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30 Years of Freedom: Songs that defined South Africa’s last decades

“What makes South African people so special is that we sing, we dance, even when we are faced with death,” says dancer and choreographer Gregory Manqoma.

As the Rainbow Nation marks the 30th anniversary of the first post-apartheid elections on April 27, 2024, Manqoma is among a group of influential South Africans who have selected songs that have been the soundtrack to the country’s socio-political and cultural transformation.

Titled 30 Years of Freedom, the selection is a journey through township mbaqanga, 1980s bubblegum pop, the kwaito and house revolution of the 1990s-2000s, a sprinkling of jazz and the contemporary global phenomenon of amapiano. No matter the genre, music has been an outlet for South Africans to speak out against oppression and poverty but also to celebrate hope and success.

The project comprises playlists curated for Apple Music by top names from music and related fields. The musicians are PJ Powers, Arno Carstens, Brenda Mthambo and Musa Keys, actors Nomzamo Mbatha and Connie Chiume and football legend Benny McCarthy. Others are fashion designers Laduma Ngxokolo, and Rich Minsi, broadcaster Melanie Bala, entrepreneur and author Sylvester Chauke, and dancer/choreographer Gregory Maqoma.

“These songs have instilled hope in people and have encouraged them to keep going,” says Ngxokolo, founder of the South African knitwear brand, MaXhosa Africa. He observes that the music resonates with the trials and celebrations that an everyday South African would experience. The 38-year-old has selected among other songs, Hugh Masekela’s tale of migrant mine workers Stimela, Freshly Ground’s ode to parenthood, Nomvula (After the Rain), and Bongo Maffin’s thumping kwaito classic Thathisgubhu.

Legendary singer PJ Powers who is best known for her 1980s anthem, Jabulani, says she has created a playlist based on knowing exactly where she was and how she felt the first time she heard the songs. “From the first time I heard Brenda (Fassie) sing Black President and the pride I felt, to the sadness in my heart when I heard Bright Blue’s Weeping,” says Powers. “None of these songs, whether protest or simple love songs, in my opinion, have dates or ever will.”

Besides the two songs, her playlist highlights are Miriam Makeba’s interpretation of the Xhosa traditional song Qongqothwane famously known as The Click Song, Homeless by Paul Simon with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Angelina by the husband-wife duo of Caiphus Semenya and Latte Mbulu. She also picks Johnny Clegg’s Scatterlings of Africa, Hugh Masekela’s popular anti-apartheid campaign anthem Bring Him Back Home, and Jerusalema by South African DJ and producer Master KG which became a global hit during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

Powers tells Apple Music that South Africa has such a culturally diverse background that if someone listened to her playlist, they would think that she was musically schizophrenic. “The truth is all these artists have added to the fusion of sound that we can so proudly call South African music.

Actor Nomzamo Mbatha celebrates artists that she says have “given us a lifetime of memories” including Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse’s Burn Out, Brenda Fassie’s Vuli Ndlela, and kwaito bangers, Dlala Mapantsula by TKZee, and Nkalakatha by the late Mandoza. Her playlist also includes Ndihamba Nawe by Mafikizolo, Zahara’s Loliwe, and the 2024 Grammy Award-winning song Water by the current South African global sensation Tyla.

“We have specific feelings and distinct memories with these songs,” says Mbatha. “The originality, the audacious ambition, the swag, the glorious grounding in the places they take us-it’s unmatched.”

Amapiano star Musa Keys has selected songs by Grammy Award-winning DJ Black Coffee, and Semi Tee and Scorpion Kings whom he credits for “breaking the barriers so that the genre (amapiano) could grow immensely” Keys also picks some of his own songs, like the collaboration with Nigerian star Davido, Unavailable, and the official song of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Waka Waka (This Time for Africa) by Shakira featuring South African band Freshly Ground and Benni McCarthy, one of the most successful football players that South Africa has produced, also featured on TKZee’s 1998 hit Shibobo/The Final Countdown.

It is therefore not a surprise to find the song on his 30 Years of Freedom playlist along with rapper YoungCPT’s 2023 hit named after the football legend. McCarthy also selects three classics by Brenda Fassie, Weekend Special, Too Late for Mama and Vuli Ndlela, and slain rapper AKA’s 2014 collaboration with Afrobeats star Burna Boy, All Eyes on Me.

According to McCarthy, the current generation of stars like Tyla have built on the success of the foundation established by South Africa musicians through the years. “It was all about rising from poverty and having no future and opportunities, to make a good life for yourself and your family.”

Designer Rich Mnisi is optimistic about a bright future for South African music: “I hope the next generation explore, experience and embrace new creative facets of the freedom that was so hard won for us.”

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