Phiri was a ray of inspiration
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