Phiri was a ray of in­spi­ra­tion

The Star Early Edition - - INSIDE -

HAT good is a song if it can­not in­spire?” These are the lyrics of a song by the leg­endary US mu­sic pro­ducer Quincy Jones. The song makes the fol­low­ing bold state­ment: “If it (a song) can­not set you higher, then it’s not good enough to sing.”

Ray Phiri’s mu­sic pro­vides a com­pre­hen­sive re­sponse to the mean­ing of a song as asked by Jones above. Phiri’s mu­sic is in­spir­ing, mo­ti­vat­ing, up­lift­ing, and it raised so­cial, eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal con­scious­ness among those suf­fer­ing in­jus­tice.

Be­yond Jones’s ques­tion about a song, Phiri’s mu­sic ad­dressed the is­sue of what the role of artists should be in so­ci­ety. This is­sue has pre­oc­cu­pied many prom­i­nent artists on the African con­ti­nent.

This pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the roles of artists has been mo­ti­vated by the in­jus­tices that many African so­ci­eties have suf­fered. Leg­endary African writ­ers such as Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o have writ­ten ex­ten­sively about this mat­ter.

This is one is­sue that artists in South Africa still need to de­lib­er­ate in the con­text of post-apartheid South Africa. That is, what should the role of artists be in a demo­cratic South Africa?

The term artists is used broadly and in­cludes mu­si­cians, writ­ers, car­toon­ists, po­ets, praise singers, painters, oral and writ­ten sto­ry­tellers and any other cat­e­gory within this genre.

One ar­gu­ment posited that artists live in their own world, a world of cre­ativ­ity in their cho­sen space – mu­sic, writ­ing, po­etry and the like. In other words, artists are im­mune from so­ci­etal is­sues.

A counter-ar­gu­ment in­di­cated that artists are an in­te­gral part of so­ci­ety, and their work should re­flect the daily ex­pe­ri­ences of their par­tic­u­lar so­ci­eties. It was ar­gued strongly that, given the broader in­flu­ence of artists in so­ci­ety, art prod­ucts of any form should be geared to­wards so­cial jus­tice. Artists in this re­gard were to be am­bas­sadors of so­cial jus­tice.

Given the in­jus­tices of colo­nial­ism and apartheid, artists could not live in their “own cre­ative world” but had to be part of so­ci­ety and ad­vance jus­tice in all its forms.

Phiri’s mu­sic is rooted in the sec­ond ar­gu­ment – as an am­bas­sador of so­cial change. His mu­sic re­veals him to have been an artist who had a strong per­sonal iden­tity, a strong con­scious­ness of the so­ci­ety he be­longed to and, more im­por­tantly, his role in that so­ci­ety. He was an artist, philoso­pher and an ac­tivist for jus­tice.

He was an avid reader and used his knowl­edge of the apartheid sys­tem to pro­duce lyrics that de­picted the sys­tem for what it was. It was for this rea­son that the apartheid regime banned some of his songs.

In the song Whis­pers in the Deep, he philo­soph­i­cally, and prac­ti­cally, cap­tured apartheid as fol­lows: “We are all con­trib­u­to­ries of that great river of pain.” Fur­ther on in the song, he ag­i­tated South Africans to fight back: “Speak out your mind, stand up, wake up.”

Phiri also had what was on face value a “love” song banned. It is called Where Did We Go Wrong. It was pre­sum­ably banned be­cause he sang it with a white woman, Kathy Pen­ning­ton, dur­ing the apartheid years. Per­haps this is part of Phiri’s view of the then en­vis­aged rain­bow nation, at a time when in­ter­ra­cial mar­riages were out­lawed.

Phiri, there­fore, was not a mu­si­cian sim­ply fas­ci­nated with beats, rhythms, and lyrics de­void of so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic jus­tice. He saw him­self as an agent of change. He iden­ti­fied his space, and role in so­ci­ety, and pur­sued his pro­fes­sional ca­reer as an ag­i­ta­tor for democ­racy and so­cial jus­tice.

It is the same role that Bob Mar­ley iden­ti­fied as his role first in Ja­maica, then through­out the world as his stature grew glob­ally. Mar­ley was cre­atively mu­si­cal, philo­soph­i­cal, and a change agent.

Hence, he was highly revered among rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments across the world.

Phiri, there­fore, should be an in­spi­ra­tion to all artists to iden­tify their roles in a demo­cratic South Africa. As Letta Mbulu aptly warned in the nascent years of democ­racy with a song, Not yet Uhuru. The in­equal­i­ties that she de­scribes in the song per­sist to­day.

The role of artists is dis­cussed or de­bated broadly when car­toon­ists draw Pres­i­dent Jacob Zuma naked, with a shower on his head, or in a rape scene. Such dis­cus­sions tend to be re­ac­tive rather than pro­gres­sive.

Should mu­si­cians sing about the cur­rent ills of land­less­ness, un­em­ploy­ment, cor­rup­tion, state cap­ture, and lead­er­ship, mo­tions of no-con­fi­dence, hunger and star­va­tion?

Or should they stick to Y U 4 ME – as kwaito leg­end Mdu Masilela sang?

An op­por­tu­nity was missed when for­mer SABC chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer Hlaudi Mot­soe­neng in­tro­duced the 90% lo­cal mu­sic con­tent rule for the cor­po­ra­tion’s ra­dio sta­tions. The de­ci­sion was hailed in many quar­ters as pro­gres­sive for lo­cal and African mu­sic.

Per­haps the main prob­lem was that it was not a pol­icy, but a di­rec­tive. If it were a pol­icy, it would have had to de­fine some con­cepts, and means to im­ple­ment it sys­tem­at­i­cally. In terms of def­i­ni­tion, there­fore, it would have had to de­fine what “lo­cal mu­sic is”.

In the broader African arts de­bate, those en­gaged in the de­bate had to de­fine “African art” first. By ex­ten­sion, they had to de­fine an African “artist” as well. A num­ber of vari­ables were con­sid­ered: Could this be art pro­duced by an African? Can African art only be pro­duced by an African? What about lan­guages – can colo­nial lan­guages be used to re­flect African art?

An in-depth re­flec­tion on Phiri’s legacy could help to as­cer­tain what ought to be the role of mu­si­cians in South Africa. It would as­sist in de­ter­min­ing what amounts to South African mu­sic. In this re­flec­tion, it would be pos­si­ble to de­ter­mine that not all South African mu­si­cians do South African mu­sic.

So, an Amer­i­can song, Re­mem­ber When It Rained, by Josh Groban, and bril­liantly re­made lo­cally by DJ Sbu, may not have won a “South African” best song of the year ac­co­lade in 2007.

Per­haps the prob­lem for the SABC does not lie in the 90% lo­cal con­tent, but the value and sub­stance of the mu­sic.

So, South African mu­si­cians have to an­swer Quincy Jones’s ques­tion: What good is a song? In an­swer­ing this ques­tion, the mu­sic of Ray Phiri pro­vides the light! Hlophe is gov­er­nance spe­cial­ist at the Unisa School of Gov­er­nance. He writes in his per­sonal ca­pac­ity. Twit­ter: @Kun­jaloD

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.