Hugh Masekela is recognized as one of the most famous and influential musicians of all time from South Africa due to his role in spreading awareness about his country during the times of apartheid. Born on 4 April, 1939 in Witbank, South Africa, Masekela lived through the onset of racial discrimination that was put forward via apartheid and became too familiar with the challenges that plagued the music industry in his country. Eventually his life experiences influenced him to play music that reflected the hardships he witnessed in South Africa. When the struggles of apartheid became a threat to his well-being, he took the opportunity to leave South Africa where he travelled the world, met many of his musical heroes, and made a name for himself receiving worldwide acclaim as a musician and an activist. Masekela’s journey during exile was a significant part of his life where he was influenced by many and eventually led to protest against apartheid and raise awareness on the injustices happening in South Africa through methods including musical lyrics, concerts and plays.

Masekela began his musical life by singing and playing piano as a child. At the age of 14, he developed a strong passion to become a trumpet player after watching the movie, Young Man with a Horn, which was centered around American jazz. After being noticed by an anti-apartheid activist and priest named Trevor Huddleston, Masekela was gifted a trumpet and encouraged to practice in order to reach his potential and become a musician. Huddleston also requested Uncle Sauda, the leader of the Johannesburg ‘Native’ Brass Band, to teach Masekela the basics of trumpet-playing.[i] Masekela then quickly mastered the trumpet and inspired other classmates to play instruments with whom he eventually formed the first youth orchestra in South Africa called the Huddleston Jazz Band. By 1956, Masekela joined the African Jazz Revue that was organized by a British entrepreneur named Alfred Herbert as an African Jazz and Variety show in South Africa’s Johannesburg Windmill Theatre that aimed to present the city’s best musicians.[ii] A few years later Masekela joined The Manhattan Brothers, the most popular South African singing group at the time with members including Miriam Makeba—who would eventually become Masekela’s first wife in 1964. Masekela went on a tour of South Africa with the Manhattan Brothers in 1958, being one of the few bands who would perform during the apartheid era, and shortly after the group was noticed, he secured a role in the black musical King Kong which swept triumphantly through South Africa, gained international popularity, and became South Africa’s first blockbuster theatrical success.

Not long after gaining some recognition in his hometown from touring with the Manhattan Brothers and performing in the successful King Kong musical, Masekela—along with other recognized artists such as Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Band), Kippie Moeketsi, Makaya Ntshoko, and Johnny Gertze—formed South Africa’s first bebop band called Jazz Epistles. Through 1959, the band enjoyed their fair share of success by attracting audiences in record breaking numbers during their performances at Cape Town and Johannesburg in an area called Sophiatown, which was the epicenter of politics, jazz, and blues at that time.

However, the success of the Jazz Epistles was short-lived due to the increasingly hostile climate of South Africa. Despite the band’s popularity, performers such as Masekela and his group were having difficulty making money near the end of 1959 as work was drying up all over the country due to people being on edge over government policies. By September 1959, the South African government took an accelerated approach in cracking down violators of the ‘pass laws’, which severely limited black South African citizens’ movement in the country and required them to carry pass books when outside their designated area. One such demonstration against the pass laws resulted in 69 peacefully protesting Africans being shot dead by the police in 21 March, 1960. This event is remembered as the Sharpeville Massacree and marked the start of an era of strict apartheid and increased repression of African culture. The government declared a State of Emergency following the Sharpeville Massacre and simultaneously conducted mass arrests, issued thousands of banning orders, put anti-apartheid activists on trial and restricted African arts. Jazz was not tolerated under apartheid law as it was seen as an expressive force for social equality.[iii] As such, jazz was prohibited from radio, performances, gatherings of more than 10 people were not allowed and prominent jazz musicians were threatened. After some of Masekela’s own friends were arrested, he went into hiding and became wary of his own future in South Africa. Later in the same year, with the help of Trevor Huddleston, Masekela left South Africa.[iv] He was 21 at the time and this would mark the beginning of his 30 years in exile from the land of his birth.

