#Harambee63 – (Video) Miriam Makeba and Songs of Resistance

Songs were used as an archive for history in particular, histories of oppression.  From the Negro Spirituals derived from Field Songs, sang by slaves who were working on cotton farms in the U.S., to KLFA ( Mau Mau) songs sang by detainees as they were transferred to detention camps and reserves, to Miriam Makeba, who sang about apartheid and the hope for a free South Africa.

*The word “home” in many of these resistance songs represents the idea of freedom, in the way that land in resistance movements were a tangible idea of freedom.

Bessie Brown sings Song From A Cotton Field which gives an account of a slave cotton picker and the hope for freedom one day:


Songs are a form of oral history and contained in them are the lives of those who lived through periods of difficulty.

Etta James sings Swing Low, Sweet Chariot a classic Negro Spiritual, sang in church, one of the only places that African- Americans could congregate without raising suspicion.


Music can be a tool for resistance. The colonialists sometimes banned these songs because they understood the power of those songs in strengthening the people’s resolve.

Miriam Makeba in this interview talks about her discomfort at the commercialization of her songs for a European audience:


Music can be coded for communication. The gumboot dance was originally used by miners to communicate while working. In the 1940s Africans from the Southern part of Africa (Zambia, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe) were put into forced labour in mines in South Africa. The miners, who were chained to each other, worked in waterlogged and dark conditions in these mines. In most situations it was so dark that they could not see each other. They were not allowed to talk to each other in the three months that they lived and worked in the mines.

Because they were from different countries even language was a problem. They were arranged in a way that they could not organize along ethnic lines. Gumboot code became the language of unity.


Written by Wambui