When talking of the names of South African artistes who mounted spirited resistance to the evil called Apartheid through their music, the late Hugh Masekela’s name comes to mind easily. As the world learnt sadly of his death after a protracted battle with prostate cancer, his name will obviously be fondly remembered as one who fought oppression with his music.
Masekela’s music came to characterize the anti-apartheid movement in palpable volumes. Born in 1939, he was mainly raised by his grandmother who ran an illegal bar for minors. He took up singing and playing piano as a child and then the horn at 14. In the 1950s, he became part of the jazz scene in Johannesburg as a member of the Jazz Epistles.
His first trumpet was given to him by British anti-apartheid activist Trevor Huddleston, a secondary school teacher later banished from South Africa for his anti-apartheid activities.
Masekela’s music had a distinct political tone and subsequently he had to flee into exile for 30 years. It was in exile that his political themes morphed into having threatening significance for the apartheid establishment.
While he was in the UK and the US, he forged strong, close relationships and friendships with jazz legends such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus and used his music to raise awareness about the oppressive system of white-minority rule in South Africa.
His son, Selema Mabena Masekela, said that his father refused to take citizenship anywhere outside South Africa, despite the “open arms” of many other countries. He also had to say this about him, “My father’s life was the definition of activism and resistance. His belief [was] that the pure evil of a systematic racist oppression could and would be crushed. Instead he would continue to fight.”
In 1987, Hugh Masekela caused major seismic waves in the South African political arena with his anti-apartheid anthem “Bring Him Back Home” calling for Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. The song was heard all over the world. His music and upbeat lyrics struck a chord with everyone on the right side of history, and was eventually featured in Mandela’s 1992 world tour upon release.
After returning to his birth country, Masekela continued to speak out about political issues in South Africa. Masekela supported many charities and at the time of his death was a director of the Lunchbox Fund, a non-profit organization to provide daily meals to students in Soweto township.