Hugh Masekela began his international journey in England, where he was enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music. This phase of his life was short-lived however, as he grew restless of living in England and wanted to leave. He later spoke of this period in his life saying: ‘I felt that I needed to have access to the kind of teachers that people like Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Miles and all those people had. I was really determined that New York would be my destination.’[v] A few months after attending the Guildhall School of Music, he was accepted into the Manhattan School of Music in New York thanks to his friends Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte. Masekela then moved to Manhattan where he studied classical trumpet from 1960 to 1964. Being in the middle of the golden era of jazz music at the time, it was in New York where Masekela found himself immersed with the jazz scene where he gained influence from his surrounding and from many of the people that he met. On his very first night in New York, he visited several jazz clubs and already began meeting some of his jazz heroes such as Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. It became apparent to him then that New York would be the perfect place to pursue his aspiration as a jazz musician.[vi] Seeing some of his favourite musicians perform at jazz clubs on a nightly basis opened Masekela up to that world in a new way, as he mentioned in his autobiography Still Grazing, and he was determined to work hard to get to the level of the great talents that he admired. In his autobiography, Masekela also recounts taking joy from the fact that people in America could make fun of just about anything they wanted to—the police, the president, White folks, Black folks, music—which was a stark comparison to what people could say in South Africa, whether it be on stage or off stage.[vii] His daily life in New York served as an awakening to Masekela that he had the opportunity to partake in a way of freedom of expression that he never experienced previously.

Throughout his years in New York, Masekela also met many people who inspired him to develop his own unique style, feeding off American influences, but also incorporating his African identity and eventually reflecting the conflicts and exploitation he experienced in South Africa. Following the month after he arrived in New York, Masekela reconnected with Miriam Makeba, his former colleague from the Manhattan Brothers in South Africa. She herself, had moved to New York as well. Masekela moved in with Makeba into her New York apartment not long after. The couple eventually got married in 1964, but divorced in 1966. As Makeba was already a well-known artist, during their early years together she would take Masekela to events and parties where Masekela would find himself surrounded by people who were revolutionaries.[viii] Masekela mentioned that he was ‘semi-hypnotized from meeting all these giants’, and one of these examples was his encounter with Malcom X who became, in Masekela’s own words ‘a model for me of how a man from African origin should project.’[ix] During the Spring of 1961, Masekela met Harry Belafonte who took him into his music publishing group called Belafonte Productions. Belafonte became more than just a friend and benefactor to Masekela over the years, as Masekela cites ‘he has been a father to me, the strongest influence on my stage presentation, my community activism, and my commitment to the fight for human rights.’[x] One day when Harry Belafonte was recording Miriam Makeba’s album The Many Voices of Miriam Makeba, he asked Masekela to play his trumpet on three of her tracks— “Love Tastes Like Strawberries”, “Umqokozo”, and “Ntyilo Ntyilo”— which became Masekela’s first taste of fame in America when the album became a huge success with major radio coverage, particularly on the three songs that Masekela played in. It was not long after this that Masekela’s reputation as a musician began to grow and he started finding work as an extra in recordings and avenues in clubs. In 1962, Masekela finally released his debut album called Trumpet Africaine. The album was a disaster with abysmal sales, bad reviews and very little radio play. Belafonte labeled it as ‘White music’, akin to something that would be played in elevators and shopping malls.[xi] Disappointed and embarrassed by this failure, Masekela decided it was time for him to go back to South Africa and use the money he made working in America to kick-start his new life. It was at this moment that Belafonte gave Masekela advice that stuck with him throughout his time in exile— ‘if you remain here and make a name for yourself, you will have access to the media so that when you talk about your country’s problems, people all over the world will listen.’[xii] Masekela did end up staying in America, and during the course of the next few years developed his own music style, which also complements his South African heritage. Masekela’s friends were a large factor in this discovery and influenced Masekela on the type of music he would end up creating, as Dizzy Gillespie advised him ‘Why don’t you play music from your home? Look what it’s done for Miriam.’[xiii] Masekela later recollects in an interview ‘I learned a lot from people like Dizzy Gillespie, Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte, who told me that Louis Armstrong never finished a paragraph without mentioning New Orleans [his home town] ’ … ‘Blakey and Dizzy and Miles, all of them said, “Why don't you put some of what you got from your country and mix it in. Maybe we can learn something from you. Otherwise, it's just going to be a statistic, like all of us.”’[xiv]

Over the next decade, Hugh Masekela led a successful solo career and released a string of highly-acclaimed records where he incorporated messages of sorrow from his homeland. Gaining influence from the individuals he met and the culture he experienced in New York, much of Masekela’s music protested apartheid and corruption of the South African government and conveyed the hardship that many of his people were experiencing back home. ‘My success gave me a very strong platform to bring awareness to the world about what was happening in South Africa, because I had access to the media,’[xv] Masekela said in an interview. His first major hit in America, and subsequent popularity in media attention, was a song he released in 1968 called “Grazing in the Grass”, which fused jazz with African pop blended together in a style of his own. This song quickly became a number one hit in America, selling over 4 million copies and has since been re-recorded by many other artists including Stevie Wonder.

