This piece was written for the KCRW music documentary podcast Lost Notes. This season, the poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib explores a single year: 1980 - the brilliant, awkward and sometimes heartbreaking opening to a monumental decade in popular music. You can find all the episodes from Lost Notes: 1980 here. Support KCRW original programs like Lost Notes by donating or becoming a member.
In December of 1980, the jazz musician and activist Hugh Masekela was set to return to South Africa for the first time in twenty years. His friend Vic Moloi got him on the phone and told him it was time. It was time for him to return to the country his global liberation work had gotten him banned from.
Masekela left South Africa 20 years earlier. Shortly after the Sharpeville Massacre.
It happened on March 21st, 1960, in the South African township of Sharpeville, when a day of demonstrations against pass laws wore on. The pass laws were created to – among other things – segregate the population and allocate the labor of migrants. The laws most adversely impacted Black African citizens, who would have to carry passbooks when venturing beyond the borders of their homeland. Pass Laws were one of the defining features of South African Apartheid.
*To celebrate the release of Lost Notes Season 3, join KCRW for an epic conversation about the albums that made a forever stamp on 1980. At the virtual table will be Lost Notes S3 host Hanif Abdurraqib, KCRW DJs Anne Litt and Eric J. Lawrence, Music Journalist and Historian Dart Adams, and YOU. RSVP HERE!
On the day of the Sharpeville Massacre in March 1960, a group between 5,000 and 10,000 people descended on the local police station. The goal of the demonstration was to have a large number offer themselves up for arrest for not carrying their passbooks. But the Sharpeville police were prepared for the protesters. They’d been driving off smaller groups of activists the night before, and were ready for another group to arrive. By 10 p.m., the crowd had grown, outnumbering the handful of police officers who were present in the station. About 20,000 people eventually stood outside. The police called in reinforcements, carried in on armored vehicles. Around 150 police were outfitted with submachine guns and rifles to face the crowd, a crowd armed with nothing but the stones they’d carried in their pockets.
It was when the jets swung down out of the sky that things spun out of control. The F-86s swept within 100 feet of the protesters, attempting to scatter them. Feeling rightfully threatened, members of the crowd threw stones, and began rushing the police barricades. First, the police tried tear gas. Only a small number of the crowd fell back, while the rest continued to advance. When the police tried to beat the crowd back with their batons, they were quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number of protesters. It was then, at nearly 1 in the morning, that the firing began.
Sixty-nine people were killed. Some women, some children. One hundred-and-eighty were injured. Many people were paralyzed, shot in the back as they were attempting to flee from the storm of gunfire. The police reports would later say that it was young and inexperienced police officers who first began firing, and then others followed suit. They would say that police officers had been awake for 24 hours with no rest, on edge. A row of 69 graves sit as a memorial to the massacre. There is no excuse to make sense of what can happen when power feels threatened by the people. Everyday folks who decide they have had enough. There is nothing to be done with a power structure that entrenched in evil.
And it was on the back of that bloody reminder that Hugh Masekela left South Africa.
He was admitted into the Guildhall School of Music in London in 1960. That year, he also visited the United States and became close with Harry Belafonte, who encouraged him to move there. Masekela jumped at the opportunity, studying classical trumpet at the Manhattan School of Music until 1964.
But, before Sharpeville, and before he ventured to the United States, Masekela was a musician in the cast of the South African jazz opera King Kong. A musical that was performed to racially integrated audiences, and that was hailed for a stunning performance from its lead, the singer Miriam Makeba.
In 1959, while Masekela was playing to sold-out audiences in Cape Town as part of the Jazz Epistles, Makeba’s star was also rising. She had a short guest appearance in the anti-apartheid film “Come Back, Africa.” Makeba’s role in the film was brief: she sang two songs over the course of less than five minutes. The small cameo, however, stole the show. It was one of the most memorable scenes of the film – Makeba, a dress draping off of her shoulders, sitting in a circle with a group of singers. In the clip of her singing “Into Yam,” Makeba starts out somewhat timid, lightly swaying and catching the rhythm.
