Marikana God Damn!by Rithuli Orleyn / 08.11.2012
In the political imagination of South Africa where do we place Nomfusi’s work? Two albums later she has a voice that encompasses far broader issues than the immediate project of fame, sales and crooning. Just as Nina Simone demanded: “the duty of an artist is to reflect the times”. We must find a home for Nomfusi’s messaging.
Simone speaks to the draconian carnage of her times when she sings “Mississippi God Damn”, consistent with her maxim: “music must wake up within us something beyond the scores of baritone singing, beyond the drums, clarinets and choruses.” But it is not mine to run Nomfusi through Nina Simone’s artistic gauntlet, demanding she must sing: “Marikana God Damn” to reflect her times. No! But it takes beautiful eyes of ideological parallax to listen to Nomfusi’s latest offering: Take Me Home. Let me explain.
The diminutive figure with the large voice, shot to fame and subsequent SAMA and Metro nominations through the 2008 hit “Nontsokolo” (a song about poverty with deep, infectious rhythms). In so doing she produced a sublime new mirror on which to reflect our township story. She presents our black story as a universal force-field. On the new album though, this story is presented more subliminally in the music and album art, than through overt titles like “Nontsokolo”.
The call to be taken back home in Nomfusi’s latest offering reminds us of struggle literature stalwart, Rhubusana’s anthology Zemk’ iinkomo magwala ndini. In one verse on the album’s title track she captures our new struggle. It’s a way of saying the promise of democracy did not achieve the aspirations of freedom: “The cattle are long gone / never to return again / look at my children carrying empty bellies to sleep / anxious, tossing and turning / our path is always an uphill / I want to go back to pre-colonial times / I miss Embo!”
Embo being the Nguni term for ‘origins’.
It is this concept of ‘missing my origins’ that connects Nomfusi’s wallowing nostalgic rumblings to Toni Morrison’s work Beloved – a slave archive aptly documented and presented as negro literature, where: “Central to the pursuit of self-ownership is the articulation of a self-defining language that springs from the flesh and blood of experience and that gives shape to the desire so long suppressed under slavery”. In carrying this subliminal message in her music Nomfusi makes a serious indictment of the powerful. Nomfusi’s grammar of suffering springs, indeed, from the lived experience of concrete loss: Nomfusi is an aids orphan that ‘made it’. Like a slave who escaped. She has earned the platform to speak about her archive of pain against the backdrop of our dominant political narrative, and hopefully disrupt that dominant logic. In her own little way, she speaks truth to power, though she is yet to escape the trappings of individualistic materialist messaging, synonymous with Oprah.
It is this implied indictment of power that Nomfusi anticipates, where: the burden of making ones’ life the living embodiment of truth, might cost her the ultimate price. Madness. So it’s poignant when she says on the album: “to my brother [thanks] you keep me sane”.
What about sanity, you ask? Nomfusi comes from a lineage of ukuthwasa-ngulo (which directly translates as both ‘insanity’ and ‘calling’). Goetsemang, her mother, was Ithaswa (both an insane person and a traditional healer) a nerve point in the pre-colonial context that kept the wellbeing of the nation in check. Hence the age-old duty of traditional healers to rebuke power and give council, is not completely subdued in Nomfusi’s voice. You can hear it, standing its own with the seasoned musos in the calibre of Ringo Madlingozi on the track ‘Kunjalo’. She sounds like her body carries a ‘revolting clump of scars’. Her voice feels like a veil that demarcates, very thinly, the zone of sanity from that domain where the potential for going cuckoos brims, threateningly.
Nomfusi reminds me of Sethe in Beloved, a character made insane by slavery, who slit the throat of her child to save her from slavery. In the novel Sethe, “[…]remembered how she had exchanged ‘ten minutes’ of sex with the engraver for the ‘one word that mattered’ in order to acquire the inscribing power of the white man’s chisel, she must transform her body into a commodity; he will grant the cherished script provided he first be granted the right of sexual inscription. Thus Sethe must temporarily ‘kill off’ her own body (she lies on a headstone, ‘her knees wide open as any grave), to purchase the text she thinks will buy her peace[…]”.
I do not think of Nomfusi as an individual here, but rather Nomfusi as a subject. As such, an embodiment, an index corresponding to what she stands for. Here she stands as the one whose personhood has been erased by the indignity of these new-apartheid conditions that perpetuate the same squalor as the pre-94 era. As water is to wet, as tongue is to spit and as heat is to flame so Nomfusi is to squatter camp dwellers. Equally well, Nomfusi, the subject, is to lived black condition.
The background squalor, on the album cover, seeks to efface itself by appealing to the normative state of existence where artistic expression appeals to nostalgia, a fetish that hides the objective violence depicted in the pictures. Here we are compelled to see art with no history, a rusty tin-town canvas providing an artistic background to accentuate Nomfusi’s incongruously photo-shopped image. A prosthetic that serves the sole purpose of avant-gardist beauty.
Milan Kundera captures this fetishistic disavowal well when he says: “in the sunset of dissolution it is nostalgia that illuminates even the morgue”. In the case of South Africa this is the nostalgia decontextualizing the artefacts of racist spatial separation like townships, hostels and migrant labour camps. The historic cost of the squalor behind Nomfusi, on the album cover, would be better represented by mummified bodies stacked up in the place of the rusty corrugated steel. This is what is effaced in the tin-town behind Nomfusi’s picture on the album cover. We encounter history precisely when we observe cultural artefacts in decay; when nature reclaims the corrugated steel or amazinki into rusty decomposition. But this cover is not a picture that cares about history or justice.
The avant-garde lofty artistic taste of the mortuary behind Nomfusi transmits the idea that ‘home’, ‘culture’ and ‘township squalor’ are embodied in the way a white value system looks at ruins. Our ruins of blackness: “whatever the manners, under every dark skin [the white gaze knows that there] lies a jungle”.
Put in another way: behind every photo-shopped image adorned with professional make-up and Jimmy Choo stilettos worn by blacks, lies a ‘home’ and a ‘culture’ of squalor where blacks belong.
Ironically, it is the violence of the white gaze that created this ruin.
I would say that in the political imagination of South Africa Nomfusi’s art is far from “reflecting the times” like Simone demands, but certainly Nomfusi does not lull us to the same lullaby that praises the betrayals of those in power. Though buried in the rubble of dominant logic, her voice tries to register some disruption to that dominant logic. Even though hers is a single redeeming verse in a host of lyrics that placate our righteous anger for being a people in ruin, her voice is not utterly choked:
Like this article though, buried in the silence of things, Nomfusi speaks only to be ignored.