Tag Archives: South Africa

Farewell, Bra’ Hugh

The world lost one of it’s greatest musical ambassadors of Pan Africanism the day it lost Hugh Masekela, known as “Bra Hugh” in South Africa and much of the world. One of my best-received blog postings on “riquespeaks” dealt with the history of Masekela in Liberia during the 1970s. As exciting as that period was for me personally, it was only one small portion of the truly incredible life Bra Hugh led.

Hugh’s South African origins put him in a unique position to understand the African diaspora, and he parlayed that into one of the most unique bodies of work in musical history. His musical journey through life started in South Africa and took him to the United States, both New York and Los Angeles, Lagos, Nigeria, Ghana, Zaire, Guinea, and many other points along the Transatlantic world. He parlayed this unusual cultural fluency into a songbook that covers a wide array of Pan African experiences, such as “Stimela”, “”African Secret Society”, “Grazing in the Grass”, “Bring Him Back Home”, “Mama”, “Mami Wata”, and many others. He utilized his fellow South African natives such as Philemon Hou (the composer of “Grazing in the Grass”), as well as Los Angeles by way of Houston, Texas musicians The Jazz Crusaders, and at other times, the Ghanian musicians who made up Hezbollah Soundz. Truly I can not think of too many other musicians who have covered so many points on the African diaspora as Bra Hugh.

It all began as a young jazz loving man in South Africa. Hugh, born in 1939, was a youth during the years that the Apartied system began to become more strictly codified into law. The Apartied system itself was inspired by the Jim Crow system in America, and also had many things in common with the suppression of Indigenous people in the States. One of the insights I got from his autobiography that surprised me was that, looking at American movies that featured Black people way back in the ’40s and ’50s, Hugh and his compatriots viewed the United States as a progressive place where Black people had freedom, as the thought of white Boers making movies that featured Blacks was totally inconceivable at that time. He would soon get the chance to come to America and see the strain of racism that influenced that of his country.

Masekela grew up in the unique position of being an African who had a strong connection to the culture of African Americans, through the language of jazz music. He was a huge Louis Armstrong fan, in addition to following the newer be bop school as represented by Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. He actually received a trumpet from Louis Armstrong himself, mailed all the way from the States to South Africa. Eventually, he was sponsored by Harry Belafonte to come to the States to study music, and he would come to be mentored by Dizzy Gillespie, another one of his childhood trumpet heroes.

Of course, now would be the perfect time to mention his relationship to Mama Africa, Mariam Makeba. Mariam was actually several years older than Hugh and it seems their relationship was more of an infatuation on Hugh’s part in the beginning. But Miss Makeba played a pivotal part in Hugh’s life, setting up his connection to come to America, housing him when he got here and in general, teaching him about the facts of life. Eventually, this would include their famed marriage, which also put him in a rarefied jazz club, along with great artists like Max Roach and Miles Davis, in terms of being a jazzman and having a wife that was a well renowned creative force in her own right.

Makeba facilitated life in New York City for Hugh, where he studied music on scholarship from Belafonte and immersed himself in the early ’60s jazz scene. The early ’60s was a fertile creative time for jazz, although not the absolute height of the music’s popularity commercially. During that time period, representatives of every school of jazz existed, from New Orleans trad, to Swing, to Be Bop, to Free Jazz, Soul jazz and the different schools that would dominate the ’70s, including fusion. It was a somewhat daunting environment to learn in, with the music existing and yet going through so many changes. It was Miles Davis, himself a searcher for new forms who told Masekela, “Don’t try to play the shit we playing here. Take what you learn here and do what you know from over there (Africa) and do some shit that NONE of us can play.”

That is exactly what Masekela did when he recorded Philemon Hou’s “Grazing in the Grass.” The lazy, funky instrumental, replete with cowbell and a beautifully soulful melody, became one of the signature hits of the late 1960s. Masekela took that success and hit the very heights of the entertainment industry from a social standpoint, marrying Cab Calloway’s daughter and hobnobbing with stars like Sly Stone.

Masekela was in a very precarious position however, and as the open nature of the ’60s passed on, it was very hard for him as a South African banned in his own country to sustain hits in the United States. He covered all the bases, and yet lacked a base of his own at the same time. And his music began to become more and more political after the feel-good triumph of “Grazing in the Grass.”

So he took his music to Africa, and what he did there was very unique in its time and even today. He left the United States and put his musical celebrity behind trying to bring African music more to the forefront. His ban in his home country of South Africa facilitated his development as a Pan Africanist musical impresario, as he began to focus on West Africa during the ’70s. He worked with Fela Kuti and recruited bands from the West African region. The albums he recorded during the ’70s with Hezdollah Soundz, and on his own record label with Crusaders producer Stewart Levine, Chisa, are all worthwhile Afro Funk workouts that could easily satisfy modern crate diggers.

Hugh also cast his personal lot in Africa at that time, living in Guinea and Liberia. He also was instrumental in organizing the concert that paired with the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight, featured in the movies “Soul Power” and “When We Were Kings.” The concert was even more of a Pan Africanist festival in its planning than what it eventually turned out to be, as the list of artists that didnt make it included Fela Kuti, Stevie Wonder, Barry White, Miles Davis and Aretha Franklin. Hugh was cheated out of the proceeds of that concert by Don King, but the achievement of putting it on still looms large in Pan African history.

