Hugh Masekela is an accidental activist.
The internationally renowned musician, well-known for his fiery political views relating to his native South Africa and beyond, said much of the underclass that grew up in a country torn by civil strife could be considered social or political activists.
During a recent phone conversation, the longtime trumpeter, flugelhornist, singer, bandleader and composer dismissed his characterization as an activist, which he admits has long been his reputation in the media.
“I’m just a South African. I was born in a disadvantaged community that had always been fighting oppression,” Masekela said from his tour bus before a show at Princeton University.
Anyone who is not a sellout, informer or collaborator is an activist, he said.
“We’re all activists. We’re a nation of activists,” he said, noting that in a country of 53 million people, he is nothing special.
Masekela is humble by nature. Told it was an honor to speak with him — especially recalling a tour-de-force show he put on in 1994 at the Barrymore Theatre with his former wife, Miriam Makeba, who died in 2008 — Masekela replied, “I’m just a regular guy.”
A regular guy who in 1968 put out the instrumental single “Grazing in the Grass,” which went to No.1 on the American pop charts and was a worldwide hit.
A regular guy whose Afro-Jazz solo career has spanned five decades and more than 40 albums.
A regular guy who has worked with Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Harry Belafonte, Dizzy Gillespie, the Byrds, Herb Alpert, Fela Kuti and Marvin Gaye. Bono from U2 called meeting and playing with Masekela one of the highlights of his career.
In 1967, Masekela performed at the Monterey Pop Festival with Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, the Who and Jimi Hendrix. In 1986, four years before South African leader Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Masekela wrote the anti-apartheid anthem “Bring Home Nelson Mandela,” which became a rallying cry around the world.
Sure, a regular guy.
This regular guy plays a show tonight in Shannon Hall at UW-Madison’s Memorial Union with countryman Vusi Mahlasela. It’s part of a major U.S. tour called “20 Years of Freedom,” referring to the end of apartheid and the establishment of multi-racial democracy in South Africa in 1994.
“All the restrictions are gone, that’s about it,” Masekela said about the racial climate today in South Africa. “People are free to go where they want to go and all that.”
But when it comes to poverty, nothing much has changed and there have been no reparations, he said.
“The economy is in the hands of the privileged, the previously privileged,” Masekela said. “There’s never been a time when the previously privileged said, ‘Sorry we made so much money off of your backs, and we know that you’ve opened up the country for us, here is 500 trillion pounds to show you how sorry we are.’ ”
All of the solidarity groups that worked in South Africa fighting apartheid have gone, he said. “Apartheid was the unifying factor. There is no economic change. The economy has always been in the hands of the white privileged classes.”
Masekela said the most important thing he’s learned in his 75 years is that fighting for liberation doesn’t necessarily lead to freedom.
“It might give you democracy if you can sort of unfurl it and understand it,” he said. “I’ve learned that people who are oppressive and people who are prejudiced and racist have a very difficult time changing.”
Masekela is working toward heritage restoration in Africa and is creating special academies where people can learn about African heritage, history, design, languages, poetry and literature, and also “about the many Europeans that were agents in colonizing and destroying Africa,” he said.
“There’s great cultural pageantry and great variation internationally of African people — song and dance and design and culture and history.”
African society in not taught in school the way school children study the Greeks, the British, the Romans, Masekela said.
“There are a few of us who are very passionate about leaving the future generations with some kind of knowledge, and it’s not exclusive only to Africans. I think it also might be beneficial to people from other lands,” he said.
The tour with Mahlasela has been well-received, with the two men selling out concert venues wherever they go.
“We are performing songs that we grew up with in our communities even before we were musicians,” Masekela said.
Masekela has played in Madison at least three times in the past 25 years or so, in 2008, 1994 and 1989.
“I don’t count,” he said. “All I can remember is the snow.”