Wed. Jul 17th, 2024

On Wednesday, Nov. 12, the Holocaust and genocide studies department hosted Dr. Ingrid Bianca Byerly, an anthropologist whose concentration is music, to discuss the effect of music on the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

“The government just brushed these people off,” Byerly said. “They thought musicians couldn’t do anything. That’s where the government was wrong; music could do everything.”

Byerly, a professor at Duke University, has what she called a “dream job” as a professor through the University of Virginia’s Semester at Sea program, meaning that she has the opportunity to teach students about music all over the world. She was on a ship that was traveling around the Mediterranean Sea in 2011, so she got to see the effects of music on the Arab Spring firsthand.

Byerly, a woman with a self-proclaimed “checkered background,” grew up on the outskirts of Cape Town in the smallest municipality in South Africa. Her parents raised her and her two sisters to join them in being classical musicians.

“Morning was Bach, afternoon was Mozart, evening was Chopin,” Byerly joked to the audience.

However, Byerly said her whole life changed when her family’s maid played African dance music in the backyard.

“I don’t expect you to understand,” Byerly said. “Thanks to social media and the Internet, you can have a revolution in five minutes nowadays. But I had never heard anything like it. It just wasn’t part of my world.”

Byerly explained the dangers of insipiently introducing revolutionary music, like an anthem. If the song’s lyrics are inexplicit, the government has no apparent reason to censor the song, but the people listening understand its significance.

“People become part of something bigger than themselves, and it’s truly astonishing how musicians can be agents for social change,” Byerly said.

Byerly played clips of many different kinds of music, including the original Zulu version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which many people recognize from “The Lion King,” as well as some traditional Afrikaans music, which sounded very much like a polka.

Byerly explained that young people in the 1980s, musicians in particular, began rethinking South Africa’s role in society. According to Byerly, South Africa was portrayed as “the bully on the playground” and the social pariah of the world. Byerly then played the first Afrikaans rock and roll song, which was about driving an ox wagon with a V6 engine and using a six-pack of beer as a seat. To many Americans, this probably seems like nothing, but to South Africa, a culture which valued opera and classical music above all else, this was groundbreaking.

Byerly also played a clip of a song entitled “Children of the Wind,” a song about the children of South Africa. The artist who released the song released a second version of the song several years later that included African beats and syncopation. The African elements of the song get stronger as the song plays, which was mimetic of what was happening in South Africa.

Byerly relayed a story of when she first heard the song “Weeping” by the South African pop group Bright Blue in a bar with her college friends in Cape Town. The song used the melody of the anthem for the African National Congress (ANC) political party, which was banned in apartheid South Africa, but a listener really had to listen to the song in order to hear it, because they used only the melody and none of the words.

Byerly’s father, a classical composer, wrote an orchestral song to show a grandiose, new nationalistic pride. The song’s debut, which was dedicated to a new South Africa, included 25 children’s school choirs from schools all over South Africa singing together onstage. The song became very beloved among all South Africans.

“No matter what background they came from, people sang this song together,” Byerly said.

According to Byerly, the road to anti-apartheid South Africa was comprised of several waves. The first wave, in the 1950s and 1960s, was comprised mostly of disenfranchised Africans who demanded a change. The second wave of the 1960s and 1970s added some of the compassionate elite and liberals to the original revolutionaries. The third wave then added insiders of the ruling party and nationalists. The final wave, which was the tipping point, came in 1989, when F.W. de Klerk, the leader of South Africa, lifted the ban on the ANC and released many political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, who went on to become the first elected president of South Africa.

“You don’t know if your wave will cause Tiananmen Square or the fall of the Berlin Wall and that is the brave thing about being a part of a revolution,” Byerly said.

Byerly said that one of the impressive things about the new South Africa is that, when he determined a new national anthem, rather than trying to hide South Africa’s history, Mandela combined the national anthem from the apartheid era with the ANC anthem as well as some new English lyrics to make a new, all-inclusive, trilingual anthem.

Clare Haggerty is a fourth-year student majoring in English. She can be reached at

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