A Song That Fueled a Revolution

Friday, April 23, 2010 - 2:07 pm

A Song That Fueled a Revolution

While doing research for our upcoming show with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, I stumbled on the remarkable 2002 documentary, Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony. It chronicles the struggle against apartheid through music and is an amazing resource.

As the film shows, music, especially singing, was integral to the anti-apartheid movement. This song, “Senzeni Na?” stood out (in fact, I can’t get it out of my head!). Its title translates to “What have we done?” and its haunting melody served as both a lament and a rallying cry. There’s a powerful clip from Amandla! that talks about the influence of this song, but due to copyright, I was unable to isolate and embed it here for you. However, you can find it in the film at around the 40:30 mark.

Jimmy Matyu, a columnist for The Herald in South Africa, writes:

“‘Senzeni Na?’ was one of the most powerful and moving songs during the struggle against apartheid and had the power to unite all African people who were the most viciously oppressed section of the South African population. This song, sung at rallies, meetings, protests, funerals, wanted an answer either from God or the government about what blacks had done to deserve such inhumane treatment or naked suffering. This line was repeated so many times and broken only by that soul-touching line, Isono sethu bubumnyama (Our only sin is our darkness).”

Senzeni Na? (Zulu/Xhosa) — What Have We Done? (English)

Senzenina — What have we done?
Sono sethu ubumnyama — Our sin is our blackness
Sono sethu yinyaniso — Our sin is the truth
Sibulawayo — They are killing us
Mayibuye i Africa. — Let Africa return.

As usual, we’ll be posting a playlist of all of the amazing music from this show, as well as some gems that didn’t make into the final production, on our website when the show comes out next week.

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is the cofounder of On Being and currently serves as chief content officer and executive editor. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on “The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi” and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent’s reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

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