In honor of Dolly Rathebe, South Africa’s original…

Along with Miriam Makba, Letta Mbulu and Dorothy Masuku, Rahebes The name represents a golden era of local blues and jazz music that swept black lives.

These mega divas of Sophia town came out of a golden era of literary and musical genius, a time – the 1950s – often referred to as “the”. drum Decade” after popular black urban culture magazine. drumThe dramatic first decade 70 years ago made known the names of black South African writers, journalists, anti-apartheid freedom fighters, beauty queens, gangsters and musicians.

During this time, South African female musicians rose and became stars. Their names were as big as politicians’ names Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and gangster like Boy Faraday. They were beautiful, they were powerful on and off stage; Her pictures graced the covers of magazines and newspapers. Their legendary songs proclaimed the racial blues of South Africa to the world – an important record of their destruction of apartheid and patriarchy.

In March 2021 the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Studies stopped symposium celebrating 70 years drum Magazine where I featured an article, The Mega Divas of Sophia town. It commemorates the impact these female stars have had on popular culture, politics and jazz music around the world. I was struck by the role Rahebe in particular played in inspiring Makeba, Mbulu, Masuku and many others to follow their dreams and become singing stars. I wanted to learn more about her, dig up her legacy and celebrate.

A few months later I was awarded the University of Pretoria Future Africa Institute Grant and a Xarra Books publishing deal research and write Rahebe’s biography. It’s a unique opportunity to share the life of a legend with future generations – and chronicle the musical connections between past and future.

Dolly takes Johannesburg

Dolly Rathebe paved a brilliant path as Africa’s first-ever black female film superstar, having appeared in 1949 Movie, Jim is coming to Johannesburg.

She was born in Randfontein west of Johannesburg in 1928. Her parents named her Josephine Malatsi. She changed her name to the more glamorous Dolly Rathebe, apparently after a young lady from a wealthy family. Rathebe was spotted singing at a Sunday picnic by two British filmmakers – director Donald Swanson and producer Eric Rutherford. The two immediately recognized her star quality and gave her the role of Judy, a club singer, in the film.

Dolly Rahebe on September 15, 1998 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images/Sunday Times/Nick de Blois)

The plot is simple: a young man leaves his rural homeland to find happiness. He is attacked and harassed in Johannesburg. But he’s offered a chance to make it as a singer with a nightclub’s star singing sensation – Dolly Rathebe. Audiences loved Rathebe’s sultry vocals and her magnetic screen presence. Overnight her name became slang for everything beautiful. If it’s “Dolly,” then it’s great. If it’s “double dolly,” then it’s out of this world.

your famous drum Home page – wearing a bikini out of two handkerchiefs tied together on the city’s famous mining dumps – made her a legend. The picture taken by Jurgen Schadeburg, had them both arrested for disregarding them immorality law, an apartheid law that prohibited sexual relations between whites and other races. The police suspect that they are lovers. Rathebe’s arrest only added to her legend. Everyone was talking about it, and everyone was talking about Dolly Rathebe and singing her songs.

musical life

Rathebe has traveled and sung throughout Southern Africa with top bands such as the Manhattan brothers and the Elite swingster. She was a star attraction for many years Alf Herbert’s African Jazz and Variety Show which opened in 1954.

Rathebe’s music was not overtly political. She mainly sang about everyday problems. There was What a wonderful thing to do – where she complains about her lover. And then I prefer to drink alcohol – where she compliments her lover even though he drinks too much! Her own compositions were mainly about everyday ups and downs, such as I don’t go out with my friends anymore about a young lady who promises her mother not to go out with her friends late at night anymore.

Her compositions ranged from popular talks to parties, gangsters and matters of the heart to more political subjects Mbombela, a beautiful, melodic, deeply emotional classic that laments the plight of workers who must catch early-morning trains to leave and create wealth they will never possess:

Get up in the morning, get up in the morning! you’re pacing… (The early morning train leaves Mbombela …) Shuku shuku shuku shuku

Mbombela became a Grammy winner blow after it was sung by Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte on their legendary album An evening with Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba.

A political force

Although Rathebe’s compositions were not overtly political, her celebration of black life, black beauty, and black humanity through her films and music was subversive. Apartheid sought to wipe out black creativity and achievement; Rathebe refused to be silenced. The music by Rathebe, Makeba, Mbulu and Masuku was stunning and authentic; He insists on chronicling the humanity, depth and elegance of black life beyond the smiling cardboard natives favored by the apartheid government’s propaganda machine.

Rathebe’s bold occupation of public space and her proudly African, slick urban diva image made her the darling of film and music lovers across Africa.

The decade in which the mega-divas forged their phenomenal careers is also the decade of the historic South African 1956 Women’s March where freedom fighters Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Berta Mashaba, Rahima Moosa, Sophie von Bruyn and Albertina Sisulu organized 20,000 women to march to government buildings in Pretoria to stop changes to the law Urban Areas Act. This would have meant that black women would have to carry passport books as well as men. Their freedom of movement would have been severely restricted, subjecting them to further arrests and harassment.

Dolly Rathebe and the other mega-divas navigated politics, life and their music, achieving superstars at home and abroad despite their status as third-class citizens in a racist South Africa. In the late 1950s, as apartheid oppression was intensifying and Sophiatown was being destroyed, Rathebe moved to Cape Town to start a family and run a shebeen. Her performances and public life faded. Her fellow divas went into exile, ending a golden era of incredible artistic achievement. DM/ML

This story was first published in The conversation.

Nokuthula Mazibuko Msimang is an Artist in Residency at the University of Pretoria.


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