Hillbrowby Brandon Edmonds / 08.08.2013
Try not to cry. The spiritual in pop is elusive. Transcendence is usually reserved for carnal or chemical ecstasy. Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” nails the chemical part: “I’m gonna beat my brains with liquor and drugs” and Tegan & Sara’s fizzy, addictive “Closer” nails the carnal: “All I dream lately, is how to get you underneath me.” But the spiritual takes on big stuff like the mystery of death and what of us, if anything, is everlasting?
Now this: “News24 made several calls to Rabie’s personal cellphone number when the first rumour about his tragic death surfaced, but only got an answering message.” It was 2002 and they were calling a guy named Ralph Rabie. He was found hanging from a tree at a holiday resort in Kleinmond. His stage name was Johannes Kerkorrel. Now imagine that phone ringing and ringing and know that death is never answering. The spiritual is whatever this absence means to us: wonder, loss, and warm respect for a truly great South African artist. Oh and some of us would rather be dead than talk to News24.
As a journalist, in the late 1980s, Rabie was fired from Rapport for being a lefty and drifted into cabaret before hatching the Gerformeerde Blues Band with Koos Kombuis, whose Autobank Vastrap (off the great “Niemansland”), tells you more about the pinch of unemployment in South Africa in a minute and a half than ninety-nine Ted talks. Kerkorrel wrote deadly necessary songs like BMW (off the essential “Eet Kreef”) and spearheaded Die Eerste Alternatiewe Rock Concert in Joburg in 1988 that kicked off the “Voelvry” (freebird) campus tour. It was a cultural moment that lives on in the best of Afrikaans music today. As Charles Leonard wrote in the Mail & Guardian obituary: “(He) was my generation’s Joe Strummer…providing the soundtrack to our late 80s rebellion against the teacher, the dominee, the sergeant, the system.” On his last record, “Aan die Anderkant”, Ralph was singing about “the other side”.
But Kerkorrel wrote “Hillbrow”. That alone is forever. Take a listen. It is our “Hallelujah”, Leonard Cohen’s gorgeous horny prayer, our Perfect Day, Lou Reed’s heroic refusal to let a great shared thing get lost in time. These are songs that make heaven fall to earth. They face reality and find redemption in love and purpose, in experience, despite pain and misery. They make us stop and focus on what matters. These songs are spiritual black box recorders because they are alive and generous. “Gee jou hart vir Hillbrow,” goes the chorus.
This is a sublime humanist plea for empathy, of course, but it’s more radical than that; the song wants us to re-think what the city really means, ethically, in how we behave. It wants us to see how places like Hillbrow and the broken lives and systems that make it what it is beg us to act, then expose us, for who we are, when we don’t. Is this chiefly a “built environment”, owned and traded, rented and policed, or is it not also a place where our better selves are called upon and tested, where we are constantly asked to look into ourselves and decide whether we’ll reach out and help, taking action to change things.
The song collapses the distance we impose between ourselves and the “boemelaars” who “raas by die Wimpy bar” or the “kaalvoet kinders in die straat” and the “junkies wat wag”. Giving your heart to Hillbrow means risking stepping beyond the insulation of wealth, race, real estate and acknowledging the continuity between their suffering and our distraction.
And when you die, take your smart phone with you like a Pharaoh.