Three women are huddled in conversation. Their sheer stockings reflect concert venue lights, legs crossed symmetrically, they exude confidence. Dolly gestures dramatically with one elegant hand and holds a cigarette in the other. MaGumede clasps her chest in exclamation, Zenzi listens intently. This intimate moment holds infinite power. Zenzile Miriam Makeba, Kedibone Dolly Rathebe and Dorothy Masuku share a bench and eminent status of ‘jazz women.’
At the time, Makeba headed the Skylarks, Rathebe and Masuku were luminaries of the stage and bioscope. They grew up in the limelight, global icons, reviled and admired. Their life stories document the thrills and travails of Africa’s struggle for liberation from white supremacist capitalist patriarchyWhite supremacist capitalist patriarchy – bell hooks term.
Jazz women are musical, sartorial, and literary institutions. Their songs and struggles traverse rivers and straddle borders. Their lives, discographies and wardrobes are montages of cultural resistance. Mofolo, Lady Selbourne, Sophiatown, Western Native Township and Crown Mines birthed the Skylarks, a 1950s all woman ‘close harmony’ band. Makeba, Abigail Kubeka, Mary Rabotapi, Helen van Rensburg and Mummy Girl Nketle formed part of the Southern Africa’s cultural renaissance of the 1950s. The stage had been set for the Skylarks by Dolly Rathebe, by then an established international star. Masuku blazed a trail throughout Africa.
Masuku, Rathebe and Makeba, were a formidable trio in this expansive sisterhood. They were born in communities that were embroidered by many tongues. Masuku born to Lozi and Ndebele parents, Makeba to Swazi and Xhosa parents and Josephine Rathebe, to Batswana parents. Their music reflects this diversity.
Masuku’s music takes us on a circuitous journey, in her final album, she tracks Mzilikazi’s 1868 journey from Zululand to Zimbabwe. Her career and resistance flourished in the land her forebears escaped, South Africa; where apartheid police service harassed her for calling out Dr. Malan and Lumumba’s assassins. In a similar circular journey, Makeba’s last album, iSangoma is a return to origins. She recalls songs her mother learnt during her initiation as a healer. Nomkemendelo, was named for the British army’s commandeering of African men like her father. Like Nomkomendelo, the tyranny of colonial law bared its horrors in Zenzile’s infancy. Less than a fortnight after giving birth, Nomkomendelo was arrested for brewing beer, she was incarcerated for six months with her baby. Makeba would elude authoritarianism for decades.
Colonialism needed African women for its reproduction, yet their urbanization was discouraged. African women were labelled “travelling prostitutes” (Chigumadzi 2019) or ‘skokiaan queens’ in reference to traditional beer brewed by township women. The suppression of this practice was a fixation of the colonial and apartheid governments. From Vereeniging to Cato Manor, women engaged in battles to shut down Municipal beerhalls that were a component of extractive capitalism. The skokiian queen features recurrently in archival material, a wilful woman undeterred by legislation, pulpit, and tabloid portrayal. The workers uniform and pass were designed to constrain, but on stage and the dancefloor she challenged convention. This brought about more vilification of urban African women.
Native beer halls, jazz cafes and other recreational spaces provided some room for transgression. Panashe Chigumadzi’s writing evokes the transgressive soundscape of the 1940s coloured by “provocative women’s ‘folk’ songs [following] in the subversive urban traditions of genres like jikinyira and mavingu, [through] which … rural black women who sought creative ways to air their many grievances against colonial officials and African patriarchs, as well as powerful rural matriarchs such as mothers-in-law.” Through their songs, African women embraced defiance, blurred the lines between Jazz Siren and Skokiaan Queen. Pata Pata was a sonic protest of street harassment. Ditshitshiri is an acerbic rejoinder about a mother-in-law whose blankets are laced with fleas.
While Bessie Head, Eskia Mphahlele and Peter Abrahams depict beer-brewing women in nuanced ways, the literature of the time is largely dominated by libellous depictions of urban African women. The politics of titillation were emphasized to sell magazines and project desired images. Affection often took a contorted turn with the gaze zooming in on the ‘morality’ of sultry jazz stars. Rathebe’s image emblazoned on the Drum magazine from different slants which emphasize her physique, her “strange life and loves.”
