One of his more controversial moments was voicing his refusal to take pictures with women who wear weaves or hair extensions while accepting an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University back in 2015. His vocality on issues of heritage, indigeneity, storytelling, and music was the overtone for this instance and was very deeply connected to his work as a freedom fighter and advocate for preserving South African Culture. At 21 years old Hugh Masekela left his home of South Africa to begin—what would be—thirty years of exile and the start of about five decades of touring the world and playing with musicians from Paul Simon to Abdullah Ibrahim, Jonas Gwangwa and Kippie Moeketsi.
In 1961 after the turmoil of the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, Mr. Masekela (or Bra Hugh as he is known endearingly in S.A.) was able to get to the UK to study at London’s Guildhall School, then found himself at the Manhattan School of Music in the U.S. where Caribbean-American musician and activist Harry Belafonte helped him settle in. He landed in the U.S. during the Civil Rights Movement, and Mr. Belafonte was heavily involved in that movement. Bra Hugh quickly began composing music with New York and other international musicians. Bra Hugh’s “Grazing in the Grass,” composed by Philemon Hou and first recorded by the South African trumpeter was released in the United States as a single in 1968, the year it is stated the Civil Rights Movement officially ended. It was number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, ranking as the 18th biggest hit of the year.
While Black Americans were fighting for civil and human rights in the United States, non-White South Africans were being removed from their homes and forced into segregated ghettos by an Apartheid government. At the same time, many African and Caribbean nations were gaining independence from European powers. Nigeria won its independence from the British in 1960, and Mr. Belafonte’s homeland of Jamaica gained independence from the British as well in 1962. One can only imagine Bra Hugh’s perspective and understanding about what was happening in the world to Black people and African people during the start of his political exile.
It is no surprise that Bra Hugh was also married to fellow South-African legendary singer, actress and activist Miriam Makeba from 1964 to 1966; who no doubt encouraged and inspired his protest music. She, too, was friends with Harry Belafonte (winning a Grammy with him in 1966) and was involved in Black liberation movements from the United States to South Africa. “Soweto Blues,” written by Hugh Masekela and performed by Mama Africa (as Miriam Makeba is also known as) in 1977 was about the Soweto uprising. The music of both Bra Hugh and Mama Africa was the soundtrack to anti-Apartheid South Africa and a hope for a just, democratic country.
Bra Hugh’s 1987 hit “Bring Him Back Home” was the anthem for Nelson Mandela’s liberation and world tour following his release from prison in 1990. After the release of Mandela and end of Apartheid, after 30 years in exile, Mr. Masekela returned back home to South Africa where he continued to do social and cultural activist work as well as receive well-deserved honors for his achievements and impact. Mr. Masekela was involved in many social initiatives in South Africa including serving on the advisory board of The Lunchbox Fund, a non-profit organization that provides daily meals to students of township schools in Soweto.
Even in exile he was a freedom fighter for his country through his music and cultural work. So as we honor Hugh Masekela and celebrate his life, legacy, and music we must remember how he influenced a liberation movement in South Africa thousands of miles away from his home-country… for freedom, culture, and preserving what makes South Africa so unique.
“That September, after thirty years, I returned to the land of my birth. After I landed and disembarked, it took forty-five minutes for the immigration officer in charge of returning exiles to clear me through customs. She had gone on her morning tea break. During my wait, I became afraid that perhaps something sinister was afoot. Outside, my father, sisters, distant relatives, old friends, and reporters were all waiting for me to emerge. When I came out, a chorus of roars and ululations pierced the air.”
-Extract was taken from the official autobiography of Hugh Masekela, Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela, co-written by D. Michael Cheers, first published in the United States in 2004 and in South Africa by Jacana Media in 2015.
[*If you know the source of the featured image, please let me know]