I have a stock response to the outraged SMSs and emails from Kenya, Zimbabwe and elsewhere I get on the death of reggae icon Lucky Dube: “He died of our society” — a society that is still learning to value life.
I don’t quite remember where I got this from, but it may be a bastardised witticism that comes a novel by Graham Greene, where someone says a violent death in a violent society is a normal one. It shouldn’t be. Certainly not in South Africa.
I find I have nothing to say to reassure them that we actually go out at night and behave, more or less, like everyone else on the continent or indeed in the rest of the world.
But what I find instructive about the death of Lucky is the outrage from, as someone called it, greater Africa. I understand why. I grew up on Lucky Dube. My mother had vinyls and cassettes of the man. I wonder whether my mother’s initial interest (her maiden name is Dube) was the supposed shared kinship.
The upshot was that my family keenly followed the man and his music. Growing up in the 1990s in Zimbabwe, we fed from The Hand that Giveth. When puberty set in it, was I’ve Got You Babe and Eyes of the Beholder we sang. When all seemed lost it was reassuring to hear Lucky chant Jah Live. And when Shonas and Ndebeles were at each other’s throats, it was him who told us we were Together as One. For me and people of my generation he did more to conscientise us about the situation of non-white South Africans than anything or anyone else — including the once-famous education that was established by the Robert Mugabe government.
We asked then why this guy sang sad songs. We got to know that there was a person called Nelson Mandela with a beautiful wife called Winnie who had been in prison on an island for as long as my mother (born in 1958) could remember.
We wanted to know why he sang about slaves. Black people in South Africa couldn’t just move around, we were told. They needed passes from the white men to move from Soweto to wherever it is they want to go. It seems ridiculous now, but then it seemed like all black people lived in Soweto. We didn’t know about Cape Town, Durban or any other city.
In this way the South African struggle became real for us adolescents. Part of Lucky’s beauty was his use of the Jamaican reggae medium, at the time riddled with rumours of links to mafioso types (founding Wailer Peter Tosh was killed in the late 1980s and singer Garnett Daymon Silk similarly died in unclear circumstances).
Lucky seized this medium, took it back to its history steeped in struggle and social justice, and came out with a socially conscious genre that didn’t degrade women, that didn’t glorify war-lordism (those who know ragga DJs Bounty Killa, Cutty Ranks and others will know what I am talking about). The result was a genre that celebrated the man Mandela and what he stood for, a rhythm that strained to be heard in the masochistic noises in vogue then.
It’s a pity Lucky is gone; his music brought to the attention of the world the madness and brutality of the apartheid regime. I can’t honestly say he should rest in peace. Why should he? His music is with us and his eternal message still echoes from the silences in the world beyond.
May his death spur the ridding of all forms of violence and separation — evils to which his music stood up.