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by Rachel Devitt

November 29, 2013

South African Freedom Songs

by Rachel Devitt  |  November 29, 2013

The struggle against the heinous apartheid system in South Africa was one waged on multiple fronts. Music was one of the most important. Freedom anthems, protest songs, odes to Nelson Mandela, even just traditional lullabies and folk songs buoyed and unified freedom fighters and South Africans suffering under the atrocities of apartheid. And musicians themselves were very involved in the fight, often serving as a voice of the movement (sometimes from exile): Artists like Vusi Mahlasela and Hugh Masekela recorded open protest anthems, while others, like "Mama Africa" Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, engaged in resistance by simply singing about peace and recording folk songs from Xhosa, Swazi, Zulu and other traditions.

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the 1994 overthrow of apartheid, but the legacy of both the oppressive system and its dismantling continues to weigh heavily on the hearts and minds of South Africa and the world. The new movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (starring Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela) revisits the life of the great freedom fighter and former president, including his tireless anti-apartheid work and his role as an icon of hope. It will be widely released over Thanksgiving weekend, so what better time to also revisit some of the moving music from the anti-apartheid movement? Our playlist of South African freedom songs begins with one of the first anthems of the movement, "Beware, Verwoerd," a powerful warning issued to the architect of apartheid by songwriter/activist Vuyisile Mini (who was hung for his protest songs). And we end with "Nkosi Sikelel'iAfrika" ("Lord bless Africa" in Xhosa), the song that began as a hymn, went on to become the anthem of the African National Congress during apartheid and is now the national anthem of South Africa. Amandla!

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