LIMPOPO, South Africa — “The new South Africa has given me freedom to dream. Dreaming is so important, and I think back then [in the apartheid era] it was almost impossible for someone to have dreams and to do something about those dreams. I think I was just born at the perfect time,” says Reabetswe Ranamane, 20, the lead vocalist for Redwood, a musical group made up of five youths from rural South Africa.
“We sometimes take for granted our right to freedom of expression. In apartheid South Africa, you could not just say or do what you felt like doing,” adds Maxwell Ndlalani, 21, the band’s leader. “But in this new South Africa, expression through music is what we are doing.”
Apartheid-era South Africa tried to stifle any form of artistic and cultural expression, as part of keeping the black majority in an inferior position through numerous restrictions. Consequently, the entertainment industry was not a lucrative career choice.
Imagine being a black artist before 1994. You do not get a penny for what your music is worth, while your white counterparts can get a fair deal. Expressing yourself, through your music, is regarded as unacceptable and can result in censorship or, even worse, death. Not only were such restrictions violating people’s civil rights, but they were also robbing black musicians of the opportunity to make a living from their talent. It is no surprise that democratic South Africa’s Constitution and Bill of Rights guarantees all of its people such liberties as freedom of expression, freedom of creativity and freedom of association.
Today, South Africa has the most developed music industry in Africa, and its local music consumption is growing at a high rate.Local music accounts for a third of all music bought by South Africans. The country is the 25th largest market for recorded music worldwide, with the industry employing more than 20,000 people. Limpopo province’s Redwood is one act that wants a part of the action and is pursuing its dream of becoming professional musicians.
Playing “Redwood Music”
In 2013, Ndlalani was a solo artist who felt that he needed to team up with like-minded young people to form a band. He then befriended producerMadute Ledwaba, 21, guitarist Tumelo Maila, 23, bass guitarist Thabo Ncolosi, 22, and vocalist Reabetswe Ranamane, 20. After a year of planning, in early 2014 the five formally created their Limpopo-based band, Redwood, giving themselves the stage names Spyk, Griffin, Jukkzz, Bassenova and Rea, respectively.
Although the four male members of the group are from the rural townships of Mankweng, Lebowakgomo and Tsimanyana in Limpopo province, and neighboring province Mpumalanga’s Nhlazatshe township, there is no inferiority complex here. Confidence and assurance bubble around the group.
“No one can do what we are doing,” boasts Ndlalani, as they are now being booked for gigs, performing at festivals and talking about a major music label signing. The band has five original songs together and over 40 from individual acts collectively. Redwood calls the genre it plays “redwood music,” which incorporates various genres such as hip-hop, Afro-jazz, house and soul.
Maila credits his faith and going to church as influences on his music, which he calls “Jesus-given.”
White-collar job vs. guitar-playing job?
“In the beginning it was about the love [of music]. We were not worried about getting paid,” Ranamane says. “Having the chance to work together was more important than the money at first. And the money is not important, it’s just that when you are trying to be an artist in this country, it’s tough and sometimes you need to make a job out of it.”
Ncolosi notes that “it has been very hard” to make it in the music industry. “Individually, we have to make contributions to the band out of our own pockets,” he says. He also mentions that South Africa’s Department of Arts and Culture has contacted the band to see of ways to assist the group.
It will be a struggle for Redwood to break through. But this will not keep the band members from achieving their dreams. All of them declare that they want to pursue a career in music instead of the white-color jobs they can perhaps secure with the degrees they are studying for at the University of Limpopo.
Making it big in the entertainment industry is not easy; it does not matter if you are in New York, Hollywood, Bollywood or South Africa. But at least making it is what Redwood has to worry about now, not laws that restrict freedom of expression. The new South Africa is giving the band’s members the chance to dream, the chance to try and the chance to be whatever they aspire to be.
“I am an artist from birth” declares Maila, the guitarist. The country now allows him to express his art to the fullest and to try to make a living out of it, without restrictions due to his skin color. Instead, the criterion is Redwood’s level of excellence as it chases its dream of fame and fortune.