Of Kerkorrel, the freedom of words, and singing out

12 Sep

When I was an impressionable eighteen year old, working at Grahamstown Festival on probably my first “grown up” solo adventure, I had the profound privilege of doing the lights – and on one memorable occasion, the sound – for Johannes Kerkorrel. Or, as I came to know him, Ralf. He stands out as one of the gentlest, kindest, most humble people I’ve ever worked with. At the same festival was an exhibition, “unbanned”, documenting all the music that had been banned under apartheid rule, including the letters people wrote in to request the banning. Albums like Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles – as well as albums and albums full of local music, most of which, sadly, has been buried in history books. I spoke to Ralf about one album of his on which every song was banned except one about seagulls in Sea Point, and when he did radio interviews that had to play that song, over and over, until it became a form of protest in and of itself.

I was travelling, a few years later, when I learned of Ralf’s death. The sad futile death of a genius, misunderstood. The sad, lonely death of a fragile human. I cried for him, but I cried for our loss. The loss of an artist willing to challenge the way we think. I remembered the rooms in Grahamstown filled with people, who embraced the gentle mockery Kerkorrel offered them, the very people he was mocking. Who were quiet when the more serious moments came.  I remember watching him work his magic on them. I remember him working his magic on me.

Art should – amongst a myriad other things – make people uncomfortable. “Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable.” – Finley Dunne. Every time we get riled up over a Zapiro cartoon, or “De La Rey”, or “Mshini Wam”, we are thinking. We are talking about issues we normally don’t engage with on public platforms. We reassess – and either reaffirm, or slightly shift – our perspective. No artist believes that a single piece can change people’s minds, but a hundred pieces, and maybe a tiny shift could occur.

You’d be surprised what other songs and books were banned, in their day. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is a blatant attack on Cromwell’s banning of plum pudding – “we won’t go until we get some”. “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, “Alice in Wonderland”, Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax”, The Kinks’ “Lola”, Joe Brown and the Bruwers’ “My Little Ukelele”…from the sublime to the ridiculous, we’ve tried to legislate against the arts.

Yesterday and today on my twitter timeline a number of ideas collided and coalesced. Michael Moran was questioning whether we’d had any “meaningful” top ten hits since “Do they know it’s Christmas”, Amanda Palmer was blogging about how 9/11 influenced her song “Truce”.  Should we be horrified by Darren Scott saying kaffir? About Gareth Cliff’s alleged sexist remarks? About Mogoeng?About Russell Kane’s alleged sexist remarks? – what should we be expending our wrath upon? And then, above it all: Malema was found guilty of hate speech for singing “Dubul’ibhunu”. (Read Nomalanga Mkhize’s powerful piece on how this should not be transliterated to “Kill the Boer”)

Banning a song? Here, now, in 2011, South Africa is trying to ban a song. Because if Malema is not allowed to sing it, then presumably no one else is. If there is anything history has taught us, it’s that voices shall not be silenced. That banning things, particularly songs, gives them power. It also disturbs me profoundly when a government believes it can start to legislate our culture. Culture belongs to people. Culture is a living thing. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines culture as “integrated patterns of human knowledge, belief, and behaviour that are both a result of and integral to the human capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations. Culture thus consists of language, ideas, beliefs, customs, taboos, codes, institutions, tools, techniques, works of art, rituals, ceremonies, and symbols”.

We cannot legislate people’s thoughts. We cannot legislate people’s emotions. Attempting to deny them the right to express those thoughts and emotions is dangerous. And artists need to speak. We need to cry out when our right to free speech is challenged. As soon as we start picking and choosing which elements of speech are free, none of it is. Words, like people, cannot be free unles they all are. As Voltaire almost said, “I do not approve of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

I hope the wave of anger and upset over this breach of the right to free speech doesn’t become a trickle. I hope South Africa’s artists will be loud and tuneful in their call for every South African to have the right to sing any tune they feel like singing. I frequently quote Lawrence Lessig’s “Who owns Culture”. I’m going to do it again now: “How is art made? Tell us. Tell us how to use the tools of law to regulate you. Because unless you start showing us, you artists, you authors, you creators, unless you start showing us how you create and have always created…the only way to end this extraordinarily destructive rhetoric, is for artists to sing to us in a way that distracts us from the craziness.”

(You can listen to Kerkorrel’s Hillbrow here. RIP Ralf)


6 Responses to “Of Kerkorrel, the freedom of words, and singing out”

  1. Steven September 14, 2011 at 7:39 pm #

    Was the song banned or was Malema banned from singing the song and is there a difference? #seriousquestion

    • karenjeynes September 14, 2011 at 7:57 pm #

      To the best of my understanding, the ruling states that he cannot sing the song, even in private. However my assumption is that if he cannot sing it, then why should anyone else be allowed to? So, seriously, I think there’s a technical difference, but not a meaningful one.

  2. slottering September 14, 2011 at 9:35 pm #

    Thanks for the response Karen. Sorry to push the point but it seems to make a difference to me (and I’m really trying hard to understand this): was it declared hate speech or was *Malema’s use* of it declared hate speech?

    Surely how and where we use certain speech must be taken into consideration?

    I’m really struggling to see the connection between this and “art” (and the songs that were banned under apartheid).

    I understand that it may not refer directly to Afrikaans people today but do the people listening to Malema understand that?

    You see, as much as I support freedom of speech I can’t simply allow that to mean anything goes – if something is hateful or hurtful surely we have to “deal with it” (and that’s what I’m not sure how). Whilst I support freedom of speech I am also a supporter of groups that have been abused or oppressed e.g. women and gays and so, if what someone sings or says contributes in any way to the ongoing abuse or oppression of (e.g. women or gays), I have to stand against it and that’s where the conflict comes in for me.

    I confess that it may just be my bias against Malema but it appears to me that the way he uses this is (could be) inflammatory. How do we draw the line? Where is the line? (I really don’t want to be argumentative – I’m trying hard to figure this out for myself).

    P.S. I love Johannes Kerkorrel’s work 😉

    • karenjeynes September 14, 2011 at 9:53 pm #

      Thanks for your comments. I am trying to find the link to the full judgement, and I’ll post it when I do. In fact though, you’re making the same point I am, I think: that we should legislate the actions, and the person, but not the words. If hate speech is about instigating violence, then how can Malema singing it in private be problematic? And, as I say, surely if he is not allowed to sing it, no one else will be?

      What does this have to do with banning songs? It’s a step on a road. It’s a very definite, obvious step. And it’s one I think our country will seriously regret taking.

      • slottering September 14, 2011 at 10:02 pm #

        I agree that it should not be banned totally (hence my original question).
        I have the full judgment – just haven’t been able to get my head to plough through it (my bad) 😉
        So, we’re agreed on banning songs (or rather not banning songs) – the big question then is how do we “legislate the actions, and the person”? and how did the ruling fail to do this?
        [thanks for engaging me on this and helping me to work through it for myself]

  3. Waldo September 28, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

    Is the shoot the boer “song” realy a song? Art??!

    “Culture”? To shoot the boer? Culture?? Seriously?

    Or is this “song” a political slogan by a political party used for political gain?

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