25 seconds into the song, she leans back a little, her voice reaching the heights that would become her signature. Clear, embracing, siren-like. By the 50 second mark of the video she is on her feet, and by the one minute mark she is swinging her arms, dancing and almost directing the band. The song and the performance accumulate in intensity, in rhythm. It is infectious and engaging. Watching it now, it is easy to understand how in just a few minutes, Makeba captured the attention of the world. She traveled to perform in New York and in London. In London, she met Harry Belafonte, who was eager to mentor her and help her with her solo records.
Belafonte helped Makeba with her move to the states, and helped her secure some early performances in New York while she worked as a babysitter on the side. Not long after the Sharpeville Massacre, around the time Hugh Masekela was leaving South Africa, Makeba attempted to return to South Africa. She learned that her South African passport had been revoked, and that two of her family members were murdered in the Massacre. Makeba addressed the UN on Apartheid in 1963.
“I ask you and all the leaders of the world, would you act differently, would you keep silent and do nothing if you were in our place? Would you not resist if you were allowed no rights in your own country because the color of your skin is different to that of the rulers, and if you were punished for even asking for equality. I appeal to you, and through you to all the countries of the world, to do everything you can to stop the coming tragedy. I appeal to you to save the lives of our leaders, to empty the prisons of all those who should never have been there.”
That speech escalated tensions between her and the South African government and led to her official designation as a banned person in the country.
Makeba felt like, as someone who made it out from under her country’s oppressive rule, she had a duty to make her work political. To sing to her new country about the suffering of her old country. In the early sixties, she found comfort and company in this work among the other African exiles who had made new homes in New York. Among them was a former stage co-star, who was studying music in the city.
Hugh Masekela and Mariam Makeba’s romantic union was far outlasted by their creative and political collaborations. They were only legally married between 1964 and 1966. But the two remained close. They were enduring a shared fight. One that only a few people around them could relate to. It must be an impossible weight to carry. Loving a country that cannot be returned to, and knowing that your people there are suffering, dying. There is undoubtedly a type of guilt, particularly for the exiles that had success in America, as Makeba and Masekela did. But there is also a sense of duty.
About a decade later, in June of 1976, a storm of police gunfire fell upon another crowd of South African protesters. That year, Masekela released the political concept album “Colonial Man,” recorded in Chicago and New York. By that point Makeba had long lost popularity in the states after her marriage to civil rights organizer Kwame Ture eight years prior. Conservatives saw her as an extremist. A militant, set out to destroy America. Her fanbase distanced themselves from her. Her performances were canceled or not covered by the press at all. The CIA began following her, placing hidden microphones in her apartments and hotel rooms. The FBI placed her under surveillance. She’d gone from a darling to a menace in just a few short years. How quickly that line can be crossed for Black people, for Black women. A country adores you until it hears the truth about itself from your mouth, from the mouths of people who look like you. By 1976, Makeba was living with Ture in Guinea. She was performing mostly in African countries, but never her own home country.
On a June morning in 1976, Black South African students in Soweto marched out of their classrooms in protest against the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974, which forced all black schools to use only the West Germanic language Afrikaans and English during instruction. Afrikaans was the language of South Africa’s Apartheid era. The language had its roots in the Dutch, who colonized the country in 1652. White Afrikaners were at the forefront of Black oppression during Apartheid, and the inserting of Afrikaans into the schools was seen as another attempt at creating hegemony and conformity among the country’s Black population.
Between 10,000 and 20,000 school students walked from their schools to a meeting point at Orlando Stadium for a rally. In a familiar scene, the crowd grew as more students caught word of the protest. On their route, students found that police had barricaded their marching path. Cautious to not provoke the police, the students took another route, taking them near Orlando High School. The march was peaceful, energetic, and focused. And then a police convoy arrived.
