28 August 2014

South Africa: Tune Me What - Strangers On a Train

opinion

This week's episode began with a story about Leon meeting a random South African on the train into work after they recognised each other's accents. The odds are small that a former bass player for Durban band Arapaho would meet a co-host of Tune Me What on an early morning commuter train out of San Diego, but stranger things do happen.

In true Hitchcockian style, crimes were traded. Tune Me What agreed to play an Arapaho track (risking the wrath of Matthew van der Want) and the bassist agreed to wear white after Labour Day. This last part may or may not be true.

But inadvertently, this light-hearted show threw up a very serious issue.

While the episode was uploading to our server last Friday lunchtime, a friend of ours posted a link to article on a Facebook group he manages about South African music and censorship.

The article was from the Mail & Guardian and headlined: 'Anti-Indian lyrics sow seeds of hatred'. But it was the sub-headline that caught our attention: The ANC has distanced itself from rap group AmaCde's 'Umhlab' Uzobuya', which takes up where Mbongeni Ngema's song 'AmaNdiya' left off.

Mbongeni Ngema, the celebrated lyricist and musician behind the musical Sarafina!, was being labelled a racist? Well, it turns out - and we're not sure how this escaped our notice - that Ngema has the dishonourable distinction of being the first artist to have a record banned for broadcast in post-Apartheid South Africa.

Unfortunately, our latest show praises him and plays out on his tune 'Stimela Sase Zola', but it was too late to do anything about that. This particular song is innocuous and uncontroversial, but we do feel uncomfortable playing artists who have written tracks that led the South African Human Rights Commission to say:

"Objectively judged the song amounts to hate speech, in spite of the reconciliatory introduction of the writer. The song itself does not convey the same message... . [It] promoted hate in sweeping, emotive language against Indians as a race and incited fear among Indians for their safety."

And, frankly, when his reply to the charge used paranoid language normally associated with racist lunatics like the late Eugene Terra'Blanche, our eyebrows could not raise any higher:

"By their [the commission's] action he feels that they have declared war against the African race."

What?! But this was all more than a decade ago, so it is hugely troubling that songs with this sort of theme are re-emerging and finding an audience.

A global campaign against so-called 'Murder Music' from Jamaica has been hugely damaging to that country's music industry and export potential. It would be an enormous pity if music inciting hatred and violence grew roots in South Africa.

Quite apart from the country's racially-charged history, there remains fertile ground for this. In the past few years there have been several very unpleasant instances of violent xenophobia rising.

Now, we don't see our role as presenters of a music programme to be censorious gatekeepers, vetting every artist for transgressions against political correctness.

As our previous 'crime' episode shows, musicians are just human beings as prone to saying and doing stupid things from time to time as anyone else. But a line has to be drawn somewhere, and for us, inciting hatred and violence against people on the basis of their race, creed, colour, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or other similar status is simply not acceptable.

Until such time as he offers a fulsome and convincing apology, we shan't be playing any more Mbongeni Ngema, and we certainly won't knowingly play anything by the likes of AmaCde.

To groups like AmaCde, we say to you: Put your talent to something positive. Don't waste it on stirring up hatred and violence. It might earn you short-term notoriety, but - apart from being immoral - it is a dead end both artistically and commercially. Just look at the tattered careers of Jamaican artists like Buju Banton and Beenie Man who could have been global stars, but instead face closed doors.

Anyhow, after reading about this very serious and depressing issue, what could be a better pick-me-up than another fun-filled episode of Tune Me What?!?

Tune Me What? is a podcast and blog by Brett Lock and Leon Lazarus that highlights South African music and artists at home and around the world. For more information, visit tunemewhat.com or facebook.com/TuneMeWhat.

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