I can not write about South African artists and their music without mentioning the politics that defined the era in which these artists lived and produced their music. South African pop music between 1970-1990 appeared in conflict with the white ruling class, especially with the Apartheid system that limited black artists in many ways. Earlier in the 1950’s many artists had left the country and were living in exile; Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Dorothy Masuka a.o. because of their performances, tainted by strong political views.
By the mid-1980’s as the struggle against Apartheid intensified, censorship had been stepped up even from the severe restrictions of the 1970’s and woven more tightly into the structures of the police state. A national state of emergency was declared in 1985. In the same year, a Zulu cultural organization, the Inkatha Freedom Party began to take on a far more active role as a political party. Inkatha had been formed as a royalist cultural group in 1920 and revived in 1974 to shore up the credentials of the Kwazulu homeland. Its leader, former ANC Youth League member Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, had broken with both the black consciousness movement and the ANC by 1980. Initially most influential in its home province, the decade saw Inkatha becoming more active in the workers’ hostels of Vaal, harassing Zulu-speaking workers who held anti-apartheid views and launching attacks on township political gatherings. The messages of Zulu music began to be redefined, through Intaka patronage, so that ‘authenticity’ ruled out anti-apartheid sentiments. Musicians involved in the struggle, received death threats and beatings.
At the same time, the government offered lavish payments to musicians to join the “Info Song” recording project; a pop song extolling the virtues of the status quo. A Mbaqanga singer like blind Steve Kekana took the money only to receive death threats, many township residents boycotted his concerts and records from that moment on. But times do change…
Steve Kekana’s voice is wonderful, the way the words become rhythmic while the melody keeps the groove going. I love the soothing effect of Kekana’s voice and above all, the way he sets a sensible mood to carry his words. Not an American Soul-shouter like James Brown but more in the tradition of Al Green or Marvin Gaye. He was born in 1958 in Zebediela in South Africa’s Limpopo Province, he lost his sight at age five, and attended a school for the blind in Pietersburg. During his school years, he nurtured his love for singing, and was a member of amateur groups whilst a teenager.
Steve Kekana -Mama Katuli 1981
In 1979 and 1980, Kekana won what was then known as the “SABC Black Music Award” for Best Male Vocalist. Further awards followed, with the singer taking the “Top Male Vocalist” award on Radio Zulu, and being the runner-up on the Tswana and Sotho Radio Stations.
Since 2001, he has frequently collaborated with different vocalists like Nana Coyote, and Joe Nina, who produced his most recent album “African Lady”. With over twenty albums to his credit, singer/songwriter Steve Kekana has been a consistent force in the South African music scene since the early 1980’s
article contains excerpts from ‘Soweto Blues’ by Glen Ansell (Continuum 2004)