A plea for all our songs to be given a hearing, even if some of us don’t want to hear them
There was a song I used to sing as a child, loudly and with vigour, a song of hope and yearning and a plea for the small mercies of paternal indulgence.
“Ag pleez daddy, won’t you take us to the drive-in,” it went, before ascending to a checklist of the heavenly delights to be consumed while sitting in your pyjamas on the backseat.
“Popcorn, chewing, peanuts and bubble-gum, ice-cream, candyfloss and Eskimo Pie. Ag daddy, how we miss, niggerballs and licorice…”
Listening to the song again the other day, after an absence of decades, I was jolted upright by a sudden epiphany of adulthood.
Had I really been that naïve, that innocent, that sheltered from the world beyond the small mining town where I grew up on the fringes of Johannesburg? Yes.
To me, niggerballs were confectionery, hard as marbles, that you popped into your mouth and pincered out every now and again, watching them shift from black to red to orange to yellow to green to blue, until all you had left was a tiny white pearl that you either flicked away or slukked down your gullet. These days, we call them gob-stoppers, I think.
These days, we watch the words that we sing, finely attuned to the delicacies of double-meaning.
These days, when Jeremy Taylor sings his Ballad of the Southern Suburbs, he sings of sugarballs and licorice instead.
But there were other songs back then, songs I never knew or heard, songs sung on a different frequency or swallowed up by radio silence.
There was a song of hope and yearning, a plea for the Good Lord to rain benediction down on Africa, and for the Holy Spirit to be made flesh.
You couldn’t sing that song in public, for fear of being charged with…I don’t know, singing a song in public.
But we’ve come a long way, us blessed Africans, and today we happily sing from the same hymnbook.
True, the anthem we sing is a spot-welded collage that awkwardly shifts gear from a prayer for redemption to a pledge to live or perish, but we sing it to the best of our phonetic abilities, our hands on our hearts, safe in the knowledge that never again will we have to live in a society where we are told what songs we can and cannot sing. That’s what I thought, too.
But this week, a pronouncement from the Bench left me with an awful feeling of Deja Verwoerd in the pit of my stomach, of a gear grinding into reverse, as a Judge declared words to be weapons and a song to be a crime.
Maybe I am still naïve and innocent and sheltered from the world, but I want my Bill of Rights to be a bill without sub-clauses and codicils and ifs and buts and notwithstandings.
I want the Law to err on the side of Too Much Freedom. I want to accord to you, as you accord to me, the ability to be guided by a moral GPS that requires no calibration by a guardian of the Constitution.
I want the right to be shocked and offended, and the right to shock and offend in turn. I want the right to be wrong.
Never mind the songs of history, the songs that are hardly ever sung, except loudly and with vigour outside court on the day they are banned.
Never mind the singer who calls for a machine-gun, unless an actual machine-gun is produced.
Never mind the troubadour who calls on the ghost of a General to come back and liberate his people.
I like to fool myself into thinking, 21 years after De Klerk made his Speech, that we have travelled far enough along the road to be able to stop and hear each other’s songs, to ask what they mean and why they are being sung.
I remember sitting in a studio at the SABC during the State of Emergency, as someone eased a vinyl record out of its sleeve, and showed me where a knitting-needle had been applied to scratch out the tracks that could never be played.
But they were played. And they were sung. And they were heard.
You can’t duct-tape people’s voices by decree. You can’t seal off the thoughts that ring in their heads.
You can’t, in our new society, carry on telling people what’s good for them.
If someone sings a song of hate, let us sing a song of love in turn. If someone sings a song that hurts, let us sing a song that heals. And if all else fails, let us sing our songs of war, until we drown each other out and go back to what we were doing before.
Our GPS will tell us when we are going too far. We rely on common sense, goodwill, and our shared humanity to keep us from shouting bloody manslaughter in public, unless of course we are bidding farewell to the national rugby squad as they set off on their mission of conquest to New Zealand.
I don’t want to go back to the strange and mixed-up country of my childhood.
I don’t want to lie in bed at night, listening to the song of the siren that tells people to get off the streets of my suburb.
I want to live in this strange and mixed-up country, with its Darrens and its Gareths and its Floyds and its JuMas and its Steves and its Helens, and I want to hear their voices and their songs and judge for myself, Your Honour, whether they are right or they are wrong. Ag pleeze, daddy.
*This was also published in the Mail &b Guardian on September 14, 2011