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HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Belinda Bozzoli, let music free your colonial mind

OPINION

On Wednesday DA Member of Parliament and professor of sociology Belinda Bozzoli shared a Twitter thread of opinions regarding the singing that took place in Parliament.

“ANC trying to ‘claim’ Parliament as their own by using a recess to dominate the Chamber through sound. Their persistent and relentlessly deafening singing of struggle songs is really irritating,” she tweeted.

Belinda further implied that this kind of ‘domination’ was an ignorant exercise because: “They have no idea that this is, and is fully intended to be, a shared place for the exchange of ideas and opinions. In seeking to dominate it they essentially being undemocratic.” Her insinuation is that the ANC are too primitive to understand what the decorum of Parliament is and that their idiot behaviour is a result of a degree of illiteracy when it comes to the formal and acceptable forms of discourse. In fact, in no uncertain terms she said so: “Now they are exchanging gestures during song with the EFF. You can see how irresistible the call of nationalism is. Its symbolic and non literate forms (songs, dance, gestures) seem to matter more than clever words and well crafted arguments.”

I could go on about the dangers of a privileged white South African using old weaponised terms like “them”, but I’ll assume that by now, we all understand the harmful result of this. History has proved it. So instead, let’s focus on the cultural importance and relevance of the struggle song, of music as opinion and the importance and significance of why the protest song is still worth defending. Hopefully, this will enlighten Belinda and other white South Africans who seem to have a gap in their understanding of why and how the ‘self’ and the world changes when the oppressed sing together.

A song signals many things. When I studied music at the University of Pretoria as an undergrad student, of the few historical narratives that were imparted about African music was its traditional and cultural importance in communication. The Africans invented the musical pattern of call and response. A variation often duplicated in western music, like symphonies, for example.

The technique is a succession of two distinct phrases written in different parts of music. The first phrase is often an invitation or an appeal and the second is the answer or a direct commentary to the call. The pattern is a mirror image of human communication and it is a basic element of interaction in African traditions. In fact, it's so embedded in African cultures that slaves brought to America carried it with them. It was one of the few things they were allowed to take along when they were unwillingly stripped from their homelands, and remained one of the few and, in many respects, coded methods of ‘talking’ to each other or expressing their pain while working the fields. Let’s not forget that when women in Ghana, for example, were stripped from their homes, they often beat their babies to death against rocks before boarding ships to save their children from being abused by slave masters. How else would they express this pain but to sing it out of their souls?

Songs serve so many purposes. Among them, the memory of history, the sting of the present and the dream of a more equal future. Songs are shared much easier than letters, or notices, which came with their own punishments. Songs were passed from one group to another and so were their hidden meanings, their codes.

The negro spiritual (in the US) to the uneducated ear may seem like an irritating and ignorant way to pass time. A pitiful hobby for the primitive who are naïve and sing about dying or going to heaven, but actually they’re composed by people of great intellect, an intellect that far surpassed the understanding of their masters. Slaves were actually singing about escape, revolt, freedom and going home.

Frederick Douglass managed to escape slavery in Maryland and went on to become the national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York. He is the author of a multitude of antislavery writings and in one of his essays he talks about songs as a tool to traverse troubled times.

I thought I heard them say,

There were lions on the way.

I don't expect to stay

Much longer here.

Run to Jesus - face the danger -

I don’t expect to stay

Much longer here.

In his analysis of the above song, he clarifies that to the white ear, it sounds like the slave is singing about dying and reaching a final reward, the prize of paradise so to speak, but he explains that the song is actually about escaping slavery and traveling a dangerous route. All the slaves understood that the ‘lions’ were not really ‘lions’ but the threats on the road to freedom, and the song was a means of communication letting other slaves know that the singer was planning to escape, thus the lyrics: “I don’t expect to stay much longer here.”

But we don’t have to travel all the way to an American past to portray the importance of the protest song. We can stay right here, with our slaves, with their own past and with their own problems. Which is what I intended to do for my music thesis before I became bored with the white oppression at the University of Pretoria.

We can even start with something that still persists in the present, the Cape Minstrel Carnival, more fondly known in Cape Town as the Klopse. To understand the festival we must understand the historical and political context of its origins. The parade takes place on Tweede Nuwe Jaar, a day set aside after the actual new year when slave owners, colonisers and other white people were recovering from their own celebrations and so ‘awarded’ the day to their slaves so that they could have their own celebrations.

The tradition goes back more than a century, by some accounts, even further and it is a ‘celebration’ entrenched in the experiences of those forced into colonial slavery. The ‘merriment’, the singing, the music, the folk songs are all codes of painful pasts and presents, colonial rule, racial prejudices and abuses and segregational policies. They highlight their oppression and they communicate their resistance. In our case, they weren’t known as negro spirituals but ghoemalidjies – which can be categorised into Malay picnic songs, a straatlied (street song), or a skemliedjie (comic song) – in which they mocked the British and the Dutch through imitation, dance and even skin colour - by painting their faces white. These songs and traditions remain and while the colonial days of ‘yore’ are behind us, their legacy and after-effects still remain. In fact, no example of this is clearer than Belinda’s very tweets, here, in 2019.

While Belinda’s criticism is not against the Klopse (who I am sure many think of as a more appropriate means of celebration because it does not disrupt western ideas of Parliament), it carries with it the same insult as the past, like in 1803 when white power was so unhappy with the music that they passed a regulation banning all forms of musical assembly from playing in the streets after sunset or before sunrise. Is Belinda insinuating a similar clause in the regulations of Parliament? That songs should be banned and singing controlled for the sake of the poisoned colonial mindset?

Now, since we can assume that the minstrel song and the minstrel carnival are more appropriate forms of musical expression, let’s address the protest song and its relevance, rights and meaning. I would advise Belinda to watch the film Amandla! A revolution in four-part harmony, a movie that focuses on music as a powerful tool against the struggle of white domination, the power of the liberation song.

The protest song is important because is affirms African strength, it reminds the black body of its might, and it is a forceful driver in the journey toward freedom, ambition and aspiration. If politicians like Belinda cannot forget their privilege, if they cannot refrain from exercising their colonial opinions, if they cannot emancipate themselves from archaic notions of separation, then why should black people, black politicians be silenced and be forced to forget their past, the songs that united us and the songs that unite us still? In a country whose standards are still very much dictated by a white power, this music that gives meaning to strength and morale is more relevant than ever.

So as long as Belinda and others try and oppress us, so long shall we sing freedom and long still after that because apartheid, its overthrowing and the liberation movement has proven that music gives shape to a people and people are shaped by music. It is expression, it is influence. It is information, education and an agent of change. It is a critique of the current, of politics, socio-economic injustices and it is essential to communication and survival, and if we cannot speak you to comprehension then we will sing you to understanding.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.

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