THE BLOG

To Black Women, Miriam Makeba's Life Is Forever A Song

Makeba was able to overcome her insurmountable difficulties with song but I wondered; what happens to those who do not manage to fold away their pain?

24/02/2017 04:56 SAST | Updated 28/03/2017 13:50 SAST
Gideon Mendel/ Corbis/ Getty Images
The late prominent South African singer Miriam Makeba singing at the Nelson Mandela Freedom Festival at Clapham Common in London.

The confident young black woman sitting on my left startles me with a sudden burst of tears in the dark. We are seated inside the Mother City's Artscape Theatre watching Mama Africa the Musical. In her inspiring portrayal of the older Miriam Makeba, Jennifer Pau-Kakaza unlocks the gates of our unacknowledged national pain. In a compelling performance, Pau-Kakaza unleashes and empties the deep wells of once carefully contained un-cried black women tears. The tears are much older than us. I had wept those specific tears the second time I watched the show. I had sat besides many other young black women who too had wept as intensely as they had laughed, sung and delighted throughout the duration of the show in Cape Town.

There is a seat open that separates me from the weeping. My heart is split open and I extend my left hand in the dark to the once-together black woman. We massage hands and attempt a hand hug. There is no need to explain what the tears are about. We did not live through the majority of the era portrayed in the musical, but we are not without the wounds hidden by the dignity of our grandmothers' resilience. We must not deny that we are scarred.

We are after all, our mothers' fight back to the system that denied them the opportunity to mother their children in peace; or to achieve what was within their potential to achieve. Above all, we carry our own scars and wounds too because we are walking in places that were created to alienate us. Our very being is seen as a threat since we are testimony to the defeat of the old order, but still, we forge ahead. We focus forward; fighting harder for what we are worth. We stand against every force that is designed to undermine us. We fight harder still to prove that we can do it, that we will do it, regardless of what is behind us, with us or before us.

Makeba lived through the most difficult days while displaying dazzling confidence with African dignity and grace. Zenzi, the younger Makeba acted by Simangele Mashazi carried us through the difficult life of Makeba with a joyous voice and a triumphant smile. Our lives as current black women require us to be constantly navigating our internal tension and conflict with the world because the world is in conflict with us by virtue of who we are. We do so with a smile, as did Makeba; only her world was far more cruel, much lonelier and scarier than any we could imagine. The young black woman who is now undone at the edge of my hand sits next to her white boyfriend who does not attempt to comfort her.

Seated on my right is Ms. Nozipho January-Bardill. She is enthralled by what she called: "such excellent dancing!" I strain closer towards her so that I can hear her whisper: "Ooh, I love the big dancer. She is so light on her feet!" At some point during the play, while seated, she can no longer hold back any more than the young woman could hold back her tears.

She becomes thirty years younger and frees her body to the movement of the beat.The play, the music, but especially the energetic dancers transport her with profound enabling jovial sensitivity to the story of her own exile. She does not tell me that but I hear how she sings along. We also sang along but it was not how she sang along, indeed it could not be. She sang like one who did not simply love Makeba's music, she sang like one who has lived through Khawuleza mama or Bhasobha Felefuthi (Beware Verwoed).

What happens to those who do not manage to fold away their pain? Will we hear someone screaming "F-words" under moments of pressure in parliament?

At times she sang quietly along as though the play had tricked her into a journey whose map and photographs she and other exiles had purposely packed away in order to transition us into the reality we now live in. She says to me: "We were activists, you know." She says this because she can tell that I cannot fathom how a firm but so gentle a soul would have had to stand up to a regime so brutal. Yet, there is plenty evidence that of course she did.

Makeba was able to overcome her insurmountable difficulties with song but I wondered; what happens to those who do not manage to fold away their pain? What if the pain pops right back up? Will we hear someone screaming "F-words" under moments of pressure in parliament? Does the country fold inward because of that unchecked pain? Does the soul become corrupt until everything it breaths is corruption? Do the scars and words of the oppressor become them? Nina Simone, who saw Makeba as her mentor believed that art must reflect the times. Mama Africa the Musical confronts us with ourselves.

Once the play was done, it left our hearts soaring. I could have hugged the world. Black women stood a little taller and smiled a little wider. Makeba's voice commanded the ear of presidents and more. Her heartaches as a woman became a balm to our heartaches. Her songs were sharp arrows that pierced the heart of the apartheid regime. She made it impossible for them to accept her back into the country while the country was not yet free. She sang until prison gates opened and released her black president.

Niyi Coker Jnr. the writer and director, who is from America, told the story with generosity and sensitivity working with a talented South African cast. Makeba was a civil rights activist in the United States while she was an anti-apartheid activist for South Africa. Makeba has left a rich legacy for an SA-USA collaboration in arts and activism. Miriam Makeba the Musical is a triumphant story I wished every South African had the privilege to experience. The cast will be flying to London soon. My hope however is that the play will return to South Africa not only because it is our story but because it is a thrilling experience.