It was June 2000. As the last rays of sun kissed us goodbye and the night lights of New York city took their places, my sister and I quickly found seats as part of an audience in the shadow of the World Trade Centre. We were here to listen to Bra Hugh – Masekela. It was one of the city’s legendary free summer concerts – out in the open night air, in a space cleared right in the heart of capital. Emerging first as a speck amongst specks on a stage minisculed by the city’s towering skyscrapers, Bra Hugh soon loomed large, his tunes quickly overpowering their menacing scowls, softening their silhouettes and making them an apt backdrop for the music that made us laugh and cry that night, at ourselves and at our histories. It was a great concert – thanks to Visa!! There was no missing the fact that big corporate sponsorship had allowed this gig to happen. Bra Hugh kept reminding us, giving huge praise to the sponsors between playing. I felt a little sorry for him, obviously having agreed to punt Visa as part of his deal. But part of me also resented the fact that I had to come to New York to experience a kick-ass FREE concert by someone from home. Yes, I had heard Bra Hugh play in South Africa, but I had paid to do this. Just as I had paid to listen to many other great musicians returning from exile in the early ’90s. A performance that’s down in my books as one of the greatest was one given by Abdullah Ibrahim at the Market Theatre in 1992 – as a student, I had used almost three quarters of my monthly pocket money to buy a friend and me tickets to it (R300). As rare as these concerts were, I would willingly, over the years, pay to listen to musicians I had been raised on, their records often serving as our lullabies as children.
Over the years, I have seen many artists struggle to survive at home, many having to turn to other forms of employment or entrepreneurship just to eke out an existence, often having to rely on social networks (also slowly disintegrating under the regime of ‘the individual’) for survival. Some of our greatest talents have not been able to bare the harshness of life, ending their lives prematurely. Others have had the option of living abroad, away from familiar comforts and ways. As the ANC government has come to prioritise the interests of global capital over those of a redistributive macro-economic programme in the interests of the majority of South Africans, its adoption of neoliberal policies has dealt harsh blows on various groups of people – artists not escaping their reach. But little has been said about the ways in which the adoption of these policies has involved the marginalisation of the collective interests of artists in the interests of particular individuals and styles, in the remoulding of African and South African culture and talent towards particular notions and images of the continent and the country – images that are easy to package and sell, images that reinforce the preferred versions of Africa around the buying world. In selling our music, I would imagine that different markets have been created and targeted with different genres and artists. And artists, having to survive in a capitalist world, have to begin making time and space for their own unrestrained practice, production and performance through working for money in the projects and places assigned as ‘culturally valuable’ by the market in different parts of the world. As glorious as our night listening to Bra Hugh in the shadow of the skyscrapers of New York was, we could not help but feel angry and sad that such great talent was able to be shared in the best way possible only as a result of the intervention of corporate capital. Bra Hugh had been packaged and sold by Visa and we were thanking them for it!
Reading Bra Hugh’s complaints about life in South Africa in the last week took me back to our night in New York. I was pleased to hear him speak out.