Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Behold the liberators’ triumphant anti-climax

I asked my mate Garvey to tape Joy Division, which he did, but then he sommer put this other stuff on the B-side to fill up the tape. 
            It was angry, militant rap music, over the most chaotic samples, shrieks and breakbeats. But the bizarre part was that through the chaos, I could make out almost every word the guys were saying.
            There was a main rapper with the diction of a sportscaster. It was like Robert Marawa commentating over the sound of burglar alarms, machine guns and tape recordings of Chris Hani speeches.
            And they were down with the struggle. Their tracks name-checked Mandela and Steve Biko. Called out Margaret Thatcher for not backing the boycott…
Mandela, cell dweller, Thatcher, You can tell her clear the way for the prophets of rage
             And in between, this hype man, screaming interjections like, “base for ya face” and “yeah boyiii” or “Flava Flav!” or even “you’re blind, baby! Blind to the facts of who you are, coz you’re watching that garbage!”
            It was terrifying, but exhilarating at the same time.
This was 1989, now, apartheid in full effect and all my mates were unanimous that rap was crap and alternative rock was what ruled. But deep within myself I nurtured the first little idea that maybe there was some rap music that wasn’t that useless.
The stuff on the B-side of my Joy Division tape, for instance. Fresh Prince, Doctor Alban, 2 Unlimited, Tone Loc… that stuff was pretty crap. But this stuff was something else.
It turns out it was Public Enemy! A bit of research revealed that the album was called It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. It was and remains the most militant, most politically conscious rap album I’ve ever heard.
Then, last Friday, Public Enemy came to play Joburg. This group, which had metaphorically stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their black brothers during the struggle all those years ago, came to SA for the first time.
But no one had heard of them.
I got to interview frontman Chuck D and almost had an embolism I was so excited. That night I went to the concert and… there were hardly any black people.
Most okes there were white goofballs in their thirties who could still remember when you got music on tapes. A couple of black dudes had come to see what the fuss was about.
Obviously Public Enemy had been banned in the bad old days. Sadly that banning had worked. Hardly any of their music got heard inside the old RSA.
The worldwide anti-apartheid campaign had helped raise awareness outside SA and driven international pressure on the Nat government to yield to democracy. In a way that helped set us free.
But it didn’t sell them any records over here. And thus, on the night of their triumphant return to the country they helped liberate for their black brothers, the greatest rap group of all time played to a couple of hundred white okes.
For what it’s worth, we were deeply grateful.

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