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CHIMURENGA@20: Talkin’ ‘bout Survival – The Repatriation of Reggae

By Steve Gordon

Black Gold to Black Vinyl

CHANT down the dominance of Western media and culture, for sure, but sometimes it’s best left to trip itself up.

One of the most beautiful contradictions ever to play flip side to that Western domination must surely be Reggae, particularly the manner in which Reggae and its associated package of Rastafarian and pan African message, was able to catch a ride back to Africa courtesy the multinationals.

Intrinsically African it may be, born of displaced Africans and Diaspora culture, but Reggae, for South Africans – and indeed most Africans – was an imported music. Four hundred years of history aside, and these are sounds you file under Caribbean, Jamaica.  Written there, played there, recorded there.

Reggae did not emerge in Africa, it glorified Africa. Reggae was not literally the voice of South Africans, but figuratively, ideologically, by proxy and intent, what more powerful and soulful message ever permeated music culture during the struggle?

Indigenous freedom songs gave voice to the struggle for activists and politicised masses, but reggae’s arrival in South Africa injected a new pan African thinking and flavour into the popular culture of the 1970’s and 1980’s. The impact was sufficient to serve as a cultural catalyst which would have impact way beyond the negotiated demise of the Apartheid State.

Reggae was certainly not the first imported music to hit it big with the homeboys and girls in South Africa: the impact and influence of African Americans, from Swing Jazz to Armstrong, from Kool and the Gang to Coltrane, were always major. But Reggae had an unprecedented lyrical dimension: uncompromised, unambiguous, Militant Message.

Concealing the Weapon

SO how does so militant a message permeate the frontiers of Apartheid South Africa? For a start, buried within the ‘respectful’ packaging of a Western commodity (yes, it was packaged in the studios of London and Miami).

But so was “Black Beauty”, and that fell foul of Apartheid censors. Mention ‘Mandela’ or ‘ANC’ or ‘Communism’, and (mostly white) ears pricked up at a variety of state interception points: Security Police, Publications Control Board, State Broadcaster.

Reggae would never have been as widely listened to, had its lyrical content been appraised by the censors. It was a by-product of colonialism which offered the perfect cover: Patois.

Militance packaged in Patois. Brand new second hand, rub-a-dub English. Misunderstood and remixed English.  Antiquated pronunciations, mutated usages, phrases, syntax. An ear bender for the interrogating westernised ear, especially the large, prickled up ears of Apartheid’s agents.

Rastaman? Babylon? Bible? Jah? Selassie King of Kings? Jahovia? Marcus? Too much confusion!  Mandela? Some red lights flash, but 90% is incomprehensible. Write it off to stoned darkies.  I and I?  Kaffirs could never speak English, could they? And “reggae” was not even in the Dictionary….

It must have been unsettling. The weapons were being shipped in broad daylight, and in bulk.

The Shipment Arrives: Message Received

Verse, Chapter, and Volume, streaming into the record stores, imported copies (often militant, independent label releases) pumping through soundsystems, onto the cassette tape circuit.

Message. Inspiration, affirmation of a Humanity which included Blackness, and defined “The Whole World is Africa”. It was 1976 – the year of the Soweto Uprising and Massacre – when South African’s first started to hear “All the way from Kingston and Jamaica, Bob Marley and the Wailers LIVE!”  recordings. Steve Biko was also still alive, Mandela on Robben Island. “Get Up Stand Up” / Don’t Give Up, We NAH Give Up!

Reggae exploded with meaning for South Africans, and at a time when the local recording industry was actively complying with Apartheid’s agenda. It reflected, described and analysed a shared reality of the oppressed and downtrodden: Poor man feel I t/ Uniforms of brutality/ War ina Babylon/ Police and thieves…The Message and images were potent, pertinent, and beckoned. Ridim, groove and reggae’s musical compatibility to African audiences helped seduce, but it was Truth and Affirmation which won the ears of a generation.

A deeper rewind on what was going down in South Africa is necessary, in order to appreciate the significance of Reggae in the “Deep South”.

