It was 1998, our Constitution was almost two years old. Against all odds democracy was taking root in South Africa and its young people were pushing its boundaries. From television to music, democracy had cultivated fertile ground for a new, uncensored and daring kind of art.
Our post-trauma therapy as a country would be reflected in the art we produced. In dealing with the violence which marked the early 1990s we had to deal with our brokenness which spilled out in bold TV shows like Yizo Yizo, which all but cracked our veneer of respectability.
I understand why Papa Action, Gunman and his cohorts on Yizo Yizo were hard for my grandmother to digest. We looked to art to make us whole. We looked to art for elevation. We looked to art to see the best in ourselves. After enduring so much, no one wants to retire home with their families only to be unsettled by the graphic violence of Yizo Yizo. Our families were broken. Our communities were broken. The state of our brokenness was unavoidable, and it was hard to watch.
The changes on our TV screens and on our radios signalled the chaos and disruption of democracy. And there was no bigger disruptor in my young teenage life than Boom Shaka. No South African band has quite come to define the boundary pushing of the late 1990s. Looking back on that period I cannot help but be in awe of the bravery of those four members of Boom Shaka and all their audacity.
Prior to Boom Shaka hitting the scene I had inherited most of my musical tastes from my father. Boom Shaka helped me independently define my own musical palate. Boom Shaka expanded my mind in ways that only great art can. They were the celebration the young people of this country deserved after the turmoil of the early 1990s. Most important, the band expanded the definition of blackness and womanness. What did it mean to be a black woman in democratic South Africa? I did not know, but Lebo and Thembi added depth to what was a shallow pool of options.
Boom Shaka’s hard-hitting kwaito sounds, their sexy dance routines, outfits and crazy hairstyles turned this country upside down. In black homes everywhere young people were imitating their infamously racy dance moves as parents looked on with concern. My parents were not bothered. They bobbed along to Boom Shaka and even helped me finally meet my favourite band. They fully endorsed my love affair – that is, until Boom Shaka broke a sacred boundary.
In 1998 Boom Shaka released their own version of our precious national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica. To the discontent and dismay of older generations, Boom Shaka set our nation’s prayer to a pulsating funky kwaito/ house beat. Clearly under this democracy there would be no sacred cows. Even our national anthem was up for reimagination. I was not quite sure what do – whether to dance guiltily to this infectious rendition of the anthem or join my parents’ protest. I decided to dance, but in secret and out of sight from those to whom the national anthem meant something much deeper than my 14-year-old mind could comprehend then.
Today, as an adult, I am soberly looking back at this episode, wondering whether Boom Shaka had indeed crossed the line? Is it okay to bounce to the national anthem? At the time of the song’s release it was reported in City Press that Boom Shaka’s version of the anthem “has been viewed by some as a prostitution of African culture for commercial purposes and many even believe it should be stopped”.
Boom Shaka responded by saying, “It’s a little bit of a misunderstanding. We’re not dissing anything; this is our own version, one for the young people. Our parents know the lyrics to that song, but a lot of kids don’t, even though they stand at school and hear it sung every morning. Young people’s reaction to our version of the song has been incredible, they love it. And this way they’ll learn the lyrics too.”
Boom Shaka also pledged that they would be donating all of the proceeds of the single to charities – particularly to school tuition fees for kids, but also to old age homes.
Gavin Steingo, a researcher at Princeton’s music department, wrote a journal article titled “Producing Kwaito: Nkosi Sikelel’, After Apartheid” where he explores the criticism against the remix with one of the critics cited saying that national anthems are no laughing matter. In Boom Shaka’s defence, Steingo argues that by remixing the national anthem they had re-imagined a future for South African youth. The song was a testament of the creative force of the youth.
Steingo recalls the history of the anthem, which was composed by Enoch Sontonga in 1897. Subsequently, seven verses were added to it by Samuel E Mqhayi – the Xhosa poet. It was performed at key milestones in our history such the formation of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) in 1912, which later became the African National Congress (ANC). It has been sung in exile to champion the cause back home. Nkosi Sikelel’ could also be heard reverberating throughout our prisons, where many political prisoners such as those held at Number 4, which is today the home of our Constitutional Court, sang it in defiance and in unity.
Steingo writes that the hymn has also become a symbol of the struggle for unity on the African continent. The hymn is our deepest prayer for our continent. And it has also been the last utterance of many before they were brutally killed under apartheid, like Harald Sefola who was electrocuted with two comrades in a field outside Witbank. While waiting to die he requested permission to sing Nkosi Sikelel’. His killer said: “He was a very brave man who believed strongly in what he was doing.”
There have also been jazz renditions of the hymn – most notably by Zim Ngqwana. However, some genres are more respectable than others. Maybe it is acceptable to tap along to the national anthem, maybe to even sway side to side, but nothing more. Certainly, prancing to the anthem would be viewed as disrespectful to its solemn meaning. However, when Boom Shaka hit the scene they were screaming, “Welcome to democracy where all your ways will be challenged and where all your senses and sensibilities will be tested”.
I loved their provocation. I loved watching their unravelling of our societal norms. Our country was transitioning – we were in motion and if Boom Shaka was to have its way we would transition on beat and in our twerking stances.
As things were, even before Boom Shaka’s shocking remix, the government had already remixed Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika by adding Die Stem and its English version which was the anthem under apartheid. I have previously written as to why I endorsed this institutional remix. When I sing the national anthem, I sing the Die Stem part too because in that moment I am reminded of the magnanimity of my people – a reminder that we are better than our oppressors whom we also liberated, bringing them into the fold of democracy, deconstructing their symbols like Die Stem and infusing them with new meaning on our own terms. That’s powerful.
Boom Shaka’s version of the anthem was produced by DJ Christos. It opens with a sample of Nelson Mandela’s voice. In the mid- to late-1990s Mandela is known to have been the voice of reconciliation – but the sample that Boom Shaka chose is of Mandela sounding obstinate and quite frankly fed up. He can be heard on the start of track saying, “And those South Africans who have berated me for being loyal to our friends, literally they can go throw themselves into a pool.”
Back then I did not know the context of this Mandela quote. Thanks to Steingo’s research I now know that the sample comes from a speech Mandela gave in defence of his relationship to Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi to Bill Clinton during his visit.
I loved the tone of Mandela’s voice. It was without the respectability and politeness that many had come to define Mandela by. It was as close to a middle finger as I had ever heard from Mandela. And what makes it even sweeter is that he was sticking it to the mighty United States in honour of his African allies including Cuba.
In fact, Boom Shaka’s Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika is a middle finger to convention and an unquestioning culture. For so long black people had to do what they were told. Young black people had to do as their parents said. Boom Shaka turned that on its head because in a democracy, questioning everything is the point. What they did was not the underside of democracy, it is democracy’s very essence and virtue.
It’s now 2019, I dance openly, unashamedly and unapologetically to Boom Shaka’s Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika which to me sounds like freedom. As Lebo sings I feel each word of our anthem. I feel its history. I can feel its presence and its future. I beam with pride knowing that I belong to a country where this story is possible. While African-Americans take the knee in protest at the sound of their Star-Spangled Banner, I am reminded by Boom Shaka just how daring a nation we are. Just how far ahead of our time we are. I have always said we are the constitutional innovators of the world and what Boom Shaka did with the anthem is yet another piece of evidence of our genius. DM
"Have you ever noticed how ‘What the hell’ is always the right decision to make?" ~ Terry Johnson
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