Last night I saw a play at Yale Cabaret called He Left Quietly about Dumo Kumalo, an inmate in a South African prison who was condemned to death for a killing—by a mob—where he was only tangentially present. It’s a case of how apartheid justice was no justice at all. Kumalo was eventually spared hanging—fifteen hours before it was supposed to take place. Then spent another four years incarcerated. Watching this drama, written by Yaël Farber, put me in mind of the story of Stephen Biko, subject of today’s song by Peter Gabriel.
This song, on Peter Gabriel’s third eponymous LP, released in 1980, gave great publicity to the story of Biko, a major fighter against apartheid, who was mortally wounded during lethal interrogation techniques in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 1977 (grimly referred to as "business as usual in Police Room 619"). The case galvanized anti-apartheid sentiments and Gabriel’s song was sufficiently stirring to make people—like me—who were fairly uninformed about if not indifferent to conditions in South Africa suddenly more aware. Mind you, if you saw what white supremacists in the U.S. did to black civil rights workers in the Sixties, you weren’t really surprised or shocked by what was happening to anti-apartheid activists over there in South Africa. No matter, Peter Gabriel composed a song that was stirring and heroicizing and full of a very necessary defiance, making of a horrible death the very figure of martyrdom that most authorities go in fear of when they kill someone who has captured the hearts of a people. Biko was such a figure, and this song makes his name live on forever.
Gabriel became in the Eighties a figure for “world music”; having moved from his prog-rock performance style—lots of costumes and theatricality—he imported rhythms and styles from ethnic musics not typically associated with a prog-rock outfit like Genesis, Gabriel’s band from 1968 until 1974. He also specialized in highly processed sounds—such as “gated drums”—which came to fruition on his 1980 album and helps sell the production of “Biko.”
Add to the very distinctive rhythm track Gabriel’s oddly high and strangled vocals—characteristic of him but nowhere more effective than on this track. The feel of outcry is what permeates the song, with its slow, hypnotic opening that eventually segues into a long-in-fading sing-along that feels like the voice of a people raised not so much in protest as in celebration of their fallen leader. Moments like the chorus and “only one colour dead” and “the eyes of the world are watching now” have a thrilling effect. One hears a tribute and a call-to-arms, and, now that apartheid is history, a commemorization of all the suffering—such as that of Dumo Kumalo—and the spirit of those who refused to be broken by inhuman and unconscionable laws.
Gabriel’s “Biko” is an unusual protest song, not only because it so sparely and lyrically attests to the reach of someone already dead. It makes no effort to tell the story, other than naming the place and Biko, and giving us its credo: “You can blow out a candle / But you can’t blow out a fire / Once the flame begins to catch / The wind will blow it higher.” And there you have it: the death of a firebrand like Biko can only hurt the authorities. They have begun their own downfall.
The sound in the song that reminds me of bagpipes is a synthesizer, apparently. This was the era when many interesting things were done with keyboards and drums by the likes of Gabriel. It created a dominant tendency that became rather overdone and soulless, as the decade wore on. But in 1980 this song and the album it comes from is cutting edge and Gabriel was never one to create a pro forma sound. All his albums feature distinctive soundscapes; that and the unmistakeably reedy and rapturous sound of Gabriel’s voice are mainstays.
“Biko” is a song that stirs one with a sense of the power music has to make one feel both presence and loss. And the need to attest to the human spirit. I’m rarely that stirred by songs—even ones that aim to include everyone in some cause—but “Biko” is an exemplar of how to make its listeners hear its message without having to go into details or describe its intentions. It’s a musical testimony to what it believes, and we feel its grasp of both—to borrow a phrase—the sorrow and the pity. And the strength of a people.