by Tambu Muzenda
On the 27th of January, we arrived in Lesotho for the Photo Experience workshops and field work with participants we didn’t even know would touch our lives so deeply. After several days of interactions, discussions and tears, at the end of the long day we all left to relax. For some of us, we still worked into the night and looked forward to the new dawn. Mornings brought so much joy to my spirit, as I took walks to the mountain meeting so many unfamiliar faces. The gaze remained the same, unspoken and piercing from the few people I encountered during my morning walks before sunrise. School girls in their uniforms, workmen in their luminous vests, worn already before the sun can shine on the safety vests for visibility. Unfortunately, the effects never seen as daylight makes no sense for a luminous vest. Some girls walked in pairs carrying large and long sticks. Men carried their lunchboxes by their waist side, loud traditional Basotho music blasting from their hips. Some young men seemed to prefer the subtle plugging into their ears, listening to unknown, and never heard sounds of music, a way to escape time and maybe even the sound of birds, crickets and frogs. For the most part the walking routine was the same, with the exception of two incidents in which our movements seemed monitored as we walked passed the barracks. Yet, the escape to the high mountains was such a pleasure to which my dear friend Prof, Sir Zanele Muholi also joined me since their arrival two days later. So I took the lead to the mountains, a little joy we found as we escaped the city dust to perch ourselves like the birds in the kingdom’s sky view.
On this particular morning, we walked in silence for some time until we met an elderly man with his lunch bag, blasting an old song by Dolly Parton, ‘My mistakes are no worse than yours’. Muholi and I were stunned and still not sure what to make of it. As my mind raced to speak what I had heard, I could only imagine how violent the song sounded. Not the melody. The tune was a memorable one. I even remembered such songs being played on radio, late on Sunday nights as part of the country music selection. In those days, radios with a cassette recording and player, were the flavour of many households. And if the DJ could only remain mum for a while, it was possible to come out with a few playback tunes. Of course saving one the trip to the record store to buy a new cassette. But as on the day, Muholi and I realised the power of music and at the same time the violence that is played over and over in the music we listen to without a thought of someone crying out for help in the music’s lyrics.
And so we laughed, and still discussed further the realisation of such violence, a concept we had been engaging with for the Photo XP in Lesotho. We walked until we reached the mountain top and in sync started to identify the songs that made us be, the songs that we cried about, and some we made love to. In that moment we stripped the lyrics of the songs to understand what it all meant. Dolly Parton was just one song that broke the violence of the ear. The song relates to a woman apologising to a man, that she is not what he imagines her to be-an angel. Parton continues to express her frustration at the man judging her for not being a saint after being dumped by a man who then goes on to marry another woman, leaving her to deal with the same of being loose. The consequence of her not being chosen to be the man’s wife, wearing his wedding band. But unlike man, woman is then categorised as loose, when the same is not afforded of man who takes (has sex with) a woman and never marries her. The same woman as Parton relates, suffers more than her counterpart—a man as she is stigmatised and called names like whore, slut and many more. But the sad part of the song is how she has to explain and express herself to have the man understand her, as though seeking redemption in actual fact, and finally acceptance by the man.
Muholi and I, under the influence of the mountain skies make a list of many songs that we remembered, danced to and without a thought, these hits prevailed to remind women that they were and remain minors or inadequate as adult humans. The consequent of our own queen of Music, Brenda Fassie declaring and accepting to be a ‘Weekend Special’. If you cannot get it al then, take what you can get type of thing. Woman again explains how the man will not see her in the week, doesn’t even call to say he is busy neither does he take a chance. But come weekend, the woman is raised, promoted to my all weekend treat status, a weekend special. And that is all she becomes. Dolly Parton’s song affirms this weekend special woman. Not sure why she apologies to the man because he is disappointed that she is fine being a weekend treat. Who condemns the man having a takeout for the weekend? Double standards. Then Karen White’s ‘I am not your super woman’ takes it another level letting the man know she is not a super woman, expected to make all things possible for this man- who just prefers to read to the newspaper otherwise. But, Aretha Franklin doesn’t puss foot on it, she spells it out R.E.S.P.E.C.T, is all she needs and she has got it too. To understand demanding of respect is something so violent. Respect should be mutual.
If women begging and confessing to love is not enough, one can only listen to the ‘Waiting to Exhale (1994)’ Sounds track, which is self-hating and sacrifices that women make for men. Again an issue that speaks to the social sanctions in which women ought to just keep doing until they run on empty. Through the rights or wrongs, whose business is a relationship of adults? But this album is a revelation of regret that Gladys Knight (1994) singing ‘I don’t want to know’ speaks of what has transpired in a love relationship and being left for naught, that one just feels that it’s not worth the time to explain. ‘I gave you the best, the best days of my life through all your ups and downs…God knows there were wrongs… I should have been long gone. I gave you three hearts.’ And after all that the man walks out on their loving home for some girl born yesterday. And Gladys belts it out so deeply that we can all connect and still feels sad. It’s a violent song that is moodily presented with such triggers, one can cry or just listen and have no words to say. Yes, all that women do is sacrifice and it is also then critical to understand even in our daily lives, how the social sanctions on woman are rolled out. What is this so called sacrifice? It is when you know how you feel and still do it anyway to please the other? Could we imagine that sacrifice is like being strung on a cross to die for a nation to absolve their sins? Can woman really carry these sins for love? And why? I ask because I have no answers. Only to understand that music is a melody for to provide some kind of language we can’t yet speak and when we can it makes us smile. The music speaks deeply of wounded females, who once fell in love and then got hurt, even disappointed, and still continued to love and now most just survive. That survival mode is often so outwardly driven, to a point of being an outer experience that is not internalised. Maybe it hurts so much. Maybe it helps temporarily to cope, so that no one knows what is going on or play the heart of stone- unbroken till the sun comes down and cry to sleep.
