South African singer Miriam Makeba and musician Hugh Masekela.Photo by Gallo Images / Sunday Times.
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.
Hugh Masekela performing at SOBs NYC, July 9th, 1998. Photo by David Corio.
Masekela left South Africa 20 years earlier. Shortly after the Sharpeville Massacre.
It happened on March 21 st , 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.
This story, and the whole Lost Notes 1980 series was written and performed by Hanif Abdurraqib. The senior producer for Lost Notes is Myke Dodge Weiskopf. The show’s creator and executive producer is Nick White. He also edited this piece. KCRW’s USC-Luminary fellow is Victoria Alejandro, and she provided production support for this series. Special thanks to the folks at the record label Matsuli Music for helping us out with photo permissions. The entire reissue of “Live In Lesotho” is available from Matsuli on Bandcamp.