In his new book, Daniel Levitin makes the case that music spawned human culture.

Music Industry Embraces South Africa But Challenges Persist

The live music scene in South Africa is back, “vibrant and varied” but remains vulnerable.

In his new book, Daniel Levitin makes the case that music spawned human culture.

Annual local music festivals dominated by homegrown bands are starting to draw international crowds and national recognition to the South African music scene.

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What follows is the complete list of recent concerts held at the cavernous, 95,000-seat FNB football stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa as advertised on the stadium’s website:

  • Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
  • Rihanna: Diamonds World Tour
  • R. Kelly: The Single Ladies Tour
  • Justin Bieber – Believe Tour
  • Bon Jovi - Because We Can Tour
  • Metallica
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers
  • Lady Gaga – The Born This Way Ball
  • Linkin Park
  • Usher
  • The Eagles
  • Kings of Leon
  • Coldplay
  • Neil Diamond
  • U2 360° Tour

Carlos Santana’s “long-awaited tour to the motherland,” scheduled for March 1, is the only upcoming promoted performance.

[Read Drew Cohen on booing at Nelson Mandela's funeral.]

Notice anything peculiar about the list? On the site that housed the official memorial service for the country’s first black president and international human rights icon, Nelson Mandela, not one of the advertised bands hails from the continent, let alone sub-Sahara Africa. On the flip side, the list is clear signal that the international music industry’s biggest players have re-embraced the country.  

You have to remember that the live, modern music scene in South Africa is still a relatively “young industry.”

From the 1950s until the early '90s, apartheid restrictions on artists compounded by local “cultural boycotts” to protest the regime and international condemnation that kept many artists away stunted the industry. Ray Charles was famously blacklisted after playing a concert in Soweto in 1980 despite South African student political activist’s pleas to dissuade him. “We are not willing to accept Ray’s noise. We are in mourning,” said their spokesman. In a press statement issued around the same time, the Azanian People's Organization pressed black South Africans to “make the sacrifice of boycotting performances by foreign artists,” arguing that “[c]ertain pleasures must thus be sacrificed for the greater goal of liberation.”

[Check out U.S. News Weekly, available on iPad and Nook.]

In the 1960s and '70s, the apartheid government developed formal and informal censorship policies for radio stations. The restrictions covered four sprawling domains: politics, sex, region and culture. The Beatles’ music, for instance, was unceremoniously yanked from South African radio airwaves after John Lennon refused to apologize for his assertion that the group was “more famous than Jesus.” (It should also be mentioned here that the Vatican only ‘forgave’ Lennon for his comments in 2008 – noting in its official newspaper that, "after so many years it sounds merely like the boasting of an English working-class lad struggling to cope with unexpected success"). In the 1980s, censors barred Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing” and Carrie McDowell’s “Casual Sex” from being aired, for fear of stirring up sexual passions. (Interracial marriage was banned under the apartheid regime.)

Almost 20 years later, it appears that the live music scene in South Africa is back, “vibrant and varied” but remains vulnerable, according to a recent report released by Concerts South Africa, a joint South African/Norwegian.

The researchers surveyed 233 live music venues from small cafes to concerts halls and stadiums and optimistically noted that “[n]ationwide, close to half of all venues have succeeded in surviving for more than a decade…while another quarter – a significant proportion – have opened within the past five years.”

[Read more from Drew F. Cohen.]

Challenges to the industry and local artists, however, persist. The reports found that two-thirds of the country’s venues did not have rehearsal areas, only one third offered bands guaranteed money for performances and almost none had partnerships with sponsors.

Annual local music festivals dominated by homegrown bands, like OppiKoppi and Grahamstown’s National Arts Festival, are starting to draw international crowds and national recognition to the South African music scene. But as the Concerts South Africa report notes, “we need to continue to raise awareness about live music, both in terms of community activation to build audiences, and in terms of lobbying to enhance official understanding of the genre-specific ways that live music needs to do business” – something even Lennon and the South African government could both agree on.