Freedom in the age of democracy
In that space we embodied a sense of being free in our moves. But this sense of freedom did not ring true to our reality outside of the club. Leaving the club, we would return to our ordinary lives where our fears of encountering a road-block on the way home were very real. There were also the obligations and demands imposed by our communities on us as the young adults of the new democratic dispensation. Ours was the expectation to achieve and excel. “You were after all born in a time of freedom. Unlike us who grew up in a time where if you were black you could not accomplish anything.” But was what we were experiencing in the club really freedom? And was that the limit of it? (Freedom only experienced in the club!)
The topic of freedom seems terribly passé in the year 2011, 17 years after apartheid. I am drawing a parallel between house music and freedom, hoping that in using house music as a lens we may have a better understanding of freedom. House music is eclectic in the symbols it draws from. It brings together African traditions of performance, Christian spirituals and black male sexuality. In this combination house music becomes a vehicle, holding potential emancipatory action.
The present South African situation is characterized by a great degree of uncertainty and ambiguity from all sectors of its population. I am thinking here of tag-lines such as “making South Africa work” by the organization Men On the Side of the Road. I am also thinking of Ivor Chipkin’s book “Do South Africans exist?” What these statements reveal is a desperate attempt to name that which cannot be named, that which is yet-to-be-born.
The confusion of unknowability reveals itself on the ground through sheer greed and self-servitude. Even those in positions of power, who sprinkle us with dream potions of future promises, grab at any opportunity, as if what lies ahead is grim. ‘The worst is yet to come’. Most of these habits of the black elite are consonant with past models of white privilege. But the accumulation is empty as it is unable to free itself of its material conditions. For freedom naturally desires equality; without equality freedom becomes distorted, an imprisonment which does not set the soul loose. The result is further alienating to the mind from the physical freedom it pursues.
House music grapples with the difficult issues we have been unable to resolve in our material reality. In house music we see the co-mingling of ambiguities within the post-Apartheid scenario. Religion, tradition, sexuality and identities may indeed be the underlying basis upon which we remain as uncertain now, as we were 17 years ago, on “what South Africa is”. House music conflates these issues in a dynamic and experiential way, addressing precisely that which we have been unable to speak in words.
It is for this reason that I return to the old question about freedom. Like a Kwaito song that has long lost its flavor, it is still worth listening to. It may bring to life those memories of iskero or isthwetla, all the dances styles of the early 90s. Perhaps I’m out-of-step, they always told me ukuthi ngiyabhimba, but who knows, maybe it’s just the dubstep in me.
There are some interesting features common to the traditions of music in Africa and elsewhere across the globe. There is repetition. Repetition can either be in the form of a recurring rhythm or melody. A ‘chorus’ in a song is an example of a repeating melody that appears in the music every now and then. A repeating rhythm can be seen in West-African drumming where certain parts are played over and over again throughout the music with subtle variation. This repetition is crucial. It organizes sound, allowing different sounds to exist as a whole. Repetition is not mere redundancy, it is not devoid of intelligence, rather repetition ritualizes the experience of listening, reassuring the listener of a wholeness in the music. Confirming to the ears that what they are in fact hearing are related sounds. In house music too, it is the repeating drum-machine pattern that drives the music.
The pleasure of the listening experience lies in its ability to evoke dance. The repeating 4/4 rhythm of the drum-machine enables dance. You see, house music’s focus has always been on the dance floor. It is music made specifically with the clubbing environment in mind. Repetition in music is therefore a process of engaging the body in the music. It secures the listener’s position in the musical experience as not merely passive, but involved in a very physical way.
There is a feature prominent in traditions of music in Africa, where there are no boundaries between the audience and the performers. Those who are involved are at once performers and listeners the music. House music is in keeping with this interdependent relationship.
My father asks me why so many youngsters aspire to be House music DJs in our days. “It’s as if no one wants to work”, he would add. I think there are two things at play here. One is that contemporary South Africa is fertile with opportunities for new kinds of identities. These identities lie outside of the 9-to-5pm working phenomenon. The computer-age has given birth to many possibilities in terms of creative work, from graphic designing to beat-making. Identities centered on creative work and entertainment are ideal platforms for expression; with reasonable financial gain, outside of the standard work frameworks. Having witnessed our parents struggle against physical oppression; we ask “What were you fighting for?” It was a struggle for us to live our dreams. We want to pursue the fruits of that struggle into our reality, to push the gains of the struggle for freedom to its limits, freeing the mind so that imagination is extended making true liberation a possibility. Our parents’ deferred dreams seem to be coming out through us; their skeletons have awakened to our new consciousness—they desire to come out and dance.
A music promoter once said to me, “House music is like a spirit. It works with the mind.” It would therefore make sense why house music would become a rich territory for cultivating the freedom of the mind. House music has exploded in its popularity in S. A. over the last 17 years or so. One can no longer speak seriously about the genre in global terms without mentioning Mzantsi. In shebeens, upmarket night-clubs, minibus taxis, and on public radio it is House music that blares!
House emerged in the 1980s in the United States. Its popularity began in the gay scene, and in Chicago and other parts it remained very much a ‘black thing’. Its spillover to the mainstream market was through radio airplay, mostly in pirate radio stations. Pirate radio not only serviced the uncontainability of house but it also guaranteed its illegitimacy—it has moved from the being the music of gays (already seen as problematic on its own) to that of rebellious drug-using youth.
Although house emerged in America, it had a greater impact, in terms of masses, outside of the U.S. By the 1990s it had generated itself a heterogeneous group of listeners worldwide, including places like Tokyo, Australia and Germany.
