courageous artist and honored apartheid fighter, this culture hero who performed at Mandela’s inauguration, will definitely have been detained for almost 16 months without bail when and if his long-delayed trial begins January 26.
Despite the bag, and with all respect for some credible counsel to the contrary, I think it’s quite possible Mbuli was framed, and am convinced that without witnesses the prosecution case looks fatally flawed regardless. But even if there are no government officials conspiring against the man, even if working South Africans black as well as white now perceive armed robbery as a problem-not-symptom requiring draconian punishment, 16 months of detention without trial seems more like apartheid than uhuru to me. Maybe— maybe— Mbuli is making up the drug running he cites in the accompanying interview. But do you really think he’s making up the dog bites? Continuing economic brutality we could see coming. But we were naive enough to hope that the police state would wither away even so— and to believe that if democracy means anything, then the impossible balancing act the ANC government is stuck with deserves and in fact demands artistic scrutiny.
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.
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, firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.