10 songs for Mandela’s fight for freedom

As the world commemorates Nelson Mandela Centenary 2018 (Mandela would have turned 100 years old this year), we look back at the protest music which played a significant role in supporting the anti-apartheid movement.

During the brutal apartheid era in South Africa, its musicians were monitored, repressed and even imprisoned, and many of their songs were banned. Musicians were forced underground and some had to go into exile in order to continue their protest. Music became its own form of resistance.

Soon they were joined by musicians from all over the world who released protest songs to crush the apartheid regime and demand the release of political prisoners including Nelson Mandela.

Here are 10 less well known songs composed in support of the anti-apartheid movement.

1. Peter Tosh – ‘Fight Apartheid’

Jamaican reggae star Peter Tosh wrote this protest song against racial and economic oppression in South Africa. Tosh was serious about politics and a strident campaigner against apartheid. He refused invitations to perform in South Africa and was vocal about their violent and inhumane policies.

2. Gill Scott Heron – ‘Johannesburg’

American soul jazz poet and ‘out there’ musical messenger Gil Scott was known for his work as a spoken-word performer and a self proclaimed ‘bluseologist’. As a political trailblazer, he spoke out where many others feared to go.

3. Fela – ‘Beasts of No Nation’

Fela Anikulapo Kuti, pioneer of Afrobeat and human rights activist, was a fearless and charismatic social commentator. ‘Beasts of No Nation’ was a commentary on P.W. Botha, the South African president who, at the peak of the anti-apartheid struggle, stated in reaction to the persistent riots against the racist regime that his regime would act more brutally if the riots did not stop – “This uprising will bring out the beast in us…” The cover of the Beasts of No Nation features Prime Minster Thatcher, President Botha and US President Reagan with devil’s horns.

4. The Twinkle Brothers – ‘Free Africa’

The Twinkle Brothers are a Jamaican reggae band formed in the ’60s who rose to fame through the national Jamaican Pop & Mento music competitions. Brothers Norman and Ralston Grant worked with legendary producers such as Bunny Lee, Duke Reid, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and were signed to Virgin Records. The Twinkle Brothers wrote ‘Free Africa’ as a song with conscious lyrics in solidarity with the fight for freedom on the South African borders.

5. Maze featuring Frankie Beverly – ‘Mandela’

The iconic American soul band Frankie Beverly & Maze are known for their legendary soul anthem ‘Joy and Pain’. Combining a Philadelphia soul sound they were among the top R&B acts of the late ’70s and ’80s. In 1977 they released ‘Mandela’ calling for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison.

6. Vuyisile Mini – ‘Ndodemnyama we Verwoerd (Beware, Verwoerd)’

‘Ndodemnyama we Verwoerd’ was a liberation anthem written in the ’50s by South African Vuyisile Mini, the ANC activist, union leader and freedom fighter who wrote some of the most influential resistance songs in the early years of apartheid. Charged in 1963 with 17 counts of sabotage, Mini, together with Zinakile Mkaba and Wilson Khayingo, was convicted by the apartheid regime and hanged in Pretoria Central Prison in 1964. The song was recorded by Miriam Makeba and remains one of the most powerful songs of South African liberation.

7. Steel Pulse – ‘Biko’s Kindred Lament’

Birmingham’s Steel Pulse are one of the UK’s best loved roots reggae bands and were the first non-Jamaican act to win the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album. Aligning themselves closely with the Rock Against Racism movement in the ’70s, they spoke out against injustice in the UK and around the world. ‘Biko’s Kindred Lament’ echoed the global outrage when Steve Biko, the popular youth voice of black liberation who was killed, aged 30, whilst in police detention. Mandela called him “the spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa”, adding that the Nationalist government “had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid”.

8. A Tribe Called Quest – “Steve Biko (Stir It Up)”

The 80s Hip Hop Collective featured a tribute to the revolutionary hero Steve Biko on their third album Midnight Marauders.

9. Chicco – ‘We Miss You Manelo’

In 1989, Sello ‘Chicco’ Twala, a much loved South African musician, released a pop tune called ‘We Miss You Manelo’ that was accompanied by a video that seems to tell the plight of a teenage girl called ‘Manelo’. The song was written to avoid the censors and in fact was celebrated as a plea to free Mandela from prison in Robben Island.

10. Miles David – ‘Full Nelson’

Jazz giant Miles Davis is among the most influential figures in the history of jazz and 20th-century music. The track ‘Full Nelson’ is his tribute to Nelson Mandela and is featured on the album Tutu (dedicated to South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu). Tutu was a defining jazz album – attracting a young, new audience to jazz while at the same time highlighting the ongoing injustices of apartheid regime.

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