House music is the same age as our democratic dispensation in South Africa. The increase in access to overseas sound material in the early 1990s led to house music’s growth locally. But we preferred our house music slowed down compared to our overseas counterparts. DJs like Oskido, Mdu and Christos were getting house vinyls from abroad and they were playing them on the outskirts of Jozi’s CBD. Gradually these guys began experimenting with the music by slowing it down in tempo to about 90bpm and then adding their own vocals on top. These were the early beginnings of kwaito. Kwaito was seen as a ghettoization of house music—as Arthur Mafokate himself once said in an interview about kwaito, “It’s all about ghetto music.”
I wont delve any deep into kwaito. House music entered the popular music scene mediated through kwaito. House music has grown in tandem with our democracy.
Religion has the effect of satisfying needs experienced in the physical world in the metaphysical realm. Early colonial administrators used this aspect of religion as a way of controlling African masses in relation to the very real conditions of oppression they were experiencing. Africans though had their own response. Although Christianity was intended to pacify, it became an equally potent symbol for resistance. Africans could reference their own situation of suffering against the suffering experienced by Israelites in Egypt in the bible. Christianity provided a supernatural impulse in the struggle for freedom.
The most notable example in this impulse is Enoch Sontonga’s hymn Nkosi Sikelela iAfrica. The hymn is at once a call for God to bless Africa, and an inference to a post-liberation vision of Africa as a centre of power and fame. The liberation struggle re-defined Christianity and its Bible on the basis of the struggle for freedom, forging a spiritual foundation for human equality. This trend was not only in Africa, but in the diaspora at-large. It is this tradition that house-music calls upon, in its use of the Church as a trope and in its cut-‘n-paste of African-American gospel spiritual songs. “Oskido’s Church Grooves: Fourth Commandment” (released in 2004) comes to mind here. Holding true to the religious theme, the first track is a sermon, “Oh Lord teach us how to pray”. The rest of the album continues in the usual secular fashion.
These religious tendencies grapple with serious sacred issues in a very secular and real way. Historically electronic music has always seen its role as bringing seriousness to the secular. One of the early founders of electronic music composition, Pierre Henry (1950) viewed his art as a shift from “the sacred” to “a relationship with cries, laughter, sex, death. Everything that puts us in touch with the cosmic, that is to say, with the living materiality of plants on fire.” There are no gatekeepers in the secular realm. It is available to everyone, and can bring critical issues to the people in all their diversity. So what is it that hinders us from seeing the house music messages in this light?
Electronic music has been characterized by a male dominance in its production. In South Africa too, people who have been at the forefront in the production and Dj-ing of house music tracks have been men, black men in particular. BlackCoffee, Vinny Da Vinci, Oskido are but a few names that come to mind. The physical responses to their music though have been mixed. Dance is often associated with feminine tendencies. There are certainly many house music dance styles locally that are feminine in their gestures, the manyisa is one that easily comes to mind. As house music is rooted within the dancing experience the combination of the masculine production and feminine dance is of relevance.
Music’s fluidity, its ability to exist in-context and in many other contexts simultaneously, can provide a stimulus towards the direction of freedom. But for house music to do this, it needs to be rescued from the context of excess and accumulation and loaded with transformative content of liberation. It needs to be freed from the ghettoes of global cultures of consumerism which seek to marginalize the contributions of the church, gospel music, African spirituals, gay-club culture all of which have been foundational to its origins. This is perhaps an extreme kind of consumerism of late modernity. Where modernism sought to free art from social constraints, autonomy came to imply self-possession. House music is an industry that generates its own hype, garners its own applause and dictates its own artistic value.
What we are witnessing here is the disembodiment of art, ridding it of its conditions of emergence, in order to satisfy consumerism. Artistic expression thrives in contexts where it is allowed to live itself out and die, because it has fulfilled its mission to us as human beings. This has already happened to the genre of the novel, and is unfolding in jazz as we speak. When art is over-loaded with the demands of ‘the market’ it loses this ability of living itself out towards its death. Unable to sustain the freedom outside of the dancefloor, house music soon exposes its own hollowness.
The freedom I feel when dancing to house music in the club is short-lived precisely because it is a false freedom. For true freedom naturally desires equality—meaning that it locates its worth within the worthiness of other human beings. The self must subside for the ‘collective’ to emerge, this kind of equality is at the heart of any psychic awareness. It is an awareness that says: “I am not alone”, an awareness that takes into regard the affectual nature of things, not as mere objects, but as life everlasting, things as movements spatially bound, but also capable of so much more.
We persist in our house music frenzy, hoping that this so-called freedom, spent wandering between night-clubs and shebeens will provide redemption. Nightclubs are places of leisure and being social, but very little socializing actually happens here, as our voices our muffled by the blaring music. Soaring above our voices, house music takes over and becomes our voice. The way house music blares over the airwaves, on the streets and in places of leisure may be acting as a form of silence—a silence that is amplified by the under-fulfilled promises of our democracy.
Unless we name our freedom we will continue to live in silence, precisely because a subject with no name is unable to speak. Its locus of thoughts, actions and feelings are unknowable. As a consequence, every gesture that emerges from it seems bizarre. To seize power means taking back; it is about an entire generation taking back and possessing what is rightfully theirs by birthright. It is about undoing that which colonialism did, by taking back those spaces which rightfully belong to us as a people. We are dispossessing that which the spirit of conquest sought to claim as belonging to some and not others. In so doing we restore humanity—putting into play that reality which was imagined for us. A reality of freedom and equality. By naming our freedom into a reality we forge a new set of ‘given’ conditions, opening the doors for new phenomena.
Thokozani Mhlambi is an Archival Platform correspondent