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To Bra Hugh, from the mouths of babes

25 January 2018 Articles Most Popular Music

By Gomolemo Lesejane

The time is 21:22 in Johannesburg and I’m finally home from work: bra-less and void of the many things that had demanded my attention earlier today on Tuesday, 23 January. I’m home and for the first time since I’ve heard of the passing of Hugh Masekela, I have a moment alone. In the last 12 or so hours, I’ve had people calling and texting to express their devastation at the news we all knew would come soon. Colleagues, relatives, Tweeps and lovers from a past life have, for me, softened the blow by sharing their earnest tributes of what Bra Hugh’s music and activism has meant for them.

It continues to fascinate me how this one man, that many of us had never met, apart from watching him perform live amongst scores of other people, felt like a part of us. We felt so connected to him and we are deeply affected by his death. How, like Ray Phiri and Stimela, Brenda and the Big Dudes, Tshepo Tshola and Sankomota, Jonas Gwangwa, Fela Kuti, Oliver Mtukudzi and Abdullah Ibrahim, Ntate Hugh sang and trumpeted his way into our childhoods. How even during the confusion and haphazardness of raising black and brown babies in post-apartheid South Africa, our parents seemed lighter and freer and happier when they were immersed in the sounds of these and many other South African musicians. Our parents’ carefree dancing would often be followed by quips of “Waar was jy? This is music!” while gesturing as if to play an air guitar or blow on an imaginary trumpet.

At age 16, my father decided that my brother and I should read “STILL GRAZING: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela”. I imagine it was important to him that I know and understand the man behind some of our most treasured musical productions; but, in hindsight, I realise it probably had to do more with wanting us to be aware of a history told in such a nuanced and textured manner.

At 23, less naïve and slightly jaded about love and liberation, I picked up the book again – this time at the insistence of my brother. The text, for all intents and purposes, said the same thing. But my interpretation was strikingly different. Time had made it more layered. It varied the way in which I engaged migrant labour and relations between Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. Bra Hugh’s repeated attacks on black women who chose to wear weaves – ones that had earned him the label of being a “problematic fave” on the Twitter streets – was better contextualised after we reacquainted. I had a new reverence for Miriam Makeba and Nina Simone – black women who were “insufferable” feminists during a time when it was neither fashionable nor rewarding. I began to draw parallels and intersections between a young Hugh in Alexander and my grandmother Daphne’s childhood in Sophiatown before forced removals were something neither of them could have imagined.

It’s never been in question that our greatest inheritance as African children lies in the histories, stories and contexts that have been distorted and white-washed for years. Time’s not on our side and I applaud younger artists who’ve made the effort to learn from and collaborate with legends from a different time. Intergenerational dialogues must happen if we are to heal and forge a way forward. Ask Thandiswa, J-Something, Oskido, and Mafikizolo; all of whom collaborated with our Bra Hugh. Lebo Mashile will also tell you of the profound joy it has brought her to work with and be guided by Ntate Don Mattera and Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile, who led Bra Hugh into the world beyond.

iStimela has left the station. Mokgatla, o iketse le ditaola tsa gago. Usikhonzele kuMam’Busi Mhlongo and Fela Kuti; to Mama Miriam, Bra Willie and Ms. Nina. We thank you, and we’re going to do right by you.


Gomolemo Lesejane is a Sowetan communications consultant trying to occupy, navigate and make sense of a world that vehemently resists her existence.

Featured Image via Wikicommons

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