Hugh never again had a hit like “Grazing in the Grass” but that does not negate the body of work he made that was largely autobiographical, especially when you listen to songs such as “You Told Your Mama Not To Worry”, and “The Boy is Doin’ It”, which detail his long life away from South Africa. As the tide was eventually turned against Apartheid, Hugh was a key musical fighter in those battles as well. Re-examining his body of work will unearth a treasure trove of musical bounty.

His autobiography “Still Grazing” is one of my absolute favorite books and one I recommend to any fan of his, lover of music, Pan Africanist, historian of the ’60s-80s, and every bibliophile and lover of a good story. One of the things that struck me was the similarities his life had to that of his hero Miles Davis, although their personalities were rather different. But they had many interesting parallels and points of intersection, from Miles advice to play a mixture of American Black and African music, to their marriages to powerful female entertainers that they both tried to downplay ( Hugh to Mariam and Miles to Cicely), their drug addiction, the turn they both took away from pure jazz into a music that fused R&B and rock with jazz, and they also had many points of intersection in New York City, even dating some of the same women, and the impact Hugh had on Miles during Miles silent period, playing at the Nightclub Mikell’s. It also has much in common with that other jazz trumpeter who made it big, Quincy Delight Jones. All of these make for complelling reading and a story that brings a wider view of Jazz and popular music in the changes of the 1960s.

Mainly, when I think of Hugh’s life, I’m happy for him more than I’m sad that he passed. He survived both Aparteid and the pain of being away from his country for 40 years while also making music and recieivng love from many people. And he lived long enough to see majority rule return to South Africa and to serve as a respected cultural ambassador for his country, spending the last 20 plus years at home in South Africa. It all adds up to one of the most incredible lives imaginable and one we should be happy was set to music.


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Filed under Appreciation

Music 4 the Nxt 1 Black History Month Edition II: “Ladies First” by Queen Latifah ft. Monie Love

One thing I’m always thankful for is that I grew into my appreciation for Hip Hop in the middle of it’s late ’80s, early ’90s “Golden Age.” Besides the dope funk samples, high tech rhymes and pure fun of the music and images of that era, one of the most valuable things the artists of that time did were strengthen my familiarity, understanding, and appreciation of Black issues. The majority of artists mentioned something in this vein at that time, but of course the most prominent were Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, X Clan, and The Native Tongue family. One of the most powerful records from the Native Tongue family was a record I discovered watching the local video music station, “California Music Channel”, with my father, Queen Latifah and Monie Love’s classic, “Ladies First.” This song hit me on several levels, from the smooth way the ladies sang the chorus, to the fresh sample based beat, the Afrocentric attractivness of the ladies rhyming, and the seriousness of it’s divestment era South African aparteid footage, which was possibly the first time in my life I’d seen those images.

After the video opens with powerful images of great Black women like Harriet Tubman, Sojurner Truth, Winnie Mandela and Angela Davis, the beat comes in. The groove is based on a funky drumbeat sample of Bahamian percussionist King Erricsons cover of The Doobie Brothers classic, “Listen to the Music.” The heavy fatback funk drumming is supplanted in this case by the prominent mix of King Erricsons hand drums. It creates a very similar effect to another prominent Hip Hop sample, Chuck Brown & the Soul Searcher’s “Ashley’s Roadclip.” Very soon after the drumbeat comes in, we’re hit by the sweet chorus, a female voice crooning “Ooooh/Ladies First/Ladies First”. The next time around another vocal comes in that harmonizes the first. After that sweet refrain, the music intensifies it’s aggressive funk, as a funky bass line comes in, which will repeat its one bar pattern for the song, and the top end is taken care of by a horn sample of five notes playing a syncopated melody. Latifah kicks in the door hard like Big Daddy Kane, “The ladies will kick it/The Rhyming is wicked/Those that don’t know/how to be pros/get evicted/A woman can bear you/break you/take you/Now its time to rhyme/can you relate to?/A sister dope enough to make you/Holler and Scream”, before she turns the mic over to the super fresh London born M.C Monie Love, one of my great crushes of that era! Monie gets on the mic and spits some super fresh, tongue twisting syncopated rhymes ending with “Let me state the position/Ladies first yes?/Yes.” After another short chorus interlude, Monie comes back rapping another verse, which she ends with “we are the ones to give birth/to a new generation of prophets/cause its Ladies First!” Queen Latifah follows her with a “lyrical freestyle” much looser than the tense rhymes of her first verse, and one of my favorite rhymes in the song is her call and response couplet, “Some think that we cant flow. Monie Love: “Cant Flow? Stereotypes they’ve got to go, Monie Love: “Got to go”. The South African Apartheid footage of the video is intersperesed with Latifah in a darkened conference room pushing giant African fist chest pieces off the map, as well as shots of Latifah’s two B-Girl dancers. Latifah and Monie go on to drop fleet lounged rhymes as the video features other female rappers of the day such as BDP’s Miss Melodie, who was KRS ONE’s wife at that time! Latifah ends the song with a freestyle lyric in a very laid back cadence where she speaks of the songs producer, DJ Mark the 45 King wanting her to “sing”, which she would go on to do later in her career in classics like “Just Another Day” and in her career as Dana Owens.

