Stolen moments: Namibian music history untold

Stolen Moments: Namibian Music History Untold (1950s-80s)

Dr Angela Impey outlines the significance of the upcoming exhibition (11 July – 21 September, 2019) in the Brunei Gallery, and launches a crowdfunding appeal to help cover the costs of bringing it to the UK.

Stolen Moments: Namibian Music History Untold chronicles the story of popular music from the 50s-80s, which was a time when Namibia was under South African apartheid rule and when music making in the townships and farms was one of the few ways that people were able to escape and protest the extreme political repression of the time.

Photograph © Dieter Hinrichs
Photograph © Dieter Hinrichs

The reason why we are so excited to be hosting the Stolen Moments exhibition at SOAS in the summer is that this is the only initiative ever undertaken to systematically study Namibian popular culture during the period of South African apartheid rule. During this time, the main South African record companies dominated the regional production and dissemination of music, and very few Namibian bands made it onto the airwaves or on the regional or international stage. As the exhibition teaches us, despite the lack of support, people created dance bands of all sorts, some imitating rock and pop groups from South Africa or the Euro-American world; others experimented more closely with local forms. There were some venues in the townships – both formal and informal (drinking houses known as ‘shebeens’) – and people made use of church halls in regional settlements to sing, dance and have fun on the weekends.

Photograph © Dieter Hinrichs
Photograph © Dieter Hinrichs

At the time, the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) had a mobile studio that would occasionally record music at regional festivals or concerts, but these recordings were not aimed at commercial release, and sadly much of this material has been lost or destroyed.

Popular music in southern African has always acted as a barometer of the politics of the day.

During the 1950s-80s, at the height of apartheid rule in South Africa, as well as in then Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South West Africa (Namibia), the white-owned record companies colluded with state-controlled broadcasting corporations to produce music that was seemingly frivolous and apolitical. However, musicians always found ways to tuck into the musical sensibility and shrewdly inflected lyrics some form of political commentary. When, for instance, in 1988, the wildly popular mbaqangaor “bubblegum” artist, Yvonne Chaka-Chaka sang “I cry for freedom”, receiving wide airplay across the region for her apparently politically innocuous message about women’s emancipation, her audiences knew all too well that the song was a cry for liberation for all. Similarly, though perhaps more subtly, when Zimbabwean sungura/reggae artist, John Chibadura, well-loved in the 1980s amongst then South West Africans and Mozambicans, sang “Zuva Rekufa Kwangu” (The day of my death), his political message resonated in its evocation to land, ancestors and senses of belonging.

Photograph © Dieter Hinrichs
Photograph © Dieter Hinrichs

Censorship  During this period (1950-80s), apartheid governments in the southern African region invested heavily in censorship, employing armies of personnel to meticulously inspect all materials aimed at public consumption via their centralized media houses. Consequently, local recording companies produced only what they believed would receive airplay, and musicians either self-censored, or found creative ways to bypass censorship. Many sought public exposure via other means altogether, expressing their political opinions inlive performances or in the images displayed on record covers. On the other hand, some aligned openly with political organizations or attempted to legally challenge state censorship, but this was risky and often led to severe police harassment and even imprisonment. When the South African government declared a State of Emergency in the mid-1980s, deploying its notorious intelligence service to silence all forms of oppositional oratory, people sought expression in the bare bones of a rhythm (“toyi-toyi”), which dug deep into the energy of resistance politics, mobilizing millions into collective action.

The Stolen Moments exhibition comes at a particularly apposite moment in Namibia’s history.  This year, the German government will be making reparations to Namibia for “the forgotten genocide” (1904-1908) that took place under its colonial rule. This highly publicised case has placed Namibia in the international spotlight, drawing attention to its history more broadly, much of which has remained untold to date.

While the exhibition relates to a much more recent period in Namibia’s past, its purpose is to share stories of racial injustice, of struggle, resilience and creative enterprise as part of a more generalised process of reparation.

The exhibition also provides an opportunity to tell the story of Britain’s often overlooked involvement in Namibia’s history, and to contribute to a wider agenda to promote knowledge-sharing about Britain’s relationship with Africa and the African diaspora.

Bringing the exhibition to the UK
To date, the exhibition has been shown to great acclaim at the Basler Afrika Bibliographien, the Iwalewahaus, University of Bayreuth, and the Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien in Berlin. The exhibition at SOAS will be its last European showing before returning to Namibia where it will be being toured around the country. In addition to the exhibition, we hope to host jazz improvisation workshops with Namibian DJs, a high-profile young British jazz musician and students from the Brit School and East London Arts and Music Academy (ELAM), who will work on ‘activating the archive’ by creating new musical conversations based on musical samples from the exhibition collection.

What it comprises  Stolen Moments–Namibian Music History Untold (1950-80s) is a unique heritage project + multimedia travelling exhibition that chronicles the intimate stories, songs and experiences of those people who shaped Namibian popular culture during some of the most repressive years of South African apartheid rule.*

The exhibition was curated by Namibian and German scholars, film-makers and photographers, and includes, amongst its extensive collection:

  • a large-scale photographic exhibition by Stephan Zaubitzer
  • a 90-minute documentary film that revisits the dance styles of the 1950s-80s
  • 14 listening stations featuring 9 different radio stations, including a selection of over 100-hours of interviews with musicians and contemporary witnesses
  • a large collection of archival photographs of bands, record covers and legendary venues profiling Namibia’s much under-represented musical subcultures

Visitors can also explore the entire image, audio and text collection using a Wiki-like encyclopaedia, designed specifically for the exhibition.

*Background:  When European powers sought to carve up the African continent in the so-called “Scramble for Africa“, both Germany and Britain expressed an interest in Namibia. Germany won over, assuming control in 1884 of what then became known as German South West Africa. Despite fierce resistance from various indigenous groups, the colonial government set about expropriating land and instituting a particularly brutal system of forced labour. After WWI, the League of Nations gave South West Africa to the UK as a mandate under the administration of South Africa. The South African government subsequently extended apartheid legislation across the region, denying black Namibians political rights, forcibly relocating them into ethnic ‘homelands’, and restricting all their social and economic freedoms. In the 1960s, the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) launched a protracted liberation war against South African rule, assuming Independence only in 1990.

Further Information

World Music Summer School

Music Department degree programmes

Urgent Appeal

Namibians then, the Uyghur now?  Across the globe, dictatorships and repressive regimes continue to censor their opponents.  This timely exhibition underlines the urgency to protect freedom of expression, particularly in countries where musicians with a wide following are considered a threat.

How you can help:  Please add your support to a crowdfunding campaign to bring “Stolen Moments:  Namibian Music History Untold” to the UK.  The SOAS Music Department’s crowdfunding target is £5,000 (with matched funding generously pledged by a donor on reaching this target) by end March 2019.  We call on your support now, with donations of any size, to ensure that we meet the costs of bringing the exhibition to the Brunei Gallery.  Thank you in advance for your help.

Find out more, discover rewards, and Support the campaign.



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