Hugh Masekela at the LSE

The London School of Economics chaired the third annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture in Europe, on the topic of Arts and Activism given by world renowned musician and activist Hugh Masekela.

The Steve Biko Foundation
The Steve Biko Foundation
Masekela entered the venue and took his seat to a round of applause from the audience. The LSE Chair, Professor Thandika Mkandawire, introduced him as a legend which only made this musical powerhouse quietly shake his head in disagreement.
Following rapturous applause as he made his way to the lectern, he began by saying he was at first afraid at the notion of following in the footsteps of previous intellectual speakers at the annual lecture. He humbly denied his acclaimed icon status by saying if he was Japanese he would probably have been an accomplished sushi chef, or a beer connoisseur if he was German, but since he came from a place of music, this was his calling.

He then uttered he was going to do exactly what he’d been asked not to, and we should all be prepared to gather some bail money for him. Reaching down into a bag on the floor he produced his flugelhorn to excited gasps.

Reciting the words to Stimela, one of his most well-known songs about migrant workers on a train heading to the gold mines of South Africa, the audience was spellbound. His passion for music shone brightly through his animated performance and there were feet tapping and heads nodding across the room. As he reached the song’s conclusion cheers erupted from the auditorium resulting in a standing ovation.

Performing Stimela as Professor Thandika Mkandawire looks on
Performing Stimela as Mkandawire looks on
He followed this with a declaration that the ‘music had failed’. He commented that despite the efforts of international artists in the campaign for peace in his lifetime, the world is still at war.
He enlightened us on his own upbringing, spending early years at his grandmother’s house (which was also the local shebeen). Being taken down to the local market in Witbank as a child, experiencing racist taunts, being mocked for how he looked and thinking that this institutionalized racism was a uniquely South African phenomenon.

He segued into the oppression of Africa through the centuries, from slavery and colonisation, and the historical impression that those from Africa were perceived as somehow ‘less than’. Now the yolk of apartheid has lifted in South Africa, he reiterated the importance of Steve Biko’s legacy of African consciousness, of knowing one’s self.

He touched on how Biko’s message filled the void caused by the imprisonment of the ANC leadership during Apartheid, and to this day ‘Biko’s dream refuses to fray’. He spoke of indigenous people needing to look at their heritage and find their own identity, not subscribing to a corporate idea of what freedom is or means.

Interesting questions from the audience followed about the current economic state of South Africa and the fracture’s felt amongst the people. In response Masekela gave his opinion that Africa needed psychiatric and economic recovery. Continuing his point, he stated the oppressed do not climb out from underfoot by expecting the oppressor to help – siting there had never been a case of atrocities being rectified by an apology and compensation. It is ultimately up to each person to get involved in fighting injustice wherever it exists and to avoid the attitude of ‘I wasn’t there’.

When asked to share two lessons he’s learned through his career and activism he replied the first major piece of advice he gave his children and grandchildren was not to enter politics. He called it ‘dangerous’, saying even as president you could only serve two terms unless you became a dictator, but then your life was in danger. ‘It’s not win-win’ he said, ‘it’s pray-pray and take-take…and good luck!’

Through the audience giggles he was pressed for his second lesson which with a slightly cheeky grin he said “Sex is overrated” resulting in another big round of applause and laughter.
He ended on a more serious note, reiterating the importance of remaining vigilant about the freedom that has been won by the people, because otherwise it will be lost.

Masekela has an incredibly warm and welcoming presence. His humour and joy spring out of him naturally without making him a caricature. This man is a natural performer, entertains effortlessly without being shallow and a total professional.

The Founder and CEO of the Steve Biko Foundation, Mr. Nkosinathi Biko, warmly thanked Masekela and with the Foundation Director Ms. Y. Obenewa Amponsah presented him with a portrait as a thank you.

Accepting with humour
Joyfully accepting his portrait from Amponsah with Biko on the left
Gift from the Foundation
Gift from the Foundation