“Ladies First” made an incredible impression on me as a young dude, to see beautiful Black sisters rhyming so competently and invoking both the history of great Black women in America as well as how that connected to the struggles in South Africa. It did something to me to see all those Black people running from the Afrikaner cops in the days of Apartheid. In one of the great ironies of Hip Hop, Latifah’s rhymes were co written by a member of the Flavor Unit named Apache, who went on to have a hit with a song a few years later called “I want to Gangster Boogie with my Gangster Bitch.” That transition in itself pretty much summed up where Hip Hop went after the golden age, with the same MC who penned lyrics for this song penning “Gangster Bitch.” Apache pretty much renounced that part of his career in the later years of his life though. But no matter, I am thankful that Queen Latifah and Monie Love’s “Ladies First” formed a positive, strong attitude about Black women for me in my formative years. I remember my Dad, who was only impressed with Hip Hop when it was weighty or just so funny it could be enjoyed in a disposable way, enjoying this song on that video show back in 1989, and being shocked by its sophisticated potrayal of Black history and the then current struggles in South Africa. And no matter how far I or Hip Hop have strayed, I’m thankful that songs like “Ladies First” provided my foundation in the music and culture, as opposed to the negativity that often came later.


Filed under A little Hip in your HOP, All That Jazz, FUNK, Music for the Next ONE, Music Matters

Music 4 the Nxt 1 Black History Month Special

Black History Month is admittedly one of those things my opinion of has vacillated on through the course of my life. When I was a young child in school I enjoyed it more than anything else in my school curriculum. I have always been the type of individual who views the acquisition of knowledge with the attitude of exploration and discovery. And Black history, both in Africa and America having the “Hidden” quality that it does, due to suppression, ignorance, arrogance the profitability of subjugation and domination. My parents always had a strong sense of Black history simply from their backgrounds, my father being born in the Depression era south and being active in the Civil Rights movement, and my mother being a Liberian with a rich understanding of both Africa and her country’s roots in being established as a haven from American slavery and white supremacy. Still, I don’t think the majority of Black parents want to overburden their children with sad and negative messages. So even with my parents having the knowledge of things that they did, some of the most substantial information would come out when they were watching and responding to news items.

I was fortunate enough to have Asian and white teachers in Oakland, California who were very responsive and understanding of the predominantly Black demographics of their school, under the guidance of Mrs. Kelly, a strong Black Principal, to inject Black and multi cultural information into the curriculum. I still remember my kindergarten Teacher Ms. Huen giving us red envelopes for Chinese New Year, which is also this month, and marks the return of my birth sign, the Rooster!

So I always enjoyed learning about Carter G Woodson, Lewis Latimer, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Phyllis Wheatley, W.E.B DuBois, Madame C.J Walker, and the numerous other luminary figures who against all odds contributed to America and kept Black people alive to get to the point we are today. Many of their inventions and discoveries proved to me a truth my father related to me from his experience down south, that a great many things were invented by very hands on Black people who were tasked with getting the work done and took it upon themselves to find an easier way to get those tasks accomplished.

Then when I grew up, in the Def Comedy Jam ’90s, I got innundated with the same jokes as everybody else, about how they “gave Black people the shortest month.” Which totally overlooks the contributions of Carter G Woodson and the fact that Black History Month is a BLACK invention. More recently the line has been “Black history is all year round”, which is one that I wholeheartedly agree with and try to practice on this blog and my other writing activities. However, just as with holidays, wedding anniversaries, birthdays and other events, there is a reason Human beings choose dates to commemorate things. There is a great power to Human ritual that we sometimes forget in our modern fragmented world, a certain purification of purpose and inspiration. And it’s in that spirit that I’m adding a supplement to “Music 4 the Nxt 1” in honor of Black history month. I will still review funky songs but the scope will expand in terms of era, genre, and locale. I will cover songs of inspiration, songs in honor of Black historical figures, and songs that were just breakthroughs or inspiring to Black people at any given point of time. These grooves will come from Reggae, Soul, Funk, Rock, Gospel, Spirituals, Jazz and many other genres. I hope that my readers enjoy it and that it reminds you of the struggles, accomplishments, joys, pains and exultations of peoples of African descent and why it is critical our position continue to be strengthened for the good of all.


Filed under A little Hip in your HOP, All That Jazz, Appreciation, Black Issues, FUNK, Merry Go Round Music, Music for the Next ONE, Music Matters, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History"), Social Timing

Hugh Masekela and Swinging Seventies Monrovia : Liberian Stories 2

The section of Hugh Masekela’s epic 2004 biography, “Still Grazing”, which takes his wildin’ journey through music, sex, drugs, politics and life to 1970’s Monrovia, Liberia, is Section III, entitled “Africa.” Masekela’s return to the African continent found him at a bit of a crossroads in his journey. After leaving his native South Africa in the early ’60s, Masekela had married and divorced the great singer Miriam Makeba, released albums that flopped, studied music in New York City, met and be friended most of the great names of BeBop, Hard Bop & Soul Jazz, made love to scores of attractive women, and become both a role model and a patron of young South African musicians and students in exile in the United States. In 1968, Masekela’s recording of South African composer Philemon Hou’s song, “Grazing in the Grass” went to #1 on the pop charts, becoming an international smash. Masekela promptly got to enjoying his success, but he was not able to follow it up with a consistent stream of hits, as his personal life and partying began to dissipate his momentum. He had brief marriages that failed, consumed copious amounts of cognac, cocaine, weed and opium, and gave the world protest music after making them dance. It was the writer Quincy Troupe, who would go on to write the autobiography of one of Masekela’s heroes, Miles Davis, who suggested he go to West Africa to check out the post colonial growth of the continent. Masekela , ever the adventurer, a master at creating a life wherever he found himself, took him up on it, and it gave him a greater education in Africa than he’d ever had before.

