The world of film and music has always been a part of the fabric of social change. It has the power to move us, challenge us and change us. In the 1960s and 1970s, a South African man, Steve Biko, was a vocal advocate of non-violent protest as a means to ending racial division in his country. He was also the founder of the African Black Consciousness movement. In 1977, Steve Biko died due to injuries sustained from torture in a South African police station cell.
I was nine years old. My first understanding of who this man was came from a song written and sung by Peter Gabriel, simply titled Biko, written and released in 1980. I came to more fully understand who Steve Biko was when I lived in South Africa as a 17 year old Rotary Exchange student. It was in 1986 and the country was in turmoil — the beginning of the end of apartheid was evident.
Biko’s name was banned, just as he was considered a ‘banned’ person when he was alive. He didn’t appear in history books or newspapers. All were strictly edited and censored. I learned more about his life from my host-sister and her boyfriend. They lived in an artist’s community in Johannesburg and were a part of the end-apartheid movement. I would visit them on weekends, from my whites only girls school in Pretoria, and we would spend hours scouring underground community newspapers (that would lead to their publishers’ imprisonment or death were they to be discovered). They took me under their tutelage and showed me what was really happening in South Africa at that time.
A year later, elements of Biko’s life and death at the hands of South African police torture were depicted in the film Cry Freedom, with Denzel Washington and Kevin Kline. It’s not a perfect film, but it introduced many more to this extraordinary leader. And forever sealed Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika in my mind and emotions (now part of the South African national anthem) as the final credits listed name after endless name of those who died in police custody in South Africa during this period. Gabriel’s song and Attenborough’s film were players in moving public opinion.
The ONE campaign understands the power of art to move us. As a self-described agitator, I am in love with their new Agit8 project – a celebration of protest songs and their power to get us to act! Gabriel’s song Biko, is part of this incredible collection. I want you to check out Agit8 right now. And take a minute to share your favorite protest song and how it’s moved you. Then raise your voice against global poverty as the G8 meets next week.
I heard friend, former lover and mother of two of Biko’s children, Dr Mamphela Ramphele at the Women in the World summit earlier this year. At age 65, she has begun a new political party. She spoke about a new era for South Africa’s politics and social reform that more equitably lines up with Biko’s vision for his country. She reminded me that there must always room for the people’s voices to be heard. And that you’re never too old to stand up and be counted; or to agitate for the change you desire in the world.
How has music and art moved you to challenge the status quo?