Though this fact is now being seen, through shaky camera phone footage or through the work of on-street reportage, police have historically known how to orchestrate violence. And have done so knowing that the orchestration of violence will serve them. Sometimes it is pepper spraying a peaceful, but growing crowd. Sometimes it is just their presence, showing up in riot gear, heavily armed in front of a small crowd, daring them to grow more enraged. In Soweto in 1976, it was a police dog, rushing into a crowd of thousands, attacking aimlessly. In defense, the students attacked and killed the dog. And then, in a familiar scene, police opened fire on the crowd.
This was the spark that set off the Soweto Uprising. The government claimed 23 students were killed during the police shootings, but over a thousand were injured. The violence during the uprising escalated rapidly. Beer halls and stores were targeted. Emergency rooms overflowed with bloodied children. Police demanded hospitals provide them a list of any victim with a bullet wound, so that those victims could be prosecuted for rioting. Doctors refused, instead listing all bullet wounds as abscesses. By June 17th, over 1,000 police officers were deployed to Soweto. They carried automatic rifles, stun guns. They hovered in the daytime, and patrolled under the cloak of darkness. Their presence was soundtracked by the hum of helicopters flying low over the area. A sound that reminded citizens what they’d be up against if they dared try anything. The South African Army was on standby. The ability to stand up to power, once again, had its limits.
“Soweto Blues” is pained and melancholic. Hugh Masekela composed the song and lyrics as a tribute to the martyrs of the Soweto Uprising. Miriam Makeba sang the song in 1977. The central question that runs through its chorus: Where were the men when the children were throwing stones. Where were the men when the children were being shot.
By the late 70s, Zulu businessman and jazz fan Vic Moloi had long been plotting. It was one thing, he thought, for Masekela and Makeba to be a voice of and for the people abroad. But they had to return home. Politically, things in South Africa only seemed to be getting worse. There was no “good” time to get the two to return. People in the country still bought the music of Masekela and Makeba. They still played their songs in the throes of joyous celebration, and in the throes of revolution.
Moloi had stayed in Masekela’s ear, with a plan. The pair couldn’t come to South Africa, but they could come to Lesotho – a landlocked kingdom within the border of South Africa. That border formed a complete loop around Lesotho, making it entirely encased by the country, but Lesotho was an entirely independent land. Through this complex geopolitical history, a perfect plan was formed. Moloi pitched a series of “Welcome Home” concerts for Masekela and Makeba. Stadium concerts in Lesotho, Botswana, and Swaziland. Masekela passed on the idea to Makeba, who was excited to join. They made plans for and arranged for both of their bands to join them on the journey. Makeba’s from her new home in Guinea, and Masekela’s band from New York. The pair arrived in Lesotho in December of 1980, to some bad news.
The governments in Botswana and Swaziland had caved to pressure and cancelled the shows. Only Lesotho, free to make its own rules, held firm. They insisted the show would go on. That people who had planned to come to the other concerts could come to Lesotho instead.
The call to gather in Lesotho was made boldly, but perhaps without preparation. On the day of the concert – December 28th, 1980, the borders of Lesotho were stormed by revelers not just from the country of South Africa, but from all along the Southern region of the continent. The crowd exceeded 75,000. At the time, places like Swaziland, Botswana, and Mozambique were offering safe haven to South Africans who had gone into exile to join liberation movements. Many young South Africans had self-exiled to join up with their fellow revolutionaries, and the apartheid regime retaliated with further raids, assassinations, and bombings. The excitement of the masses was, of course, in part due to the homecoming. A celebration of seeing two stars who had fought for the people coming back to be with the people. But it was also a celebration of freedom. Running beyond a border where the winds of liberation could be felt, even briefly. The concert was about more than the music – it was about upsetting the ever-present cloud of Apartheid. Upsetting a regime that restricted the movement of Black South Africans. When I hear talk, today, of people making space, I think about the practical implications of the term. Making space for whom, of course. But also, what are the tangible benefits of the space being made? What is the space in opposition to, and are the people who suffer under that opposition going to be able to benefit? When Swaziland and Botswana bowed to the Apartheid regime and cancelled the other shows, the Lesotho concert got to clearly provide an answer to each of those questions, whether it intended to or not.