Masekela was not exactly an expert on Africa at the time of this move, although he was one of the musicians most highly identified with Africa in the western mind. In his native South Africa he’d grown up a fan of Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, of swing and bebop, which would only intensify when he traveled to the United States as a student. He was much more familiar at the time with the culture of African Americans than he was that of his neighboring African countries, many of which were still submerged in colonial dominion during his youth. The apartied government also had a part to play in this, as it could not afford to have the ideas and the spirit of freedom thriving in other African nations to mingle and inspire that already growing movement at home. People of African descent were seperated from South Africans, classified as “foreign natives.” When Sidney Poitier and Canada Lee went to South Africa to film “Cry, the Beloved Country”, they were listed as servants of the white director and kept away from the white population. “Isolating ethnic South Africans from Africans born outside the country drove a cultural and pshychological wedge between them that still exists today in the form of the most despicable xenophobia imaginable”, Masekela writes.

Masekela’s ex wife, Miriam Makeba, facillitated his pilgrimage to Africa just as she did that of Nina Simone. It was Masekela’s intention to form a group when he arrived, taking advantage of the new music being created on the continent. His first stop was Guinea, where Makeba and her husband Kwame Toure, known during the Civil Rights Movement as Stokely Carmichael. Guinea was a French West African country, dominated by Muslims, which had a communist governmental structure under President Sekou Toure. Toure was a gracious host, even showing tolerance toward Masekela and other artists marijuana smoking. Yet, in short order, Masekela began to spend an equal amount of time in a Monrovia which featured “round the clock bars, a thriving international tourist trade, and American currency.” This Liberia also possessed a typical enticement for musicians :”some of the most beautiful women I’d seen since my return to Africa.”

Masekela was invited by President Tolbert to Liberia to raise money for his “Higher Heights” project. “Total Involvement for Higher Heights” was one of the trademark programs of President Tolbert, taking over after the long reign of President Tubman. The program involved a fundraiser called “Rally Time”. The Makeba/Masekela concert was to be a fundraiser for that program. Masekela said they turned the football stadium out, with him playing several encores of “Grazing in the Grass” that kept folks dancing. Miriam Makeba had to repreat her smash hit “Pata Pata” several times for the Liberian audience on that day.


Masekela was put up in a suite at the Ducor International Hotel, “on Monrovia’s highest hill, with a breathtaking view of the city and the Atlantic Ocean.” The Ducor Hotel and its fabulousness was one I’ve heard many stories about, both from my Liberian parents and even from people in the Bay Area who had visited pre war Liberia. Masekela also mentions several prominent Liberians of the time I grew up conscious of, everyone from Cecil Dennis, to “Chu Chu” Horton, who was a close friend of Masekela, to finance minister Steve Tolbert.

One of the things my mother was always proud of that rarely gets spoken is how much aid Liberia gave to black South Africans in the anti Apartied struggle. In this particular instance, Masekela was granted Liberian citizenship and a passport after his performances by President Tolbert. This was very crucial to Masekela at this time because after his defection from his country and his outspokenness against the oppresion occuring there, he was a man without a country to a large degree. Tolberts bestowal of Liberian citizenship on Masekela made it easier for him to travel and move about in the world.

Masekela quickly settled into the unique and bustling pre war Monrovia scene. He describes a city that never went to sleep, where people partied around the clock. He also had a large number of South African friends around him there, including the composer of his biggest hit, Philemon Hou. He also noted the conditions that would eventually lead to the calamnity Liberia would soon face, the deep social cleaveges between the descendants of the freed blacks from the United States and the indigenous African population. But at the same time he and other people observed this class division, it by no means stopped them from enjoying what he and other Africans of the time refered to as “Small America.”

The women he met there didn’t ask for taxi fare, like the Congolese women who’d come up disadvantaged under colonialism. The women he met had their own cars and jobs. Despite the class differences between the old “settler” families and the rest of the population, Masekela noticed that the country was informal and everybody knew the big shots, because rather than isolating themselves, they associated freely with everybody. Despite what he felt was oppresive, he met a society that seemed to have a sense of unity as well. He also made note of Liberian slangs such as referring to everybody as “my man!” or calling females “my child”, which makes me think of my dearly departed grandmother, and my dad, who’d always use “my man.”

While traveling to Nigeria, Congo, and several other African countries in search of band members, Masekela would split his time etween Monrovia and Conkaray, Guinea. While Guinea was a country of Islam and strict Marxism, Monrovia featured an African version of Westren freedom. Despite the difference in style however, he saw Toure and Tolbert as very similar, one capitalist, one communist, both autocratic.

Masekela was very influential in one of the greatest symbolic moments in the history of the African diaspora, the Muhammed Ali, George Foreman title bout known as the “Rumble in the Jungle”, in Kinsasha, Zaire, and Liberian money was key in making it happen. Stephen Tolbert, the brother of President Tolbert, and finance minister, a man reputed to be Liberia’s richest self made man through his involvement in the fishing industry, provided $2 million to make the music concert happen. That music concert was featured a few years ago in the film “Soul Power”, and featured luminaries such as James Brown, BB King, The Crusaders, and Miriam Makeba. Amazingly, the Rumble In the Jungle, where Muhammed Ali proved himself once and for all the “greatest of all time” by defeating the heavily favored Foreman, was made possible by Liberian money, or should I say, Liberian U.S dollars. Tolbert never recouped his investment due to the trickery of the promoters and also ended up dying in a plane crash.

