Musician, singer, songwriter
The captivating rhythms and powerful lyrics of Vusi Mahlasela's folk anthems both inspired and documented the antiapartheid movement in South Africa during the 1980s. After the fall of the racist government in the early 1990s, Mahlasela's music became a compelling call for peace, deliberation, and forgiveness in the newly liberated state. Often called simply, "The Voice," because of his wide range and vocal versatility, Mahlasela has become a well-known musical ambassador of the South African struggle for freedom and equality. His poetic lyrics and afro-fusion cadences embody the healing role that music has often played in African culture, a complex soundtrack that captures the pain of the past and the hope for the future.
Vusi Sidney Mahlasela Ka Zwane was born in 1965 in Lady Selborne, a township near the South African administrative capitol city of Pretoria. Under the racist apartheid system that existed in South Africa before the 1990s, townships were impoverished areas outside of cities where people of color were segregated. Mahlasela never knew his father, and his mother frequently had to work far from home, so he was raised by his grandmother, who operated a shebeen, or informal community nightclub, in the nearby township of Mamelodi.
Mamelodi township has long been a center of African culture and art, and Mahlasela grew up surrounded by artists, poets, and musicians. The vibrant rhythms that poured from his grandmother's shebeen became his first lullabies, and he was quoted by Music.org.za as saying, "I'm sure I learned to sing before I could talk." With no money for instruments, he made his first guitar himself, out of an empty cooking oil can and fishing line, and taught himself to play. By the age of nine, he and some friends had formed a band to entertain the neighborhood with songs ranging from traditional African folk to American rock and soul.
Joined Struggle Against Apartheid
In spite of the poverty and racial discrimination that defined life for most South African blacks, Mahlasela had a happy childhood and remained relatively unaware of the political situation surrounding him until he was eleven years old. On June 16, 1976, students in the township of Soweto walked out of classes to protest a law requiring that half their classes be taught in Afrikaans, a Dutch-based language spoken by many white South Africans. The students' rally was met by police, who fired into the crowd, killing several young protesters. This event prompted many black South Africans to join the liberation struggle, including Mahlasela, who joined the African National Congress Youth League and began working to end the domination of the country by racist whites.
From its very beginnings in the 1940s, the political struggle to end apartheid had grown alongside a strong cultural movement in literature, art, and, especially, music. Mahlasela began to add his voice to the chorus of musicians singing for freedom. In the early 1980s he joined a group of political poets called Ancestors of Africa and began writing poems and songs that he performed at antiapartheid rallies and demonstrations. The police frequently confiscated written political material, so Mahlasela memorized his work in order not to be silenced.
Indeed, police harassment became a regular feature of Mahlasela's life. Like many activists, he was required to obtain special permission at the police station to attend church and other community events. Members of the antiapartheid movement were frequently arrested if police even suspected that they planned a protest, and Mahlasela spent many nights in jail after such arrests. However, he did not let fear of punishment stop him from working for justice.
In the late 1980s Mahlasela experienced another personal loss when his mother collapsed during a church service and died. He would later write a memorial to her in the song "River Jordan." In 1988 he joined the Congress of South African Writers, where he met other political writers and, through his work with them, gained confidence as a poet. He was especially influenced by the work of other radical songwriters, such as Miriam Makeba, a singer from South Africa, and Victor Jara, a leftist poet from Chile who had been killed in 1973. Through his work with the Congress of South African Writers, Mahlasela also met the South African novelist Nadine Gordimer, who became both a friend and mentor, paying for his first professional guitar lessons. Mahlasela continued to develop his unique musical style, combining influences from all the music he loved, including African folk, jazz, and pop, rhythmic a cappella music called mbube, and African-American blues, jazz, and scat.
By the early 1990s the racist regime of apartheid had fallen in South Africa, and, for the first time, the nation held open elections, making Nelson Mandela its first black president. In 1992 Mahlasela released his first album, When You Come Back, and dedicated it to those who had been forced into political exile by the white racist regime. In 1994 he performed at Mandela's inauguration ceremony, an occasion of joyous celebration throughout South Africa's antiapartheid community.