What Gaan Aan South Africa?

Let’s synchronise calendars. A very important “STOP AND PAUSE”. What was happening with South African music in the 1970’s? 

Apartheid South African airwaves were under jealous broederbond and SABC control – separate stations / separate nations / separate musics / separate cultures. Resistance and Freedom Songs lived as spoken word, grapevine, oral tradition. They were not Product. And they were certainly NOT broadcast (except through Radio Freedom across the frontline, normally frequency blocked by the Apartheid Security, and bombed as part of ‘pre-emptive strikes’ or ‘terrorist elimination’ ventures.)

Mbaqanga was the most significant ‘domestic product’ of the SA record Industry. It made money, especially targeting the income of migrant labourers in the urban centres. The record industry continued to invest in its fantasy of creating a white pop product to “make it big” in London.

Mbaqanga which was broadcast, was for the most lyrically inane. Maybe that is harsh, because there is such beautiful mbaqanga, but the sentiment is summed up by a Xhosa speaking rasta, whom I interviewed in 1981:

“The main thing that makes me turn away from my music is this:
Whenever they sing, they don’t speak the truth. They always go
around and round.  They tell you what things is happening, and who
is doing it… but they don’t tell you WHY those people are doing that
thing. Rasta music, I prefer, because it tells me what the story is all
about, it gives me the full story.”

Music was just to be entertainment, sanitised entertainment for people destined to be semi-literate, exploited. A classic opiate. Repression was the Agenda, culturally and commercially. Mahlathini or Ladysmith Black Mambazo were never envisaged as exports at the time. No surprise that Gallo – the most significant recorder of indigenous music – sponsored recordings to raise money for Apartheid’s Army.

South Africa was at war with itself and its neighbours. Beyond the frontline, SA was supporting the last stand of the white Rhodesian regime, and taking up the baton of destabilization duties as the Portuguese rulers exited from Mozambique and Angola. South Africa was Isolated, boycotted, economically and culturally. Frontiers sealed, and internally, Towns and townships surrounded.

And in comes Reggae. Not just for any particular “population” (read: race) group, but for anybody with a basic level of English usage. Where Apartheid and broadcasters divided South Africans culturally, here comes bongo natty dread to motivate U-N-I-T-Y.  The common denominator to the patois was English. The first disciple, a man of mixed heritage: Bob Marley.

Early releases – by virtue of their multinational distribution deals – were

the Island Records catalogue, most notably Marley. Next up, some EMI releases. The foundation pillars for reggae internationally, followed the major releases – Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Bunny Wailer.

The relatively sophisticated packaging of these products should not be underestimated. Album jackets and sleeve images in the pre-video era augmented the aural message. During the darker days of apartheid, a simple visit to the “imports” rack at the record stores provided an alternative history lesson: “Christopher Columbus, was a damn blasted liar!”

And Reggae was growing at home and abroad.  From England, LKJ’s “Black Petty BooShwAH” cut loose of the Jamaican & Rasta paradigm. Class analysis in music? Reggae won respect with trade unionists, activists and internationalists. It asked questions, its reference points were “ghetto”, “oppressor”, “survival” and “uprising”. It was no longer just a music; it was Message at work.

Beyond The Frontline

As much as its prophets might declare the ‘Whole World is Africa”, Africa was only a second phase marketplace – or ‘territory’ as the record industry uncannily designates physical spaces for licensing. But it was a territory catching a fire of its own.

From the spiritual “Africa must be free” of Hugh Mundell, to Marley’s “Zimbabwe”, the message was an intense and truthful one for South Africans labouring the brutality of Apartheid. “Africa Unite” urged Marley, while Mutabaruka pointed finger at America’s covert support for the apartheid regime’s regional destabilization: “Just when you thought America was a friend, Dem invade Angola Again”, cautioned Muta, – while Tapper Zukie made “MPLA” an anthem.