The African section of Masekela’s book is full of other interesting incidents in Liberia, adventures with ChuChu Horton, stories of his South African friends studying in Liberia, fights in Krutown, and general rabble rousing and hell raising. One of the most poignant however, is when he brought his mother to Liberia. Masekela had not seen his mother since he left South Africa, and he brought her to the U.S and then to meet his family and see his house in Liberia on the beach. She had the time of her life, and she was even able to meet President Tolbert. This was very special to her, because her own government in South Africa treated her as a non human, but in a black African country, she was able to meet the President due to the importance of her son. “My mother was very touched and inspired by the fact she had dined with an African President, something that was utterly impossible in her own country.” And that is something that I believe Liberia provided for many within the African diaspora, from parts of Africa and the New World as well, an example and hope to one day enjoy the self governance Liberia had been struggling to maintain since her founding.

Masekela’s time in Liberia ended as many people’s, when Seargent Samuel Doe took power in 1980. His wife and child remained there for some time, but Masekela ran out of the country when he was instructed to go see Doe at the Executive Mansion, knowing he’d been friends with so many people in the old order.

“Still Grazing” was a very important book for me personally. My family left Liberia shortly before the coup. I saw pictures of Liberia in the ’60s and ’70s and still have a great deal of family that lives there. The names I encountered in the book, I was surprised to find I knew all of them as if I was there. It seems somehow my parents stories about Liberia had seeped deeper into me than I’d realized. They always spoke of Liberia in joyful terms, as if they’d had the times of their lives living there and would never find such joy anywhere else. But for me, I’d never quite read a history of the particular times they’d lived in, especially that time period of the 1970s that led up to the war. “Grazing in the Grass” is an important book for Liberians to read, both young and old. It’s one thing to have a Liberian testify to how things used to be in the country, but it’s a whole other thing for a person who was a guest and naturalized citizen to speak to it. Though Liberia had its social and economic problems as governments and people do, it also had and has something very special. “Still Grazing” was the first book that captured the history of 1970s Liberia for me in a personal style and it’s as valuable for that as it is for its portraits of South Africa, the 1960s music scene and Hugh Masekela’s incredible life.


Filed under All That Jazz, Book Recommendations, FUNK, Liberia/Africa, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History")

Quick Thoughts on “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” and “Winnie Mandela”.


Nelson Mandela’s death last month provided an outpouring of emotion for a man who was already a worldwide icon, and a symbol of worldwide struggle against what W.E.B Dubois called the problem of the 20th century, “The Color Line.” It also motivated people fighting against war, occupation, sexism, and every other kind of social ill on this planet. Mandela’s struggle has been documented on film before. Most of these films have been episodic, for instance, Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine’s potrayal of the negotiations to end Apartheid in “Mandela and DeKlerk”, Morgan Freeman’s potrayal of Mandela’s skillfull usage of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in 2009’s “Invictus”, and Dennis Haysbert’s 2007 potrayal of Mandela’s jail term in “Goobye Banafa.” These films potrayed specific incidents in Mandela’s life, but the world had not yet recieved a full potrait of the great man’s story. “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”, directed by Justin Chadwick, and starring Idris Elba and Naomie Harris as Nelson and Winnie Mandela, is a full life potrait of Mandela taken from his own autobiography. “Winnie Mandela”, the controversial production starring Jennifer Hudson and Terrance Howard as the Mandela’s, is a South African production avaliable on DVD that attempts to tell the life story of Winnie Madikezela Mandela herself.

“Mandela : Long Walk to Freedom” is quite simply a must see, and will become the go to flick for Nelson Mandela bios. The film takes its story from his autobiography and chronicles his early years as a young lawyer in Johannesburg and partner in the country’s only black law firm, Mandela & Tambo, the dissolution of his first marriage to Evelyn Mase, his days of direct activism, his militant days as “The Black Jacobin”, on through his imprisonment on Robben Island and the series of prisons he was moved to leading up to the negotiations to end Apartheid in South Africa.

Elba gives a confident performance as Mandela, and one that grows with the man, starting off as a brash young lawyer who believes in his ability to impact change through the letter of the law and his own excellence, moving to a firebrand militant and maturing into an elder statesman. The arc he plays is from twenty something to Mandela in his ’70s. The film begins at an excellent point to start a movie about a great African man, at his manhood initiation ritual that takes him into adult manhood. I especially enjoyed the scenes of Mandela flirting in Johannesburg sheebens, even using the racial politics of the time as part of his rap. Mandela tells a lovely young South African lady that the law determines who can have relations by whether a pencil sticks in their hair, and he demonstrates this as part of his rap. He also spurns the ANC’s first overtures toward him, but gets involved when he sees the impact of people concentrating their efforts has over individual effort, a lesson he himself will teach to a young revolutionary who gets shipped to jail years after Mandela and the rest of the ANC leadership are incarcerated.

Much of the actual tension and the heart of the film comes from the relationship between Elba’s Mandela and Harris’s Winnie. The film covers the arc of their relationship from Mandela’s days of chasing her at the bus stop, to her support for him in jail, to her own 18 months in solitary confinement and the steel resolve it gave her. Harris does a good job of conveying change from a mild social worker and wife to the strong and untractable leader Winnie Mandela became. The film also deals with the pathos of the dissolution of the Mandela’s marraige amid his release from jail.

