Everyone should oppose injustice, but opposition is not enough—you must have something better to offer in its place, said famed South African musician and social activist Hugh Masekela at a lecture on St. Croix Thursday.
Masekela spoke to a packed Great Hall on UVI’s St. Croix Campus in advance of two big concerts: Friday at St. Croix’s Island Center and Saturday at St. Thomas’ Reichhold Center. Both shows are at 8 p.m. and feature South African pop vocalist Lira on the bill.
A trumpeter, composer, bandleader and singer who has worked with Herb Alpert, Harry Belafonte and many others, Masekela spent 30 years in exile for his role in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
At the start of that period, his first song, “Grazing in the Grass,” topped the U.S. charts in 1968, sold over 4 million copies worldwide and remains hugely popular and widely covered to this day. He has produced 35 albums to date and continues to tour and perform prolifically.
Born in 1939 in Kwa-Guqa Township, South Africa, Masekela loved playing music from an early age. He said he knew by the time he was 16 he would travel to New York to meet and play music with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis and other jazz lights.
Among the highlights of his career, Masekela gave a critically acclaimed performance at the 2010 World Cup Kick-off concert in South Africa, performing alongside Alicia Keyes, The Black Eyed Peas, Shakira and others.
He became a musician because of his love of music, and a political activist because his family has a strong tradition of public service, with relatives who were teachers, health inspectors, nurses and social workers.
But protesting against apartheid had its dangers.
"We were raised at rallies and strikes and marches; and many times we had to run away from gunfire," he recalled. But while Masekela played a small part by speaking out publicly while in exile, he said the real credit for freeing South Africa from the racist apartheid regime goes to "the ones who gave their lives and fought bullets with songs and marches," he said.
Activism starts at home, he said. "You can’t say ‘I’m just a street sweeper and it’s none of my business if something is wrong,’" he said. "It is not any particular person’s job—it is everyone’s job to stand up if something is wrong and say ‘No, this is wrong.’"
But he said you have to offer better alternatives, too.
"After the fighting, you have to have something to bring," he said. "If you get into power and you are still talking about freedom, then you are rubbing against a very rough wall. That is evident all over the world."
Moving forward, Masekela would like to see more work done to preserve and celebrate the cultures, languages, music, architecture and natural environments of the many African nations.
While Africa has a rich and varied tapestry of traditions, much of it is at risk of being lost and forgotten; in part because its many rural, agricultural peoples have been flocking to the cities for years, becoming cut off from their traditions and absorbed into modern, urban culture, he said.
"While we come from very rich backgrounds, it has not been preserved like it has in Europe," he said. "I have a 6-year-old granddaughter, and my biggest fear is someday 20 years from now someone will ask ‘Who are you?’" and she will say ‘We used to be Africans many years ago.’”
“And I think that would be very sad," he said.
After taking a few questions from the throng, Masekela departed for a reception at the Estate Whim Greathouse, where Lt. Gov. Gregory Francis was to present Masekela with a proclamation, declaring Hugh Masekela Day in the Virgin Islands on Friday and Saturday.
Tickets for the St. Croix performance may be purchased at Urban Threadz, Undercover Books, Riddims music store, Alliance Clothing and the UVI bookstore.
For the St. Thomas show, call the Reichhold at (340) 693-1559 or visit its website.