Much has been said about the Afrikan’s love for song and rhythm. During the days of slavery, the slave master thought of the slaves’ singing as a sign that they were happy and content with their lot. A DJ on a national radio station was even flippant enough to say that it was the slaves’ singing that made their condition bearable! Sure, the burdens and pleasures of life and work were shared through music. Afrikan people sing irrespective of the emotional state they are in. However, there was much more to the slaves’ singing than contentment or making light of their condition: communications among the slaves were generally made by singing. When they made escapes from the slave master’s plantocracy, they sang as they went along country roads, and the chorus was taken up by others, and the uninitiated (the slave master and house slave) knew not the meaning of the words. When de chariot comes; I’m gwine lebe you; I’m bound for the promised land; I’m gwine lebe you, the song would go. These words of course meant something more than a journey to the heavenly Canaan of the bible. They spoke of freedom from slavery.
When Harriet Tubman was making her way out of the plantation yard where she was kept as a slave, she met her master just as he was coming in. And she sang; I’m sorry I’m gwine to lebe you; farewell, oh farewell; but I’ll meet you in the mornin’; farewell, oh farewell; I’ll meet you in the mornin’; I’m bound for the promised land; on the other side of the Jordan; Bound for the promised land. The meaning was of course lost to the slave master as he dismissed her as just another happy slave! Makes you wonder who was the cleverer and who the stupid and uncivilized one was, doesn’t it?
As an activist, Harriet Tubman is credited with having single-handedly led many slaves to freedom. At one time she left her party in the woods and went to procure food for them because they were famished. After nightfall, the sound of a hymn sung at a distance came upon the ears of the concealed and starved fugitives in the woods, and they knew that their deliverer was at hand. They listened eagerly for the words she sang, for by them they were to be warned of danger, or informed of safety.
Nearer and nearer came the unseen singer and the words were wafted to their ears: Hail, oh hail ye happy spirits; death no more shall make you fear; no grief nor sorrow, pain nor anger (anguish); shall no more distress you there; around Him are thousan’ angels; always ready to ‘bey comman’; dey always hobering around you; till you reach the hebbenly lan; Jesus, Jesus will go wid you; He will lead you to this throne; He who died has gone before you; trod de wine-press all alone. He whose thunder shake creation; He who bids the planets roll; He who rides upon the temple (tempest); an’ his scepter sways de whole. Dark and thorny is de desert; through de pilgrim makes his ways; yet beyon’ dis veil of sorrow; lies de fiels of endless days.
The first time she sang the hymn, they did not come out to her. And when she sang she sang it again, they came out. But if she had sung: Moses go down in Egypt; til de Pharaoh let me go; hadn’t been Adam’s fall; shouldn’t but died at all, then they wouldn’t come out for there’d be danger on the way. It will be noted that the songs were not sung in “proper” English. This also has to be understood in the context of the struggle against cultural imperialism and mental slavery, i.e. refusing to assimilate to the slave master’s culture by speaking his language.
As can be seen from the afore-going, there’s more to Afrikans and their singing than just the “alleviation” of hardship through song. This is our kind of music in Afrika; we spread our messages through music; come on let’s get together now, roared the “lion”, Mahlathini in his rendition of the song Gazelle, originally done by Obed Ngobeni.
In times of battle, songs were a characteristic feature of the marches to the field of battle. The songs brought reassurance to those who were scared, spurred on those who were weary and highlighted the determination of the troops/warriors to secure a victory for their king. Any suffering our people experienced was made much more real by song and rhythm. And the aggrieved derived sustenance out of the feeling of togetherness as songs sung by Afrikans are in most instances group songs. Afrikans, it should be remembered are associational by nature. We do not say; I am rich therefore I am. We say; I am because we are!
During the struggle for liberation, music played a crucial role in giving the dispossessed, oppressed and exploited the spirit of courage to overcome. Examples of these include, Chimurenga music in neighbouring Zimbabwe; amagwijo omzabalazo in Azania/South Afrika, etc. Therefore to understand change in an Afrikan, one has to listen to the sound of his/her story told through song and rhythm. Our songs are repositories of our historical and cultural heritage.
Without doubt, the quest for liberation for our people and continent is not by any means over. And songs such as Letta Mbulu’s Not Yet Uhuru; Sipho Mchunu’s Umhlaba uzobuya are as relevant as when they were first released in 90s. Even the martyrs of Marikana met with their death while marching to song as they demanded a piece of the “rainbow” nation pie. The songs will continue to speak about the battles we face today such as greed, corruption, looking out for one-self, etc. They will remain potent and their tale will continue to be told by generations to come.