One of the things I enjoy most about the film is the way it incorporates things from the autobiography. For instance, in the book, Mandela talks about the Elizabeth Taylor classic “Cleopatra”, and the fact that the Queens potrayal by a white woman was a big topic when the movie was screened in South Africa, “however beautiful” Taylor may have been. In the film, Mandela, under political ban, sneaks into a township movie theather at night, getting up on stage to interrupt an Elizabeth Taylor movie, and he says, “She’s beautiful but I prefer Sophia Loren.” Another thing from the book that made it into the film was a suit African leaders had hand tailored for Mandela when he was in jail for him to look Presidential when he was negotiating for the end of Aparthied. For readers, who generally are dissatisfied with film versions of books, these little touches are gratifiying.


“Long Walk to Freedom” is a must see, ultimately it’s a character driven film that aims to show the incredible circumstances the Mandela’s faced in trying to free their people while at the same time making great sacrifices in their personal lives. It will definitely be a good film to teach children about Nelson Mandela’s life, or to educate ourselves if our own knowledge of it is in embryonic stage. Of course, a fuller picture can be gained from actually reading the book it was based on which is an excellent portrait of Mandela’s life and South African history as he saw it, and also digging into the wealth of information out there about South Africa and the struggle against Aparthied. But on a cinematic, entertainment level, “Long Walk to Freedom” delivers behind strong performances by its lead actors.

“Winnie Mandela” starring Jennifer Hudson and Terrance Howard takes a look at the same events through the life of Mandela’s second wife and the one he was married to the longest, his comrade in the struggle Winnie Madikezela Mandela. The film has a much smaller feel than “Long Walk to Freedom”, almost like a television special, but a film can only feel so small in the majesty of the South African environment. Winnie’s life is covered from her early days as a tomboy in her village, the granddauther of a chief, born to a schoolteacher father who wanted a son. From there, she moves to Johannesburg to study social work, where she is introduced to the limitations of her Aparthied system, and an activist named Nelson Mandela, who picks her up at the bus stop. From there we see the Mandela story through Winnie’s life and activism, including some insights into the particular humiliations she may have faced as a woman in such an unjust system, including the 18 months she faced in solitary confinement. We’re given a portrait of a woman who fights back in real and symbolic ways, from wearing native dress to court which earns her a reprimand from the judges, to giving speeches on her husbands behalf, from throwing up on South African soldiers feet when she gets seasick on a trip to Robbins Island, to singing songs in her native Xhosa to maintain her strength that drives her jailers up the wall, to leading the Mandela Football Club and getting control of the slums of Johannesburg.

Jennifer Hudson gives a pretty good performance in a difficult role. She does a good job with the South African accent and also with the zeal Mandela had for liberation. Howard’s performance is well meaning and captures the essence of Mandela at times, but I can’t help but thing it’s held back a little bit by the clunkiness of his accent. I do like his decision however to speak certain scenes in Xhosa and I do feel he grows into the gravitas of the role slowly but surely.

I espeically like the scenes where Mandela moves back to Soweto and moves and shakes with the “Mandela Football Club.” It almost reminds a scene in an old blaxploitation film, when her bodygaurd opens the back door of a BMW for her to get in, and we get scenes of her pushing her way into night clubs to meet local power brokers. The potrayal of Mandela as an older activist returning to a Soweto disorganized and wracked by violence was a particularly true to life one to me, and helped me understand the bad press she’s gotten over the last 20 years. It reminded me of Huey Newton returning to Oakland in the 1970s after having been in jail, faced with reorganizing the Black Panther Party and getting control of the activities on the Oakland Streets. When you see a man breaking into her house and putting a knife to her neck you’ll understand the reputation for stern activities she developed in later years.

“Winnie Mandela” is not as strong or comprehensive a film as “Long Walk to Freedom”, but it is invaluable still because it deals with the story from Winnie’s side. It is not as strong towards the end as the Mandela film, but that’s in part because Winnie’s life after Mandela’s release was more problematic. But I do feel putting the two films together gives one a fuller cinematic picture of the lives of these two great South Africans.


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Thoughts of Mandela (Madiba) on Riquespeaks Mind 1918-2013


Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, known affectionatley to South Africans by his clan name ‘Madiba’, which carries warm fatherley connotations, was one of the transcendant figures of the 20th Century who left us to join the ancestors, 14 years into the 21st. His death, at the grand age of 95, inspired in me a few thoughts, about his life, the impact of it on South Africa, the rest of Africa, and the world, as well as the similarities and differences his struggle bore to other such struggles against racism and colonialism in the United States, the Carribean, Africa, Latin America, India, and so on. What I came away with is a truly exceptional and inspirational person who the study of will enrich my understanding of humanity as a group and the potential of the human individual for as long as I live.

Being from the Bay Area of California, Oakland in particular, I’ve been steeped in a real politik, no nonsense, militant black school of thought and opinion. The common view among my mentors in this area has been the admittedly truthful belief that the entrenched power of whites in South Africa did not end when Aparteid laws were taken off the books and Nelson Mandela ascended to the Presidency. Of course, this is true, as racism, racial oppresion, and economic and educational disadvantages have not disappeared from American society after the major laws and movements designed to eliminate or lessen racial prejudice and oppression in the good ol U.S of A. However, one who would arrogantly dismiss the various lessons that can be learned from such a rich and incredible life spent in both militant activism and official governmental elected leadership would be quite foolish.