As Masekela gained popularity he began to utilize his newly earned platform to raise awareness and make a stand against apartheid. An example of an anti-apartheid song that Masekela co-produced with Makeba was a song titled “Ndodemnyama we Verwoerd” which conveys a warning message to Verwoerd. Verwoerd was the prime minister of South Africa at the time who also played a large role in implementing the country’s apartheid laws. Masekela cites that while the song sounds like a fun song, the message is ‘watch out Verwoerd, here comes the black man, your days are over.’[xvi] In 1969, he released an album titled Masekela, which included a track called “Gold” where he attempted to expose the harsh reality of the cruel conditions the workers faced in his homeland working in the mines. Masekela recorded a song called “Stimela” released in his album I Am Not Afraid from 1974 with which he again sheds light on the exploited migrant workers in South Africa with lyrics portraying their living conditions with vided details;[xvii] in an excerpt from the song Masekela describes ‘when they sit in their stinky, filthy, funky, flea-ridden barracks and hostels, they think about the loved ones who they may never see again, because they have already been forcibly removed from where they last left them.’[xviii] In 1987, Masekela released one of his most famous albums called Tomorrow, which includes a song titled “Everybody’s Standing Up” that chants ‘every dictator has to step aside and make way for freedom’ celebrating the fall of dictators worldwide.[xix] This album also featured one of Masekela’s most iconic song titled “Bring Him Back Home”, which was a protest against the South African government’s imprisonment of Nelson Mandela that demanded his release. The song was banned in South Africa, but became a signature anthem for activists protesting on Nelson Mandela’s behalf as it evoked powerful fervor to their cause.[xx] It was not until Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 when Hugh Masekela finally decided it was time to come home to South Africa. Until then he had released over 30 albums and gained worldwide recognition as an activist and a musician.

Masekela’s activist role was not just limited around his music, but during his time in exile he utilized other avenues such as tours, concerts, and events to raise awareness about apartheid and improve the conditions of Africans discriminated against by colonialism and apartheid. After gaining international fame in the mid-1970s, Masekela felt an urge to move back to his homeland in Africa. However, since apartheid was still running rampart in South Africa, Masekela took a three-year pilgrimage to Africa where he stayed in Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria, and Zaire learning about the languages, music, and customs of those countries and playing in charitable concerts and festival halls with other musicians. In 1982, Masekela moved to Botswana just over the South African border, as it was the closest he could be to his home town, and set up a studio where he continued to develop his musical style. Later in that year he reconnected with Miriam Makeba and performed a Going Home concert where more than 35,000 people attended and some of the proceeds were donated to charity.[xxi] During his four year stay in Botswana, Masekela, along with Dr. Khabi Mngoma, started the Botswana International School of Music in order to inspire and cultivate aspiring musicians from Africa. Some of Masekela’s other contributions as an activist include headlining at a Zimbabwe emergency benefit concert with Abdullah Ibrahim in order to raise money for the political party, Patriotic Front of Zimbabwe, that was contesting Zimbabwe’s independence election.[xxii]

Figure 1: Hugh Masekela performing at the Zimbabwe Emergency Concert

In 1986, Masekela helped organize and play at an anti-apartheid movement rally in England called March for Freedom in Namibia and South Africa! where more than 250,000 attended. In 1987, Masekela took part in Paul Simon’s Graceland tour through Africa which featured new and upcoming African artists and was partly aimed to help them gain recognition, although this tour was followed by criticism as it was seen as a violation of the cultural boycott held against South Africa.[xxiii] Having a desire to be involved in a musical that made a political statement and included South African music, Masekela co-wrote and composed a musical called Sarafina! with South African director Mbongeni Ngema. Sarafina! focused on Masekela’s homeland and told the story of the students involved in the Soweto Riots in opposition to apartheid. This story was meant to depict the struggles and sorrows of his countrymen. Sarafina! made its debut in Broadway on 28 January, 1988, becoming an instant classic that was eventually adopted into a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg.[xxiv]

Masekela finally returned to his homeland following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, and even after his return he still continued to produce music and participate in tours. His popularity continues to grow as he partakes in tours all over the world and plays in concerts until this day. As an activist who raised awareness and fought against apartheid while in exile, with music, concerts, and events, he has achieved a reputation as one of the most influential musicians from his era. Masekela currently lives in South Africa and continues to produce music that expresses the love for his country.


