Johannesburg, South Africa

Johannesburg by Gil Scott-Heron

I hate it when the blood starts flowin'
But I'm glad to see resistance growin'
Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson's "Johannesburg" came from the duo's 1976 album, From South Africa to South Carolina. This was a musical protest of South Africa's apartheid, which was a system of legal racial segregation enforced by the National Party government between 1948 and 1994. It meant that the rights of the majority "non-white" inhabitants of South Africa were curtailed and minority rule by white people was maintained. This song was recorded nearly a full decade before musician and activist, Steven Van Zandt, organized Artists United Against Apartheid and recorded both a song and album titled Sun City.

A street in downtown Johannesburg<br>Photo: <a href="" target="_blank">Martyn Smith</a>, via Flickr, CC 2.0A street in downtown Johannesburg
Photo: Martyn Smith, via Flickr, CC 2.0
When Scott-Heron sang lines like, "They tell me that our brothers over there are defyin' the Man," he was most likely reacting to the Black Consciousness Movement, created in the 1970s by tertiary students influenced by the American Black Power movement. This group protested apartheid and stood up for black pride and African culture, helping to change - for the better - the self-esteem of black people, which had been systematically devalued down by the ruling government.

It's important to keep in mind that this song was released back during the pre-Internet world. So when Scott-Heron asked, "What's the word? / Tell me brother, have you heard from Johannesburg?" he was begging for an update. This was before Twitter and Facebook could update the world unofficially within seconds of any societal change. "We don't know for sure, because the news we get is unreliable, man," Scott-Heron continues in the song. It sure seems like the Dark Ages now.

This protest song was relatively moderate, at least when looked upon in retrospect. This was not exactly Malcolm X "by any means necessary" stuff, that's for certain. "Well, I hate it when the blood starts flowin'," Scott-Heron states, "but I'm glad to see resistance growin'." It's similar to the hesitancy John Lennon expressed with The Beatles "Revolution" when he advised, "But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / You ain't gonna make it with anyone, anyhow." Change was necessary, yes, but the right change, and not just changes for changes' sake.

Scott-Heron used the city of Johannesburg to represent the racial troubles in South Africa in the same way Neil Young chose the state of Alabama to spotlight the United States' similar social upheaval. However, if Young had wanted to cover the expansive scope addressed in Scott-Heron's musical study, he would have needed to find a racial trouble spot as big as New York City. This is because Johannesburg is the most populated city in South Africa. Its provincial capital of Gauteng, the wealthiest province in South Africa, also has the largest economy of any metropolitan region in Sub-Saharan Africa. If you're looking at a globe, Johannesburg is situated on the eastern plateau of South Africa known as the Highveld.

Scott-Heron ends his song by asking, "Don't you wanna be free?" which, of course, was a rhetorical question. The good news is that apartheid finally ended when South Africa held multi-racial democratic elections in 1994. This resulted in a victory for the African National Congress, headed by Nelson Mandela, a black man.

Gil Scott-Heron passed away in May of 2011. Thankfully, however, he and his musical partner Brian Jackson lived to see Johannesburg free of the evil apartheid that originally inspired their powerful political song.

Dan MacIntosh
December 8, 2012

Comments: 1

  • Jason Emman from Pretoria, South AfricaThe world wasted time, listening to Billy Jean and Got Money, when this man was alive
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