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From the margins, reggae in South Africa continues to struggle for human dignity

Cape Town reggae artist, Teba Shumba. Tuomas Järvenpää

Anthropologist Carole Yawney has documented how on the eve of South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 the African National Congress (ANC) distributed an electoral leaflet in townships with the following message:

Greetings I'n'I! … The ANC recognises that Rastas are part and parcel of the oppressed masses. We all know of the important role the international Rasta movement has played in the liberation struggle in bringing to the attention of the world the message of our struggle through music.

The ANC was trying to acknowledge and capitalise on the role reggae music and the Rastafarian movement played in the struggle against the apartheid regime. Jamaican reggae was essential in bringing international attention to the South African political struggle.

Jamaican artists addressed their lyrical messages directly to the liberation movements of southern Africa. Some of the most notable examples include “Fight Apartheid” (1977) by Peter Tosh, “Zimbabwe”(1979) by Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer’s “Botha the Mosquito” (1986).

Bunny Wailer with his song ‘Botha the Mosquito’, from the album ‘Liberation’.

As early as the 1970s young people in South Africa’s townships had adopted Rasta beliefs and reggae music as a part of their anti-establishment counterculture. The first wave of homegrown reggae followed quickly. Artists such Carlos Djedje, Colbert Mukwevho and Lucky Dube managed to defy the state censorship. They launched the genre as one of the most popular music styles in the country in the 1980s and early 1990s.

During the second part of the nineties in democratic South Africa, reggae lost much of its former visibility and commercial potential. This was partly because it was so deeply and specifically connected to the struggle years and the protest against apartheid.

Yet, the Rastafarian counterculture continued to hold relevance in marginalised urban settings. Those are the areas where it had initially been rooted back in the 1970s. In this new post-apartheid era, the protest spirit of reggae turned to voice concerns over the socioeconomic inequalities that continued to escalate throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

Reggae and Rastafari are currently flourishing especially in the Western Cape province and its capital, Cape Town.

Township reggae circuit

I first started doing anthropological research on Capetonian reggae in 2013. I assumed somewhat naively that the township reggae circuit of the city would be relatively closed from outsiders, especially from white foreigners like me. But it soon became apparent that I was actually travelling along a well beaten path during my field research.

Reggae musicians held wide social connections to foreign artists, producers and managers across the city as well as across the world. Many were using online platforms to collaborate with individuals, some of whom they had never met.

This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, I’d embarked on the research partly because of the international circulation of South African reggae music. Four years earlier I had become fascinated by Capetonian reggae music in Finland, my home country. There a Finnish reggae band, Suhinators, had released an album featuring two Capetonian vocalists, Teba Shumba and Crosby Bolani.

I remember being captivated by their music, particularly their militant lyrical style that seemed exotic and out of the ordinary to me. In Finland reggae music isn’t politicised in similar fashion.

In Cape Town, I learned that this collaboration between Capetonian and Finnish reggae artists wasn’t an isolated case. Teba Shumba also works with a Brazilian music producer, for example. Crosby Bolani further collaborates with hip-hop legend DJ Krush. Daddy Spencer voices tracks with the Italian production team Segnale Digitale. Black Dillinger tours European music festivals. These are just a few of the recent intercontinental ventures of Capetonian reggae musicians.

Crosby Bolani collaborating with DJ Krush.

In addition, well-established Capetonian singers Zoro and Vido Jelashe emigrated to Europe some years ago, but they still draw from township reality in their lyrical storytelling.

Street cred via the ghetto

In fact the lyrical and visual depictions of Cape Town’s ghetto conditions are central in rendering the artists with street credibility in all of these collaborations. In this sense, Capetonian reggae music is a part of a broader musical trend, where the metaphor of the ghetto has become central in the formation of transnational musical connections.

Cultural anthropologist Prof Rivke Jaffe states that,

ghetto-based identifications allow the mobilisation of a broader, transnational belonging against the injustice of this immobility, helping to undermine the stigma of poverty and social marginality.

Identification with Rastafarian reggae music and its visual and lyrical narratives has indeed offered South African musicians inclusion in a global story of exclusion and injustice.

Rivke continues:

Ironically, it is the collective frame of immobility… which connects ghetto dwellers worldwide.

This rings true for the Cape Town reggae scene. It’s practically invisible and inaudible in the main music venues of the city where the township audiences are not seen as a lucrative target group. Instead this township scene has formed a vibrant existence in YouTube music videos and in foreign music festivals.

Based on my experience as a researcher it seems that the main political significance of reggae music in general does not lie in its explicitly political lyrics. Instead it’s in the grassroots cultural connection that it has enabled.

Yet the question remains whether these international cultural connections are able to sustain solidarity between marginalised groups of people. Or is South African reggae music, for example, consumed abroad in ways which enforce stereotypes about the “notorious hoods” of the African cities among middle-class white audiences?

In addition, the financial rewards from these collaborations and tours are often very modest or non-existent for South African reggae musicians.

The musicians are very aware of the risk of financial or symbolic exploitation in the international circulation of their music. But what they find worthwhile are the symbolic rewards, such as the possibility to share a festival stage with Jamaican artists. Experiences like these are powerful because they once again grant outside recognition for the struggle for human dignity in South African cities.

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