Why musicians shouldn’t be judged for playing on political party platforms

Government shows offer relatively regular income with access to big crowds. Reuters

There’s raging controversy in South Africa about the extent to which musicians should be involved in supporting political parties. It raises some vexing questions.

The country’s rap artist AKA was recently quoted as saying

if you go a little bit too far with the politics, there may be political repercussions.

He was referring to musicians engaging in self-censorship to avoid being denied state-sponsored performance opportunities. This led Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema to conclude that musicians who perform for political parties have become “captured celebrities”.

The debate raises two issues. On the one hand, it is clear that some musicians engage in self-censorship to reach large audiences through government shows. While this is a very real phenomenon, government patronage does not necessarily stop artists from recording and releasing more controversial material.

On the other hand, the assumption that musicians should be politically motivated troubadours is a romantic fiction that does not reflect the reality of most artists in South Africa. Instead, many musicians see themselves as pure entertainers with no obligation to sing truth to power.

Not a new phenomenon

The issues raised are not unique to South Africa or even the present moment. They are ubiquitous and have been under discussion for many decades. Do musicians sing for the king or make music for the people? Could music that is ostensibly “for the people” actually contain the seeds of mass manipulation, cultivating collective passivity?

Critical theorists of the Frankfurt School certainly argue that popular music is inherently political. Ethnomusicologists have shown how British “folk music” was largely invented by and for the landowning aristocracy, even though it is now considered music of the people.

In Cote d’Ivoire – and many other African countries – musicians have been involved in patron-client relationships with politicians for decades. In the Caribbean, the US and South America musicians have taken sides in political debates with varying efficacy.

It pays to play at government gigs

In South Africa there is a long history of musicians getting directly involved in politics. Musicians sung both for and against apartheid.

In contemporary South Africa, political affiliation has also been a means to an end for many musicians.

Government shows offer relatively regular income with access to big crowds that are usually bussed in for free and given various titbits for their attendance. Privately sponsored gigs – often featuring up to 20 artists – rarely pay musicians to their expectations. The dynamics of local shows are complex and the promoters are more likely to make a profit than the performers.

In my research I have made similar findings among musicians in Limpopo Province. Artists often manipulate their set-lists, selecting the songs they will perform at government shows to increase their chances of being hired for gigs in the future.

This does not necessarily mean that the musicians endorse the political party that has staged the show. But they also wouldn’t expect a party to pay them for performing songs critical of their politics.

In 2002 outspoken Venda reggae artist Khakhathi Tshisikule declared that he’d been “banned” from government shows. He was no longer receiving invites to perform. He had repeatedly and openly critical of government by performing songs such as “Yo Tshaya” (The game is over). Other artists learned from his experience.

These findings align with my personal experience playing in a reggae band for the past 15 years. Yes, we have intentionally dropped songs from the set list so that we could get onto the government show list. But this has not stopped us recording and releasing songs that are critical of political process. If anything, it has made the critical songs more powerful.

Apolitical inspiration

My research has pointed to another, perhaps unpopular, fact. Many musicians simply do not care about politics. They class themselves as entertainers and actively avoid politics.

My research with musicians from the former homeland of Venda showed clearly that many artists had little interest in revolutionary activity. These artists were recorded by the state broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, during apartheid for its Venda-language radio station.

Their apolitical approach was often appreciated by audiences who wanted to have a good time without being suspected of political sympathies for underground movements active in the region.

Contemporary contexts seem to reflect a similar dynamic. Venda hiphop (VenRap), for example, is more about young men seeking a position in the fluctuating hierarchies of ethnic identity than about critiquing the political system of the country.

This is not because they are afraid to rock the boat. Rather, they want to promote the visibility of Venda youth in the largely urban province of Gauteng. In this way they secure access to a niche, but loyal, following.

Musicians are artists, driven by the need for self-expression. For many there is something apolitical that they wish to express. This is what many audiences want and are willing to pay good money for.

No obligation to sing truth to power

The idea that musicians should have an obligation to speak truth to power is problematic. It is not only naïve, but unfair to those who choose musical entertainment as their way to put food on the table.

The hustle, as they say, is real. It is not easy for most musicians to get a big gig in South Africa these days and the compromises that are endured for a government show are not so different to those imposed by a major record label in search of commercial desirability.

Some artists seek to supplement their living through association with political parties which they may or may not have an enduring affinity towards. Others choose to entertain – purely for the sake of making a living through performance and self-expression.