From Josh: I spent the first 22 years of my life in South Africa, growing up under the apartheid regime. As part of my involvement in the student protest movement, there were the inevitable brushes with the police and those strongly supporting government policy. I soon became painfully aware of how much courage it takes to stand up for principles of equality in that kind of environment.
These memories of my formative years are very much on my mind as we examine the character strength of courage this month and see how it is expressed in the songs of some iconic African musicians. In South Africa Miriam Makeba (1935-2008) was a role model for us all. “Mama Africa” was the civil rights activist par excellence there, known for songs like “Pata Pata” and for her collaboration with Paul Simon in “Under African Skies,” sung at the African Concert in Zimbabwe in 1987–part of the celebrated Graceland album.
Here is a vintage video clip of that great performance:
Skin color is the most common marker of racial differences. From an Afrocentric point of view, beauty is most often identified with degrees of blackness. As I point out in my book, The Louis Armstrong Companion, Ebony ran a feature by Armstrong in August 1954 entitled “Why I Like Dark Women”–a tell-all story about his four wives. In it he elaborated on his attraction to dark-skinned women, quoting the familiar phrase, “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.”
In tragic contrast, African albinos have been–and continue to be–subjected to brutal acts of persecution and rampant killing because of their lack of skin pigment. For this reason we are here honoring Malian Afro-pop singer-songwriter Salif Keita (b. 1949), known as the “Golden Voice of Africa,” as a very special Profile in Courage.
Born an albino, he was seen as an omen of bad luck and was cast out by both his Mandinka family and his home town of Djoliba. As a teenager he was able to make his way to the town of Bamako, across the Niger river to the northwest. There he joined the popular government-sponsored Rail Band de Bamako. This started him on the first rung of his ladder to success in West Africa and beyond. He moved to Paris in 1984, dividing his time since then between tours abroad and work in Bamako.
There is now a Salif Keita Global Foundation, a US-based non-profit that brings media attention to the global plight of babies born albino. In Africa alone the ratio is as high as 1 in 1,000. In the words of Salif Keita, their deaths happen “because they are black people who have white skin –whether it’s due to discrimination or the hot sun, they are in perpetual danger. Creating thoughts of love towards those with the condition is the first priority and the strongest power in changing the lives of those with albinism…. After that, every other change will have to follow automatically.”
Keita’s 2009 album with its title track, La Difference, (“The Difference”) combines modern Malian pop with Western influences such as touches of American blues and the French chanson. Set to a simple, catchy melody made up of a few well-chosen notes, the song is gently passionate. Its lyrics are, symbolically, in three languages: French, Bambara, and Mandinka. It begins with the words, Je suis un noir, ma peau est blanche (“I am black , my skin is white”), and continues, “so I am white and my blood is black.” At 0:48, as you will hear, the song grows in intensity, culminating in the hopeful refrain, first heard at 1:22: La vie sera belle, chacun a son tour aura son amour. (“Life will be beautiful, everyone in his turn will have [dignity and] love.”)
“La Difference” illustrates one of the many ways the virtue of Courage can be expressed in music and can contribute to social change.
Salif Keita, LA DIFFERENCE