Sitting cross-legged in a trailer deep in New York’s Central Park, the R&B singer Goapele was the picture of exhaustion. She just delivered an emotional performance in celebration of the centennial of the African National Congress on an evening that honored leaders of the South African political organization like Chris Hani, Miriam Makeba, Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela and Hugh Masekela. There was over 1,000 people in attendance, and was the largest celebration of the ANC in the U.S.
But it was when Goapele dedicated a song to Douglas Mohlabane, her late father who had been exiled for his political activism during the apartheid era, that a hush came over the audience and the night—now genuine and painfully sweet—was hers alone.
“I was emotional before the show because I just thinking about how full-circle everything [is] and thinking about the music that I grew up to,” Goapele said looking downward. “You know, Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela—and what was going on in South Africa and what my family was wrongfully experiencing while I was growing up in the Bay Area … I am just so thankful that in my lifetime the apartheid system was abolished. There is a new South Africa and it’s really inspiring to know that the ANC has been around for 100 years and still going strong.”
Goapele said she feels connected to a long tradition of South African artists whose music and sacrifice gave hope to those suffering and fighting for justice. “I believe in reflecting honesty and reflecting reality in my music and making music that touches people emotionally—music that can bring us together,” she shares. “They’re artists that influenced me,” she said. “The music that they did was so honest that it wasn’t even allowed to be played as they were touring the rest of the world.”
Moikgansti Kgama, founder and executive director of ImageNation who organized the event said music was the best way to pay tribute to the spirit and legacy of the ANC, a notion South African Consul General George Monyemangene agreed with wholeheartedly.
“The music during the times of the South African struggle against apartheid was very critical,” Monyemangene said. “The music of people like Miriam Makeba and those who have contributed, served as a very important tool in terms of mobilizing people, talking against the apartheid system and really keeping the spirits to fight against apartheid alive for a very long time. People used that music as an upliftment. The music also conveyed to the world the situation that was happening in South Africa to try and galvanize the entire world to fight against this evil system that was in place at that particular time.”
After the performances, ImageNation also showed the 1959 drama Come Back, Africa, filmed secretly during the brutal regime. The organization’s primary goal was to build awareness around the fact of the ANC’s centennial, Kgama said. “African Americans and Americans in general have a close relationship with the whole anti-apartheid movement so I thought this would draw people that would feel a relationship to it.”
Yolanda Zama, the Brooklyn-based singer whose melodic, folksy style is reminiscent of that era’s sound is working on her tentatively-titled EP, African Love Letter. Still bubbling from the positive feedback of her performance, she couldn’t help but be held in awe at the courage of musicians engaged in the struggle. “Miriam Makeba was this natural-haired African girl from rural South Africa, stood for something and rose to the Billboard charts,” she said. “I have so much more accessible to me, so I feel like I have no business being, like, 'It’s so hard!' Because back then, it was really hard."
Yolanda’s own mother, Nomi Sangweni, was exiled to New York as a political prisoner but returned soon after the apartheid regime was toppled. “People like Nelson Mandela and Albert Lutuli knew apartheid was wrong and they sacrificed their family life and just having a normal life for the rest of us,” she said. “For me it’s a very powerful testimony of resilience that this organization has lasted for a hundred years—no matter what’s going on with the ANC right now.”
Some music was banned in South Africa, Monyemangene said, but its effect was minimal. “People found ways to listen," he said. “Through other systems, through the African National Congress and those who fought to get this music in. In fact, when you ban something you just make people more determined to seek it out and actually listen to the message.”
“We think they are fantastic,” Monyemangene said of Yolanda Zama and Goapele. “It’s great for South Africa because August is the month that we celebrate African women, not only in South Africa but really throughout the continent and globally. To have such wonderful musicians to be part of the ANC centennial celebrations and to celebrate women’s month is just fantastic. Goapele and Yolanda Zama were just brilliant.”
Goapele is slated to attend the premiere of Sparkle, in which she has a small role, today in Los Angeles. Elated to be a part of Whitney Houston’s last project, she the most most exciting part of her experience was singing and dancing simultaneously and working the renowned choreographer Fatima Robinson.
Her joy in the experience should have come as no surprise as Goapele and her late father often bonded through their love of music.
“Singing and dancing at the same time,” she said, “that’s what I did as a kid.”