Mandela’s life is interesting to me because as a Black American child of the ’80s and ’90s in America, he was a link or a peek at the old days of the struggle for racial equality, a struggle we did not grow up in, and that, although the major battles of were only a decade or so before us, American consumerism and advertising made seem as far away from us as slavery itself. Of course, the ’80s and ’90s had their own racial upheavels, and when I reached my adolescence I would see my first major racial riot that carried the potency of riots in the ’60s, ’40s and ’20s (the LA Rebellion).

The Black struggle in America as a whole though, was in a murky, somewhat undefined place in the ’80s and ’90s. The major, great leaders of the ’60s were either assasinated in the 1960s, or had lost their credibility due to a combination of the American propaganda machine and their own inability to manage their lives tightly in light of those attacks. The Black leaders who thrived in that polarized time of Ronald Reagen, a Pharoah who “knew not Joseph (or in reality, knew Joseph and didn’t like him, were all seen as polarizing figures. Eventually the mainstream press painted them as American charlatan ghetto hustlers who were simply out for personal attention, and many black people agreed with this depiction. Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton were seldom respected as “selfless” or self sacrificing leaders in the way their forebearers were. They were attacked in the white community for being “oppurtunist hate mongers” who were keeping alive embers of a racial fire they would have you believe was long since contained in these United States. But the leaders of old faced this type of skepticism from outside of the community as well. The difference with post Civil Rights leaders is they didn’t represent the black community as comprehensively as those of old. Of course, such is to be expected, as the eliminatination of segregation laws took away the great uniting force in the black movement. While there was always disagreement in the movement, it splintered even further into urban issues, womens issues, crimminal justice issues, educational concerns, jobs, protecting governmental benefits, and so on.

One of the reasons I think the South African struggle galvanized black support in the United States and other black countries where African peoples had achieved independence, was the clarity of it. As Stevie Wonder said “It’s Wrong (Aparteid)”. South Africa’s racial brutality, obstincence, and attempts to keep blacks in a subservient position in neighboring countries in addition to its own, inspired recollection of the worst days of slavery and segregation, and then some. At times, the South African situation reminds me even more of what Native Americans faced than African Americans, because South Africans faced constriction, pass systems, extermination, germ warfare smallpox, and outright war and violence on their own historic homeland of their birth. Like Native American’s, they had to contend with a group that wanted to live on, benefit from, and dominate their own homeland. Amazingly, what happened to the Native Americans in the United States was averted by the South African people, the other African states, the African diaspora, the Eastren block countries, and later, the rest of the world as a whole. Despite the seeming inevitability of this outcome, the racial violence was brutal and intense, it was almost like watching the Belgians in the Congo or the Europeans taking over the States from the Native Americans in real time. One of those things you wouldn’t concieve could happen in this modern age. I think this sparked something visceral in people like Black Americans, as well as Africans, and other colonized peoples who had this in their history. Some within the African American community feel Blacks were in no position to throw such support at South Africa, being so close to the days of legal discrimmination, and still faceing it. But the larger world picture and the larger winds of history demanded such attention I believe, as there were few people of any race who could watch young Africans throwing rocks and sticks at tanks and not want to join in on the struggle, in the same way the news footage of blacks getting hosed down down South or Martin Luther King’s death sparked emotions. It was almost like the writers and American’s who volunteered for the Spanish Civil War, a cause that ralied peoples sense of justice and what was right.

Mandela faced some of the same things Civil Rights leaders here faced as well however, as he spent all those years in jail, the mass struggle got even more militant and the younger leaders did as well. It went from Mandela and the ANC’s militant arm carrying acts of sabatogue against the South African industrial machine, to students fighting policemen and traitors getting doused in gasoline after being wrapped in tires (necklacing). At the time the South African Apartied government got ready to negotiate with Mandela and the ANC, they NEEDED HIM. They needed the gravitas he still carried with him, to prevent a Civil War that would not only be heavy in bloodshed, but that South Africa, which had always enjoyed heavy support among the Capitalist countries, would not have world support in. I’m sure Fidel Castro and the USSR and other African countries were waiting to pounce on the Apartied government in a military sense as well. The South African government was a rich white speck in a sea of black.

Mandela had to come out of this and literally save the nation. He had to hold back a nation of millions who had every right to be mad and also had greater and greater world support, but was still lacking in resources, and he also had to ensure the support of the white minority without selling his people out. He didn’t go the route of Robert Mugabe and Idi Amin, in demanding whites resources, and its probably the reason South Africa is doing better than Zimbabwe and Uganda today. Mandela did this after living out an almost biblical arc. He was like Moses, spending 40 years in the Wilderness. In the Bible, Moses was primed and ready to be the savior of the Hebrews when he was 40 years old, a Prince trained in all the knowledge of Egypt who would make his brothers do right by one another. But God made him wander another 40 years until his temprament was smooth but iron hard. Mandela was a man who actually lived that type of story, which is what makes hiim such a towering figure.

Mandela’s ANC was almost in a position the NAACP or SCLC faced in SNCC and the Black Panthers and NOI, or that Booker T Washington’s Niagra Movement faced from DuBois NAACP, or that DuBois faced from Garvey’s UNIA. As black oppression continues to be persistent and long lasting, there is always a new wave of young people and leaders who seem more militant, and who seems to have mastered the urgency of the times better. It’s amazing that Mandela survived to ride this out and become the official leader of the Nation. Of course, maybe the South African government felt the seventy year old Mandela was the most moderate and sensible voices, the only one who would allow them to live and survive at all. But the ANC was invovled in some very heavy activities when Mandela was in jail as well, the intractability of the Apartied system and the way it was written into law made it impossible to fight without stern resistence and violence, which is what Mandela himself pointed to as the main difference between him and Dr. King’s struggle.

