Sunday, May 2, 2010

How hip hop is remixing South Africa, America and freedom

On April 27, 1994, millions of blacks throughout South Africa entered polling stations for the first time, exercising their political freedom now that the evil chains of apartheid had finally been broken. After more than three centuries of rule by the minority, power was handed over to the majority, and the country's future looked promising. During his Presidential Victory Speech, Nelson Mandela – South Africa's first black president – connected this historic day with the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.: And now the joy that we can loudly proclaim from the rooftops – Free at last! Free at last!

Just as Dr. King claimed the Emancipation Proclamation in the US came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves, Mandela considered April 27 as one of the most important moments in the life of our country. So in celebration of this historic day – now a national holiday called Freedom Day – I journeyed to downtown Joburg to a hip hop festival in the often-forgotten industrial area of Newtown.
                                                                                                                                                
Underneath the Henry Nxumalo Street overpass, graffiti danced across each inch of the 50 foot vertical concrete columns, as artists freestyled history lessons about oppression, segregation and inequality to hundreds of waving hands and camera phones, while breakdancers twirled to the beats of Grand Master Flash and hundreds of bobbing heads and video cameras.

During the final break dance competition (video below), it was as if every back spin, head slide, hand stand and shoulder drop was a silent reverb of Mandela's victorious words from his Free at Last speech. I half expected the final song to be from Afrika Bambaataa, the New York DJ and "Godfather" of hip hop who founded the Zulu Nation and often sampled Dr. King speeches in his break beats.
                                                  
And yet, as is often the case with hip hop (and life), the story behind the celebration was much deeper than it first appeared.

The irony that Freedom Day was being commemorated via hip hop – a culture that originated in a neglected neighbourhood in the South Bronx as a form of resistance and revolution – was not happenstance. Given the social context of the time, hip hop emerged as a language for the oppressed and a voice for the marginalized, two categories with which black South Africans are more than familiar.

Nasir Jones – a revolutionary hip hop artist from the Queensbridge Projects in NY – once rapped about the American Thanksgiving holiday: I call your holiday hell-day, cause I'm from poverty, neglected by the wealthy. As the DJ played a song by this same artist, I began to realize that this festival was more of a rally for justice, equality and dignity, and the cry for a true freedom day, not an UnFreedom Day, as thousands have begun to call it.
                                                                                                                                                                                   
Unfortunately, this title seems much more appropriate, as the Sowetan newspaper – a South African publication with a readership of 2 million – shared a number of reasons why it has gained popularity:
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
Yesterday – April 27 – should have been the happiest and most celebrated day in the history of South Africa. But at least 58 percent of our compatriots were lucky to be able to share a loaf of bread. Some had nothing to eat for the whole day. Countless others shivered through the cold night in makeshift homes… More and more people are falling into this web of hopelessness. Like during apartheid days, colour circumscribes the geography of our lives. Blacks live in unkept townships; the area in which a school is situated determines if your child is going to pass or fail; and whites still carry the money bags.

Both in the US and in South Africa, it's clear that political freedom and economic freedom are two very different destinations, and that much needs to change in order for true freedom to be reached. Just as the Negro live[d] on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Mandela has recognized how much still needs to be done in order for Dr. King's dream to truly be realized and a Freedom Day to be celebrated by all:

The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.


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