Those who had worked to end apartheid were determined that the extreme unfairness and violence of that system should not be replaced with an atmosphere of bitterness and revenge. The new government called for peace and forgiveness, and Mahlasela echoed this call in his music, changing from a call to action to a call for mercy and understanding. His second album, released in 1994, was Wisdom of Forgiveness and offered a message of hope for the new nation.
In 1997 Mahlasela followed Wisdom of Forgiveness with a third album, Silang Mabele, which means "crush the corn" in Tswana, one of South Africa's many languages. In South African culture the phrase means "let's get to work," and Mahlasela intended the album as a call to action. He explained the progression of his works to Music.org.za: "We celebrated when our leaders and culture returned from exile. When conflict was expected we applied the wisdom of forgiveness. After celebration and forgiveness, the time has come to produce. Silang Mabele is a call for unity to fight poverty." Mahlasela's third album earned him awards for Best Male Vocalist and Best Album at the 1998 South African Music Awards.
At a Glance …
Born Vusi Sidney Mahlasela Ka Zwane in 1965 in Lady Selborne, South Africa.
Career: Singer-songwriter, 1979—.
Memberships: African National Congress Youth League; Ancestors of Africa; Congress of South African Writers.
Awards: South African Music Awards, Best Male Vocalist, Best Album (for Silang Mabele), 1998; Public Radio International, Afropop Worldwide, Afropop Hall of Fame, 2006; South African Music Awards, Best Male Artist, 2007.
Addresses: E-mail—[email protected]
Gained International Audience
During the 1990s Mahlasela's music began gaining popularity around the world. After touring throughout Africa, he performed at a number of international festivals, including the Zabalaza Festival in London in 1990, and the Dranouter Festival in Belgium in 1996. He also performed in North America for the first time in 1996, a concert with the famous reggae band the Wailers at the House of Blues in Los Angeles. A 2002 documentary film increased Mahlasela's international reputation still further. Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony explored the important role of music in the South African defeat of apartheid, and, among many other artists, the film highlighted the work of Mahlasela. European and American listeners wanted more, so in 2003 Mahlasela released an album for distribution to those audiences. The Voice was a compilation of his best work and included songs in six different South African languages, including English.
As part of the rapidly growing genre of world music, Mahlasela has become an international star, touring to perform regularly in Africa, Europe, and the United States. Music fans around the world have continued to love his pure tenor voice and his fusion of a variety of African styles with elements of New World reggae, jazz, and blues. His 2007 album, Guiding Light, contains duets with diverse musical performers, from fellow South African Dave Matthews to Welsh singer-songwriter Jem.
In spite of his increasing fame and stardom, Mahlasela has continued to create music that celebrates peace, justice, and a simple joy in living. He frequently dedicates his songs to those who have influenced him the most, such as "Thula Mama," which he dedicates to the many courageous women of South Africa, especially his grandmother. In an interview with National Public Radio's Weekend Edition, he explained his personal artistic vision, "I want my music to be accessible to every listener because I know that I really have something to say in terms of … removing thorns from people, thorns that really make us unaware that we are bleeding with these thorns, like pain, grief, jealousy and so on."
When You Come Back, BMG Africa, 1992.
Wisdom of Forgiveness, BMG Africa, 1994.
Silang Mabele, BMG Africa, 1997.
(With Louis Mhlanga) Vusi and Louis Live at the Bassline, BMG Africa, 1999.
Miyela Africa, BMG Africa, 2000.
(With the Proud Peoples Band) Jungle of Questions, BMG Africa, 2002.
The Voice, ATO Records/BMG, 2003.
Guiding Light, ATO Records, 2007.
Billboard, November 18, 2000, p. 20; September 6, 2003, p. 39.
Sing Out!, Spring 2007, p. 11.
"Music and History with Vusi Mahlasela," NPR Music,http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9794115 (accessed December 28, 2007).
"The Voice of Liberation," The Age,http://www.theage.com.au/news/Music/The-voice-of-liberation/2004/12/23/1103391880963.html (accessed December 28, 2007).
Vusi Mahlasela,http://www.vusimahlasela.com/?sid=2 (accessed December 28, 2007).
"Vusi Mahlasela's Musical Journey," National Public Radio,http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1436672 (accessed December 28, 2007).
"Vusi Mahlasela, South Africa," Music.org.za,http://www.music.org.za/artist.asp?id=102 (accessed December 28, 2007).