Brown, R.L., (2011). ‘A Native of Nowhere: The Life of South African Journalist Nat Nakasa, 1937-1965’ from Kronos, November. Available at [Accessed 23 October 2016]

Committee to Support the Patriotic Front, (1980). Photo of Zimbabwe Emergency Concert, 9 February. Available at [Accessed 22 October 2016]

Deluke, R.J., (2009). ‘Hugh Masekela: Strength in Music and Character,’ 5 May. Available at [Accessed 23 October 2016]

Ellenbogen, D., (2013). ‘Hugh Masekela – Legend of South African Music – A backstage interview – #57,’ 18 April. Available at [Accessed 23 October 2016]

King, P.B., (1989). ‘Masekela To Keep On Fighting,’ 15 June. Available at [Accessed 23 October 2016]

Masekela, H., (1987). ‘Everybody’s Standing Up,’ Available at [Accessed 22 October 2016]

Masekela, H., (1987). ‘Stimela,’ Available at [Accessed 22 October 2016]

Masekela, H., and D. Cheers, (2004). Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela, New York: Crown Publishers.

Masekela, H., (2013). ‘Jazz Great Hugh Masekela, Fresh Because He's Fascinated,’ 17 April. Available at [Accessed 22 October 2016]

Miller, G., and S. Davis, (2013). ‘Hugh Masekela: how Mandela helped me finally come home,’ 28 June. Available at [Accessed 22 October 2016]

Prabhakara, M.S., (2004). ‘Editing History?’ from Economic and Political Weekly, 13 March. Available at [Accessed 23 October 2016]

SAHO, (2011). Hugh Masekela SAHO Biography, 17 February. Available at [Accessed 15 October 2016]

Sullivan, E., Hugh Masekela Online Reference, Available at [Accessed 15 October 2016]

End Notes

[i] SAHO, “Hugh Masekela,” South African History Online, February 17, 2011,

[ii] Hugh Masekela and D. Michael Cheers, Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela (New York: Crown Publishers, 2004), page 88.

[iii] Ibid., page 106-108.

[iv] Ryan Lenora Brown, “A Native of Nowhere: The Life of South African Journalist Nat Nakasa, 1937-1965,” Kronos, no. 37 (2011), accessed October 23, 2016,

[v] R.J. Deluke, “Hugh Masekela: Strength in Music and Character,” All About Jazz, May 5, 2009,

[vi] Hugh Masekela, interview, Jazz Great Hugh Masekela, Fresh Because He’s Fascinated, NPR, April 17, 2013.

[vii] Ibid., page 128.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid., page 138.

[x] Ibid., page 146.

[xi] Ibid., page 157.

[xii] Ibid., page 162.

[xiii] Ibid., page 165.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Hugh Masekela, interview by David Ellenbogen, Hugh Masekela – Legend of South African Music – A backstage interview – #57, NYC Radio Live, April 18, 2013.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Hugh Masekela, interview by Gretchen Miller and Sharon Davis, Hugh Masekela: how Mandela helped me finally come home, ABC Radio National, June 28, 2013.

[xviii] Hugh Masekela, “Stimela,” Antiwar Songs, 1987, accessed October 22, 2016,

[xix] Hugh Masekela, “Everybody’s Standing Up,” AllMusic, 1987, accessed October 22, 2016,

[xx] M. S. Prabhakara, “Editing History?”, Economic and Political Weekly 39, no. 11 (2004): 1097, accessed October 23, 2016,

[xxi] Erin Sullivan, “Masekela, Hugh Ramopolo (1939- ),”, accessed October 15, 2016,

[xxii] Hugh Masekela, Zimbabwe Emergency Concert, 1980, New York City, accessed October 22, 2016,

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Peter B. King, “Masekela To Keep On Fighting,” Chicago Tribune, June 15, 1989, accessed October 23, 2016,

This article forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project

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