The fixation with policing women’s bodies also propelled the state to action. During one of Rathebe’s shoots with photographer Jurgen Schadeberg, she was arrested under the ‘Immorality Act.’ An accusation thrown at African women who did not fit into the subservient archetypes predefined for them. Makeba’s personal choices had similar political implications. She was blacklisted by promoters after her engagement to pan African activist Stokely Carmichael. Makeba was asked to leave the Bahamas where she was performing. When this was made known to the Prime Minster (Makeba 2004: 110) Masuku was labelled subversive by the South African and Rhodeisan governments, exiling her to Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya and Malawi for decades.
The complicity of white supremacy, nationalist patriarchy and extractive capitalism is expressed in the lives of Jazz women. Even the post-colony struggled to memorialize them and marshal them into chauvinist historiography. This may be the reason Makeba was not invited to South Africa’s first democratic inauguration in 1994. It could explain why Rathebe’s tombstone was crowdfunded after a high school project. Iconic legacies are disremembered by their beneficiaries.
The ‘jazz siren’ strains against stereotypical portrayals of African women. Immaculately dressed, bejewelled, and bathed in light, she embodies glamour. To dim this light, laws and social dictums are mounted against self-stylization. These women clearly occupied a complex space between subverting and sustaining their antagonists. In her memoir, Makeba writes that she wore a domestic workers’ uniform on her ride to the airport. Masuku and Kubeka recall how they stepped off stage to don aprons when police raided venues to enforce apartheid laws. The very act of singing in jazz clubs required Jazz Queens to perform the drama which poet Paul Laurence Dunbar depicted when he wrote,
“we wear the mask that grins and lies,(Dunbar 1895)
it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guide;
with torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
and mouth with myriad subtleties”
Masuku was reproved for being crowned Miss Mzilikazi 1953 at a pageant linked to the fleeting Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. (Chigumadzi 2019) Makeba participated in a performance with her eisteddfod teacher which drew similar contempt.
The archivists, publishers, studio heads and photographers who played various gatekeeping roles are white men for whom black women sometimes ‘wore the mask’ or feigned complicity.
Black men, except for a few, were also infantilized by the entertainment industry. The Skylarks were depicted through the lens of these men. The ‘masculine’ inclination of these jazz circuits is evident in the generous documentation of the cultural resistance of the Manhattan Brothers, Bantu Men’s Social Centre and amaPantsula vis-a-vis Jazz women.
Makeba recounts her experiences with the Special Branch in South Africa, mirroring the harassment she encountered during her marriage to Stockley Carmichael. Carmichael’s repression was made visible and pronounced by the repressive government. He was publicly imprisoned, detained at airports and summoned to the ‘house of Un-American Activities Committee.’ The subjugation of women’s pan-Africanist politics was more ominous, it placed emphasis on urban women’s wayward behaviour and sought to police their person.
Jazz women recognise the power of sisterhood and self-stylization. When Makeba arrived in USA, Diahann Carroll, who knew how icy Hollywood could be to black women, linked Makeba up with tailors and publicists. Half a decade later, Makeba organized a tribute concert honouring Dolly. At this tribute Miriam, Masuku and the Skylarks, formed a “trust fund that would provide support for all female singers … who, in the Autumn of their careers, would enjoy a sense of security and peace of mind.” Makeba’s sisterhood was expressed in support of Aretha Franklin’s decision to boycott Sun City despite the wrath of promoters. Makeba cherished postcards sent by her comrade and sister, Nina Simone. She attended the 1994 inauguration with Zozo Laird, a woman who championed divestment campaigns that brought the apartheid economy to its knees. The sisterhood circle radiates still. The fires lit by Jazz women have parked many a flame.
Dunbar, P. 1895. We wear the mask. In The complete poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company
Mabuza-Suttle, Felicia. Interview
Madondo, B. 1994. In love with jazz. SPEAK.
Makeba, Miriam. 1988.
Makeba, Miriam. 1988.
Masuka, Dorothy. Tea with –
Mthonti. F. 2019. Dorothy Masuku: ‘My songs, they talk.’ In New Frame. 1 March 2019.
Ntshangase, Dumisane & Thema, Derrick. 2006. I have seen it all. Mail and Guardian.
1/24/2018 The Legacy Of The Jazz Epistles, South Africa’s Short-Lived But Historic Group :NPR
|White supremacist capitalist patriarchy – bell hooks term