In 1990, the year of Nelson Mandela's release from Robben Island, I was a great enthusiast of world music. Specifically, the sounds of southern Africa captivated me, the rhythms of that particular, different drummer. I could not get enough of the jazz group Sakhile; the political pop of Johnny Clegg and his bands Juluka (Zulu for "the sweat that comes from dancing") and Savuka; the upbeat sound of recording artists from the townships; the wailing brass and rumbling vocals of Hugh Masakela. With apartheid still in place, a symbol of global racism, South Africa's musical exports carried a cry for freedom, no matter the genre nor the lyrics.
And then, Mandela was coming to Boston. Imagine my astonishment to learn that at a rally on the Esplanade I would have a chance not only to hear a great leader speak but also to hear some of my favorite musicians perform. Of course, I went.
The music was great, and Mandela's appearance on stage---a kind of rock star, too---brought tears to my eyes. I felt connected, glad to be with Bostonians, black and white, celebrating together. Massachusetts had been the first U.S. state to divest pension funds from white-ruled South Africa. For this, Mandela thanked us---thanked us! when we ought to have been thanking him. On stage with his open smile, dressed not in the garb of Western leadership but rather in simple, dignified clothing of his homeland, Mandela radiated the humility, generosity, and joy by which he had begun to pull "the arc of the universe...toward justice," as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (or Rev. Theodore Parker) might have said.
With regard to racial equality, that arc has taken significant bends: in 1957 with Brown v. Board of Education, in 1964 with the Voting Rights Act, in 1994 with Mandela's election to the presidency of South Africa, and many times again. But we must bend it more. Great leaders do not stay forever, and it is up to us to keep striving toward a better justice, to keep the legacy of a Dr. King or a President Mandela alive. But how, exactly, can each of us do that?
Riding home from Mandela's appearance in 1990, I felt both high and low, elated by the event yet almost ashamed to be a music fan. Didn't I owe more work, and less enjoyment, to the struggle? Oughtn't I respond with more than dance to the courage of black South Africans non-violently seeking freedom?
In 1999, at the end of his historic Presidency, Nelson Mandela made another appearance with Johnny Clegg and Savuka. The band sang "Asimbonanga," written in the 1980s as a tribute to the then-imprisoned leader. Mandela walks on stage, hand-in-hand with a female vocalist, smiling gently and dancing. “It is music and dancing that make me at peace with the world," he says, "and at peace with myself.”
It is one more gift from Mandela. I can almost hear him telling me: To relish the music which cries for freedom is a very good thing.
Liberation music can be powerful in religious education (RE) programming. Take care when appropriating song and dance from cultures not one's own. The UUA offers a resource by Nick Page, Making Music Live, at no charge, online, as a broad, deep, and detailed guide for using music in RE. Chapter 8 discusses misappropriation.