I first heard Jerusalema last March. I remember the precise date, because it was the day my high school told us we weren’t going back for the rest of the year. My mother was sitting on the couch, playing Facebook videos at maximum volume, as mothers are wont to do. It isn’t a complicated song — typical afro-beat — but that evening she played it approximately 40 times. I didn’t think it would be a hit.
I was proven wrong. Over the next few months, I heard Jerusalema everywhere: on the radio, in television ads and more. The Ministry of Health even released a special video of frontline doctors doing the dance challenge in the deserted halls of hospitals and university buildings. Jerusalema became a cultural phenomenon — the collective voice of the entire African continent. Soon the trend extended to other continents: in convents, wildlife parks and police stations. The song was no longer just my backyard. It was in the whole world.
This is an unusual event. Often when African music is listened to in public, it is scrutinised under the intellectual eye of something that is “other than.” African music in the West is often accompanied by images of stomping feet and scary faces — a strange, mesmerizing tradition that can only be consumed as a cultural experience, never to be engaged with personally. “African music” is a token of “Africanness”, both of which exist within the same colonial constraints that they did in the 1960s.
One looks upon African music like one looks at an animal at the zoo: exotic and enjoyable, but
always at a distance. A few weeks ago, I played Fela Kuti’s song “Water No Get Enemy” for one of my friends. I expected him to have the same rush of emotion and jumbling of limbs that I was used to back home, but he sat silently, nodding his head. “This is cool,” he said. Cool? This music is for dancing!
Jerusalema was a beautiful example of a rare time that African music — my music — has transcended this speculative cage. It became something that belonged to everybody, that brought comfort during the hardest of times.
There is a power in African music that I didn’t quite understand until this song went viral. African music is distinctive in that it is built for dancing, but it does much more than that. It’s a force that brings people together, no matter the occasion. I have heard music at birthdays, at funerals, during church services and now pandemics. For the first time in my life, I saw that magic shared with the entire world. Jerusalema is a global phenomenon because people realised the power of African music.
In a continent of many languages, and in a world that is reliant on language to relay meaning, African music is unique, because what matters the most is the sound. The feeling of the bass in the floor as it blasts through the speakers, the beat that makes you move your head as if you are possessed. It’s in Jerusalema, and it’s in all of us. Nomcebo Zikode sings about a common fatherland: Jerusalem. Reaching that place is highly unlikely amid a pandemic, but the music is able to take us there.
This month I thought a lot about the relationship between music and my Black community.
Every stage of my life has been followed by a soundtrack: Luther Vandross on my baby sleep playlist, Ladysmith Black Mambazo on my going to school playlists, Fela Kuti on my party playlists. Jerusalema was no different. This time, however, I got to share my joy with the world.
In the darkest of times, African music became a beacon of light for all of us, giving hope and joy when it felt like the end was near. Beyond the pandemic, I hope that we can all learn to look for joy in things that are foreign to us. As Jerusalema has shown, there might be a hidden gem coming your way.
AWUOR ONGURU is a first year in Berkeley College. Her staff column is titled ‘Wild West.’ Contact her at email@example.com.