But the very fact that Nelson Mandela was alive into the 21st Century amazes me. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Medgar Evars, Malcom X and Huey P Newton, all leaders younger than Mandela, never lived to see Mandela elected President in South Africa’s first Democratic elections. In the United States, a country that has had its own racial problems, but proclaims Democracy, our major black leaders were either killed or defanged. Looking at Mandela only makes me wonder what would have happened if Dr. King, possibly our leader with the most gravitas, had survived. What would he have done with the tensions of young blacks in the 1990s? Or, in a country that constantly sells pretend changes, would his name have been tarnished into irrelevance by those who wouldn’t want him to have such power? Dr. King, Abraham Lincoln and JFK were all put to death. It’s an interesting thing to think of, in terms of the various nature of repression in accordance with different countries, different conditions.

Maybe even though South Africa’s repression of the African was even more intense and brutal than the blueprints they borrowed from the United States, Nazi Germany, and other colonial powers, the fact that Nelson Mandela was an African in Africa somehow always saved him. The South African police state most likely needed to preserve Mandela and his ANC brethren, in order to prevent further violence, and at the same time, wanted to keep them away where they could not plan, influence, and inspire. These men kept their strength up and survived that ordeal. At the same time, the South Africans assertion that striking the shepards would scatter the sheep was mistaken. The South African people responded with even more direct action. Mandela was a great leader, but also, his people were able to thrive and keep up the struggle without his great leadership, a great accomplishment. But then, under such terrible racist brutality, did they have a choice? The people kept the pressure up so heavy to the point where the “moderates” or those with sense were probably begging for the ANC and it’s focus on Democracy and fair elections back.

Mandela himself is a man who does not fit easily into boxes. Although he was known for non violent protest, and for encouraging his people to eschew violence in favor of elective politics, he was also a figher, a man who literally trained in boxing. His legal career was also that of a fighter. Ultimatley, his struggle was different than the struggle of the ’60s in America, in that his absolutely required violence, like the days of Nat Turner, John Brown, and the Civil War.

Mandela lived long enough and was relevant to so many permutations of the struggle in his country, that he was able to be, in American terms, analogous to Dr. King, Malcom X/Stokely Carmichael/Huey P Newton, Thurgood Marshall, and Barack Obama at different times. You could say he started as a Thurgood Marshall figure, attempting to win blacks rights in the courts. When that approach revealed his limits, he staged bus boycots and acts of civil disobedience in the mold of Dr. King and Dr. Kings influene, Mohandes K Ghandi. When the police state impended his ability to protest peacefully, he became a militant, even going further than Malcom X and Stokely in carrying out militant actions. He actually went to Ethiopia to recieve military training. He suffered a lont time in jail and was able to come out to be an elected, political figure of reconcilliation like Barack Obama. He advocated peace when he was an older man and peace was the most pragmatic thing to do to preserve human life, but in all, I see a man who was willing to do what ever it takes, a man who lived Malcom X’s famous credo, “By Any Means Necessary.” He was a unifiying figure, a man who got along with Fidel Castro, and eventually, America as well, after spending years on the terrorist list.

South Africa contains interesting similarities and differences to the American struggle. Obviously, the strongest difference was the Dutch and Englishmen of South Africa were totally surrounded by Black Africans. In the United States, the black population was carefully controlled so as not to overtake or equal the white population. This created a desperate evil in the white South Africans, which would only be matched in the U.S in an area like the American South where black numbers were comparable to whites, or in the destruction of the Native AMerican communities. But, in contrast to other African countries ruled by indirect rule, the South Africans had greater expsure to whites and Westren culture. If you look at pictures of South Afria during the 1950s, it looks almost exactly like pics of Black southerners during that time period. You see black sartorial grace in Western dress. But somewhere in there, I do believe African Americans can recognize elements of their situation in Apartied more than they can other colonial situations in Africa, and the cultural exchange has often been strong, the jazz culture of the 20s through the ’40s was a strong influence on South Africa, and I also found in South African history a hope among the blacks that the country would imporove after World War II, which is a similar hope we had here in America.

All in all, Mandela was always about unity. One of the key things he did was to deemphasize tribal affiliation, which is something that has hurt Africa, that is part of the reason Africa is in the position it is in. Tribal affiliation almost kept Apartied going in South Africa. His views also grew to include unity with Indians and others who were struggling in South Africa. Later he grew from a figure who’s unifiying force was seen as a unifying force in the world. This unity was not based on lofty ideological points, but is one he grew into progressively, seeing the practical values of peace and unity. Mandela also looms large as a personal example. Here is a man devoted to exercise and discipline in his life, who went from a lawyer with middle class aspirations, to a non violent activist, to a militant commander on the run, to policial prisoner, to savior of his nation, to President of that nation, to an International symbol of Peace. He had a great ability to change, to see the current situation, and to grow. He was a great personal example of dignity and self control. Like one of my other heroes, Miles Davis, boxing was a symbol of that self discipline, his hero and example, both in boxing and racial/political matters being the great champion Joe Louis. He was a figher who knew when to stopped fighting and never ended his fight on the INSIDE. For this, he sacrificed family time and so much of the normalcy regular human beings enjoy, most likely even including the desire for revenge. For that I say THANK YOU and I’m happy he has now gone to rest in peace.

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