Hugh Masekela, trumpeter, bandleader, composer, lyricist and freedom fighter, died on 23 January 2018. This article is extracted from the obituary by Horace Campbell, originally published by Counterpunch.
Hugh Masekela’s autobiography Still Grazing: The Musical Journey provides a clear statement of his internationalism and his commitment to the rights of oppressed peoples whether in Watts, California 1965, in Nigeria with Feli Ransome Kuti or in the jazz centers of the world with greats such as Dizzy Gillespie . It was the struggles of the working poor that fired him up and the song ‘Stimela’ that was released in 1994 remains one of the better tributes to the solidarity of mine workers all over Southern Africa. In a period when the chauvinism of the current political leaders of government in South Africa rendered them silent on the xenophobia that has swept the society, Masekela used this song at numerous concerts and performances to remind the working peoples that the tasks of emancipation were incomplete.
During the era of apartheid repression and collaboration between the US government and the racist regime in South Africa, Masekela remained in the vanguard of the movement and made numerous songs to defy the barbarism of racist capitalism. When the South African government had launched its Total Strategy to destroy the liberation movements, Masekela released the song “Bring Him Back Home”. In the period of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the racists had decided that Nelson Mandela would die in jail and that the liberation movements would be crushed. The song calling for the release of Mandela pushed forward the sanctions campaign and the Free Mandela campaigns at a crucial moment in the history of the anti-apartheid struggles.
By 1989 after the military defeat of the South African armed forces at Cuito Cuanavale, Masekela relocated to South Africa in 1990 and immersed himself into the lively jazz scene that had sustained the spirits of the peoples all through the terrorism of apartheid. As a member and strong supporter of the Cultural Reclamation Forum, a group of progressive literary, visual and musical artists and cultural workers based in Johannesburg, Masekela’s voice gave guidance and inspiration to many discussions and specific programs held to provide focus during the turbulent period of new state construction.
The sentiments and ideas of freedom that he promoted were on full display when Masekela acted as a node for the progressive artists and musicians who had come forward for the African Union concert held at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg on 9th July, 2002, The cultural artists brought the songs of peace before a large audience (live and via radio, television and internet). A group going by the name of Joyous Celebration brought together the voices of all races in South Africa to provide inspirational music for the ongoing struggles to transcend the heritage of apartheid in South Africa and by extension, global apartheid. The artist Lagbaja from Nigeria echoed the cries for peace and justice. Performing in a mask, this artist declared that his face would not be shown in a performance until all of the ordinary workers in Africa have justice. In the Yoruba language (Nigeria), Lagbaja means variously somebody, anybody, everybody and nobody in particular. It is a specific reference to the loss of identity of African peoples and Lagbaja sang on behalf of the faceless Africans in all parts of the world.
Another singer, Letta Mbulu, brought out the songs of peace and love of African women. Functioning as a cultural artist and as the UNICEF representative in Southern Africa she served a representative for peace and unity and seeks to mobilize oppressed women as the powerful forces of peace. Oliver Mtukudzi, the Zimbabwean singer, is a musician and lyricist singing songs of liberation since 1977. Fifteen years ago he worked with Masekela as cultural artists opposing the brutality and repression of the Zimbabwean government. In his rendition of the song, “What are we going to do?,” one African activist noted that this call was the twenty first century rendition of Lenin’s, What is to be Done?
The power of this call for new politics and new mobilization was reflected in the reality that the cultural artists were using all of the communications media of the twenty first century to speak in all of the languages calling for peace. While singing in Shona and Ndebele (languages of Zimbabwe), Tuku (as Mtukudzi is called) was communicating to the young and the old and asserting the claim that the cultural artists was offering a different kind of leadership.
This message was underlined by the anchor of the evening – Hugh Masekela. It was in this setting that Masekela brought together his tremendous international experience as trumpeter, bandleader, composer and lyricist. On this occasion, Masekela understood that he was now reaching another generation different from the era of John Coltrane and Janis Joplin. He did not disappoint.
At the launch of the African Union Masakela was at the forefront of composing the theme song for this continental representative organization. The song that underlined the depth of the feeling of the mass of the people of Africa was the song entitled, “Everything Must Change.” This was a song calling on all of the old leaders such as Eyadema of Togo, Moi of Kenya and Mugabe of Zimbabwe to step down. Masekela drew attention to the destructiveness of the militarists such as Jonas Savimbi and the militarists in Liberia and called on the African youths to struggle for peace.
The songs “Change” and “Stimela” sent a clear message to leaders such as Thabo Mbeki who had become an apologist for ‘nationalists’ such as Mugabe. Whether it was in Ghana, New York or Johannesburg, freedom lovers will this week join in the celebration of the contribution of Hugh Masekela
Rest well freedom fighter your music will continue to inspire those who have never surrendered.
RIP Hugh Masekela (4 April 1939 – 23 January 2018). The full obituary by Horace Campbell is available on Counterpunch…