Recently while preparing for a paper on cultural activism I found myself reading about the Harlem Renaissance or the “New Negro Movement” which started taking place from around 1918 until the 1930s in Harlem in the United States. What emerged out of this period was a surge, or in the words of James Weldon Johnson – a flowering of Negro Literature. This was also the effect of a growing black middle class.
It was a time of great poetry with the seminal work of Claude McKay in his poem If we must die which was read by black readers as a poem against lynchings. It was a period that produced the fiction writings of James Weldon Johnson. It was also a time of great music with jazz fusions of both brass and piano sounds. It was also the period when Duke Ellington became very popular. It was a time of the blues and the spirituals. There was a resurgence of black pride which Marcus Garvey and WEB Du Bois championed.
Reading through this most exciting period I frequently stopped and for some strange reason, felt that I had lived through a similar time here in South Africa. It was just after the transition into our new democracy where the zeitgeist was one of possibility and loaded with hope. This period which one loosely calls “The People’s Renaissance” became most evident around 1995 to about 2005. It was a period which saw the emergence of the infusion of the Afro-centric into different streams of society especially the arts. This renaissance could also have been the result of the opening up of South Africa to the world especially the African continent.
It was also a period which saw the South African music industry which at that time, at least for the young, was influenced by the American rap and other America motivated genres evolve into a force not just of entertainment but one of Black Pride. It is important to add that South Africa has always had a very colourful musical canon spanning from the ethnic music to jazz, pop, the so called ‘bubble-gum’ music and so much more. However coming out of the kwaito movement (while also remaining part of it) around the year 1995 was an Afrocentric young sound which was influenced by the early Sophiatown movement and other types of music that preceded it.
For example in was in 1996 the group Bongo Maffin was formed and in 1998 their album Concerto was released. That kind of sound and their lead singer Thandiswa singing in isiXhosa adorned with Xhosa regalia was just a revolution to a young mind. Just before Bongo Maffin the group Boom Shaka was no longer just a kwaito group it was a movement, one that was black, able and proud. By the time the likes of Mafikizolo came to the scene with their Kwela cum Marabi influences it was clear that this new wave of young musicians was hell-bent on cementing their contribution into the artistic fabric of South Africa and indeed the continent.
One has not even begun to look outside this fray into other musicians who were doing amazing work during that same period like Sibongile Khumalo and others. The avalanche of exciting artists that followed after this renaissance period down to even this very day – the likes of Simphiwe Dana, Siphokazi, Zonke and many others – is testament to the fact that they too had witnessed and became recipients of this exciting period.
It is so easy now to take it for granted when you see someone wearing a shirt or dress made of African style fabrics, or someone wearing bead work or even a Ndebele neck piece. It has not always been so. There was once a shunning of all things tribal and rural. Rural life once symbolised, in the minds of some, a certain backwardness.
Christianity and other missionaries and colonialists also branded almost all things tribal and indigenous as being signs of being uneducated. However in this people’s renaissance period the vesting of public persons with overtly African attire became a sign of all things respectable and regal. The work of Sonwabile Ndamase in his dressing of the Mandela family, especially Winnie Mandela, was legendary.
However the most fascinating, and not the only one, designer was a certain Nandipha Madikiza. She ran a boutique shop and designed African clothing. It can never be forgotten that she was perhaps the first African designer to have her line feature in the department store – Sales House. Later within the same renaissance period (around 1995-2005) the likes of Thando and Vanya Mangaliso started Sun Goddess out of their own vision and assessment of where the country was at the time. In the year 2000 Khensani Nkosi founded Stoned Cherrie its contribution into the Afrochic style and movement was monumental. At some point Stoned Cherrie was also found in Woolworths stores.
This comfort with being African extended also to other facets of the human person. In the same renaissance period Jabu Stone led the charge in trying to make more people comfortable with their African hair. The dreadlocks of old which were always seen as being dirty and as being the hairstyle for traditional healers became one of the most desired hair styles. More people from celebrities to office workers started choosing natural curly African hair and were (are) very pleased with it.
In the space of literature there was nothing as exciting as the poetry sessions which were found everywhere but most especially at the Horror Café in Newton Johannesburg. There you would find a Maakomele Manaka reciting his rousing poetry in Urban Voices sessions. Interestingly it was there where you would find a young Simphiwe Dana singing while poetry was being recited.
Horror Café had everything from comedy to Ragga nights and so much more. In the same period there was a fascinating group of black women poets the Feela Sistah Spoken Word Collective. This group of four ladies; Lebo Mashile, Napo Masheane, Ntsiki Mazwai and Myesha Jenkins were offing voice to so many especially the black female experience. There was not a topic they did not address in their poetry. Although there had been many poets before them whose work is monumental, what these poets in this era provided was an outlet which was positive and rooted in deep reflection.
There was also something interesting happening within the Christian churches especially the mainline churches. After a period that was steeped in Black Theology (especially during the struggle against apartheid) the work done by clerics and academics like Itumeleng Mosala, Lebamang Sebidi, Buti Tlhagale and many others, there emerged a huge movement and discussion around the question of inculturation in the Church.
Although there were many social scientists studying this topic there was also at the same time a liturgical movement within the same topic. It was interesting to watch how the organs in the Township Renaissance period seemed to subside and the African drum, ululations and percussions could now be heard in many township churches. Even the very architecture and furnishings were overtly influenced by African artistic motifs.
Something great happened between 1995 and 2005. It must be added that this renaissance decade should not just be seen in an abrupt occurrence. Every event that preceded it contributed to it. In addition it can also be said that it is not over but I am of these opinion that we are at another phase in the zeitgeist of our country.
There are also so many other contributions that happened during this period, like the contributions of the likes of YFM and others which are not mentioned in this piece but it is my hope that those who were awake enough during this period of our country will attest that we lived through a renaissance, and what a ride it was. DM