Gladys Knight remains one of my leading ladies of all times. From the ‘Midnight train to Georgia’ to the ‘End of the Road Medley’ one can be inspired to stand dance away. Yet for many of us listening to the music today, the voice aches and the violence perpetuated to the ear is not considered. Could music be injurious to the mind that its expression can violate those who find comfort to that which they can’t speak out? Yet, the violence is played over and over in our ears. Reflecting their pain or what they sing about what they experience or other people they know. To be violated by this irregular and stressful melody is clearly something that the modern mind is yet to consider a strain. Triggering tears at times even, as we mourn or sing praise. There is something about the melody that brings one to tears without making a sound, it feels you up and the rupture of feelings from within are all the ear can tell.
Telling it to the mountain seems a way to which music just makes noise and they are unmoved. Some pieces are generational and while memorable the musical pieces represent a time so powerful and yet the melody consists of melancholy and depressive emotions. What the ear deciphers can be expressed as agony, grief and despair to which the music we merit as artistic presents violence in a pervasive manner that is so embraced. It may likely be a relief for the composer and musician who tells of such violence. And between the loud speakers and being plugged in with earphones, only the ear can tell what a catharsis is likely to take place whether as poison or relief. This psychological release to the ear of the listener could have an influence of some kind that can either be negative or positive.
The songs we listen to when we are homesick or thinking of our loved ones while on the road play a significant role to our emotions. Just as we play ‘I will survive’ by Chantay Savage (1996) remake of Gloria Gaynor. A song of letting go and telling your lover you will make it. The songs forces the ear to listen to the one who doesn’t need the other anymore and that as long as one knows how to love they will survive. Is love about surviving after all or living the experiences? Surviving love? The emotions to the moment and even relieving the experience when the song plays when you are seated with your new love surely evokes emotions. And so when Boy’s to Men sing, ‘I will make love to you’, their 1994 hit song, I think about consent. ‘Close your eyes and make a wish… pour the wine, light the fire… your wish is my command’. Then the next thing he tells her he will make love to her: she throws her clothes on the floor and he throws his too. And then he holds her tight, until she tells him to let her go.
A song I remember listening to and even children would sing it back in radio, without understanding what it meant. Unconsciously, we chuckled as children came on air and say about making love to someone until they say stop, yet they are holding them tight. Cynical to have a vision of that song, and still have memories of pure and gentle love. These songs have a tune or melody that has normalised pain to the extent that we do not hear this violence to silence as the rhythm touches one’s senses. To listen to these songs carefully requires an ear to familiarise with the music and hear the subtle innuendos that are sexist and leave women to no choice, but sanctioned to beg throughout their lifetime to be seen, loved, respected, dignified and cared for. The list of songs is long, and most of it already been listened to—reminiscing to the violence of others, and still violent to our ears. But the reality is that music has the potential to keep us in a conundrum-changing moods, shifting atmosphere and encouraging a different attitude or behaviour. While the man we encountered in passing was probably just making noise in the air or truly just having a listening pleasure, there is much to be said to the power of music brings to each individual- culturally, morally and emotionally in understanding that compass. For music the effects are real whether positive or negative. From wanting just a bit of distraction or relaxation, there has to be some ways in which music influences our thinking or behaviours. Typically one will see the effects of music in a horror movie versus a children’s or a romantic comedy. While we can say it is just music, the potential influence music has cannot be understated to the psychophysiology of a listener and their emotional state depending on the amount of music one listens to. While music could be an escape for others, to some it have no emotional response- unresponsive. I also imagine what effect the music is upon the next generation, that no longer sings just about violence, but names the victim and presents a show so violent to both visual and audio senses that it feels numb at times to experience. It is crass, riotous and public, often dismissed as innovative and showing creativity. Perhaps the ear has immunity to the effects to violence perpetuated to it with mass production of violent content that we are plugged into for many hours on end. Maybe the ear will one day seek poetic justice to stimulate the passions that strengthens the hearing to constructively be in tune with loving realities.
On the other hand, music forms an integral part of our lives, a platform to which voices are raised through these lyrics, sharing experiences that are not necessarily needing to be transmuted into flowery realities. What rock does for one as the sound might not be a necessity of the lyrics, vice versa. Our return from the mountains, brought so much energy, sharing the songs and hearing the PXP participants engage too on the music they are growing up with, left us thinking that there is some form of violence to the ear that still remains unheard. However, whether music is directly linked to the provocation or evoking of emotions, the reality even as a past time kind of thing, it feeds some kind of hunger of the emotions which can be negative or negative. There is something to that Dolly Parton song that the man we crossed paths with on that Friday morning, relates to and understands its purpose other than making noise to the mountains. It is the mood expressed by the music, concentration levels to the song and exercised self-control that we often don’t stop in the streets to dance because social sanctions are a reality in any common place. Special attention to what is heard is a conscious decision or even unconscious to the violence that permeates into our ears to deeply touch us knowingly or unknowingly. And as the consumer of this violence to the ear, how does receptivity of this music impress on our lives. It is not unusual that it has become an enervating experience, and even as we feel and learn oppression and terror in the music, there is s longing to identify with some melody that triggers emotions, so greatly satisfying. Or is it?
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