Jazz and Activism
Jazz, like many good things in the world, was created by black people. Like the blues and rock n’ roll, it is music that was born from a need to express oneself and document thoughts and feelings about spaces in time.
Music, which became an old African tradition of archiving and passing on history – a tradition that guaranteed that, regardless of how history writers make themselves look better in the books, the music and stories tell our truth.
When Jazz began, it was about the black people in America, descendants of enslaved Africans. They wanted to take snapshots of their lives as they happened. As they figured who they were and where they wanted to go.
Jazz has been many things through its history: it has been dance and beer halls on Sunday nights; banned gatherings in underground shebeens from Soweto to District Six. It has also been artists playing in “white only” areas. Jazz has been sweet and tender landing in a room full of strangers while the world outside went insane with hate.
Appropriation worked to not only wipe out the jazz music and culture of the black people who built it, but to also rid the music of its soul. To hide away its beginnings as if they were a shameful secret. Regardless of venue and artist telling the story, it is important to remember that Jazz was never apolitical. It was never just about a good time on a Friday. How could it, when its roots were what they were?
In a song that has become one of her signatures, Billie Holiday sorrowfully sings about lynchings that were rife in the South of the United States. Strange Fruit talks about the senseless murders of black people in America that went unquestioned and unpunished. How could a dispassionate and apolitical genre of music produce that?
Jazz and South African activism
With their jazz and other art, South African artists have always been outspoken. One of the most iconic instances of South African jazz as resistance is the musical King Kong. Set in a township in the middle of a white kingdom where black people are shot on sight by police, King Kong was a masterpiece that found success internationally. Composed by Todd Matshikiza and featuring scores of South African jazz musicians the opera was inspired by the life of South African boxer Ezekiel Dlamini. is one of the biggest examples of the arts being used to push back during the apartheid era.
After King Kong made it to the London stage, many musicians were, effectively, exiled from the country of their birth. Some left to seek working opportunities because, post-Sharpville Massacre, gatherings of more than 10 people were banned and heightened censorship meant music venues were closed. Among those to leave the country were Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly Dollar Brand), Sathima Bea Benjamin, Letta, Mbulu, Miriam Makeba and more.
South African jazz pioneers – who were often also outspoken anti-apartheid activists – thrived outside of South Africa. The same is true of American jazz artists. Home was always too small because jazz isn’t just music. It tells stories and speaks out and claims space. Something that didn’t sit well with the oppressive systems under which the music blossomed.
Jazz should always be a reminder that resistance can be beautiful. A reminder that all that beauty can often be born from hardship. With jazz, they fought and healed themselves as they went.