From the Diaspora, the displaced were observing, sharing a global view, vocalising an alternative black history. Perspective which for the most, correlated closely with the prerogatives of the liberation movements in the region. Information and analysis not otherwise readily available. Fresh from the record store.

Bob Marley’s participation in the Zimbabwe Independence Celebrations underscored and popularised the significance of power transitions in the region, and the epic “Survival” helped define the epoch. Next, Peter Tosh visited Swaziland – as with other artists supporting the cultural boycott, this was a way to play TO South Africans, without playing IN South Africa.

The frontline was also a place of exiles-in-transit, an interface with the liberation movements, a step closer towards Africa. A military and cultural frontline.  Reggae music was consistently prominent, riding alongside the music of exiles banned back home: Makeba, Gwangwa, Masekela, Amandla, Semenya…

Marley and Tosh prompted cultural pilgrimages. South Africans, where travel permits allowed, made the journey, further affirmed the message, and returned as warriors.

Product and Redemption

As state repression intensified, Reggae was targeted. The SABC prohibited airplay, government gazette listings prohibited either “distribution” or “possession”, and record companies pre-censored.

But Product is Product. From a “shifting units” perspective, Reggae was extremely popular – the record industry in SA acknowledged the significant market sector. Local Jamaican wannabes? Many came, but few were chosen. South Africans were rendering poor musical (and Jamaican patois) imitations. Most important, lyrically crippled by the oppressive context, they were far from touching the essential Message which underpinned Reggae.

It was to be golden voiced mbaqanga star, Lucky Dube, who plugged the gap. Repackaged with dreadlock add-ons and Tosh-leaning harmonies, (the very Lucky) Dube moved swiftly to assume significant market share, one he maintained and grew into the new millennium. A major market share, but no significant “Message Share”.

Elsewhere in Africa, similar transitions to “local product” rolled out. Alpha Blondy emerged as EMI’s African Reggae star. And again, while the beautiful music to behold, the message was confusing: “America, America”, he pleaded, “Break the neck of this Apartheid”. A u-turn from Mutabaruka’s cautionary instruction about American war games in Angola, a focus which coupled uncannily with Cote d’Ivoire “friendship” with the Apartheid’s state.

The manner in which Reggae was interpreted differed throughout Africa, with the anglicised areas linguistically advantaged when it came to deciphering Jamaican patois. Context differed, and Blondy’s message sounded confusing to those who, in the heart of the battle, had grown to trust the music to afford an articulate and alternative worldview. 

But Reggae’s influence went beyond Reggae. It was not just the music which had made the journey back to Africa, it was Message, and moreover, the ACT of spreading Message. Mzwakhe Mbuli’s 1980’s progression (from poet to dub poet, to Mzwakhe & band) is illustrative. Spoken word, questioning, challenging were some of the lessons learned and inspired from the school of Reggae.

The First Psalm, Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”, had spread the ultimate message: “None but ourselves can free our minds”, a slogan and call to a myriad of weapons other than AK’s.

Ultimately, Reggae served not only to shift the musical lexicon for Africans, but to inspire an awakening of consciousness. Messages from Jamaica and the Diaspora held valid currency at the time, but in essence, it was the affirmation and ownership of voice which served as the greatest gift.

By providing a recipe toward the reclaiming of history, imported reggae was to be the bridge not only for its own ridims, but for other streams of Africaness and blackness. From rap and hip hop, through the growing acknowledgement of African musics which echoed off the Reggae explosion, its impact extended massively beyond its own form.

Messages that came back home courtesy black vinyl had germinated in the fertile soil of the motherland. Roots and Culture were about so much more than Reggae, their messenger to Africa.


In commemoration of our 20th year, we will be digging through our extensive archive.

This story, and others, features in the very first Chimurenga publication – Chimurenga 01: Music is the Weapon! (April 2002). In this edition we discuss artists that have demonstrated militancy in response to neo-colonial powers, fighting their “own” governments– rather than fictitious oppressors. We try to achieve what people like Fela Kuti and Tosh attempted with their music.

To purchase as a PDF, head to our online shop.

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