Lesotho ran out of food, drink, and hotel space. People parked cars at the border and sat atop them, hoping to catch some sounds echoing out from the stadium. During the weekend, there were people who slept unbothered on the sidewalks, or who crammed themselves into the doorways of stores. There were emergency supplies sent in from nearby South African towns. The weekend itself was a celebration. A small fantasy of liberation peeled off from the decades of oppression. Oppression that, even during the concert itself, still hovered.
Masekela would say that from the elevated stage, he could clearly see past the border of South Africa. He played his songs with the pain of knowing that he couldn’t cross. That he couldn’t touch the entire life he’d left behind two decades ago. At the Maseru border control bridge between Lesotho and South Africa, Masekela hugged his father for the first time in twenty years. But, their meeting was brief. Neither of them were safe.
The magic of the weekend was, of course, the music. And the magic inside of the magic was what happened after the stadium show. There isn’t much footage of the music that took place inside of the stadium. There were restrictions on what could be recorded, and who could record. On top of this, there were technical problems that prevented any recording from being done. Not to be dismayed, Masekela and his band packed as many people as they could into a small room inside of their hotel.
The plan was to have an audience willing to recreate the sound and feel of an arena show. This was, of course, impossible. Not due to the sheer numbers, but also due to the fatigue that had set in on even the most excited concertgoers. Still, the makeshift theater was full, and overflowed into the hallways.
Intimacy allows much to be revealed. If you believe in live music or any live performance as an exchange, as I do, then intimacy is a currency. Even if it is contrived until it feels real. Anything that allows a performer to embrace the space they are given and fill the silences of it. The intimacy in this setting was real, however. Hugh Masekela had come back, within touching distance of a country that he was exiled from, but standing in front of people who saw this as a true homecoming, nonetheless.
A recording of the hotel concert was first released in 1981 and then re-released and remastered in December of 2019. On the recording, the track that most stands out is the final one. Nigerian saxophonist Orlando Julius performs “Bajabula Bonke (The Healing Song).” It was originally written for Masekela by Miriam Makeba, back when the pair were married. The performance spends its first two acts spinning slowly and whimsically over a lilting piano. And around the 6 and a half minute park, the percussion makes its way into the room. And then the horns introduce themselves. And then the piano picks up pace a little bit. Julius picks up intensity, moaning out the lyrics, reaching towards the ecstatic, the gospel, something higher or better than a listener might be able to understand on their own. To end with this song is a full-circle moment. “Soweto Blues” was written for Makeba by Masekela in the spirit of mourning. And here, a song written by Makeba for Masekela in the spirit of celebration, pulled out 15 years after it was first written, but just as potent. A song in praise of being home, among the people you’ve fought for from a distance. By the time the song’s final act kicks in, and the horn’s exhausted, piercing drone mocks closure, before jumping up to for a few more short bursts of sound, there is a small bit of audience applause. And then, our window into that night is done.
And, of course, it has to be said that the undercurrent of this story, this legacy, is one of defiance. The Apartheid government could have surely crossed the border and killed concertgoers. Police could have aimed their guns into the crowd, as they’d done before. But there is something to be said about defiance in numbers. In a number large enough, and in a place safe enough to threaten power. To become the threat yourselves. To become so large that, if only for a couple of days, the long arm of power won’t dare touch you.
Masekela and Makeba’s homecoming in 1980 didn’t mean they were coming to the home they’d known before they left it. That home wouldn’t have them, no matter their ache to return to it. The homecoming concert was a way of two exiled artists and freedom fighters returning to make a new home within new borders, even as temporary as it was. To tell their people, come to where we are. And for a weekend, this will be our new country.