Dark Clouds Hang Over South African Music, yet Silver Linings Shine

About two years ago, blues-folk artist Alice Phoebe Lou gave a performance in a park in Berlin, looking for donations as a street entertainer.

A listener invited her to perform at a function. Her career has since taken off. Last year, she released her debut record, and on Wednesday she played one of the world’s premier music festivals: the South by Southwest event in Texas. 

Lou is just one of a growing list of South African musicians who’ve felt compelled to leave their homeland to be rewarded for their art. Another is Josie Field.

“I feel my sound and where I want to go musically, I’ve hit a ceiling in South Africa,” Field said. “The market is extremely niche for what I do.”

As they do for most musicians in South Africa, live gigs provide Field’s staple income. But, in a depressed economy, they’re limited.

Despite the struggles, Field said she’d never regret the past decade of making music in the country of her birth.

‘Take another step’

“I’ve had a wonderful time,” she said. “There’s no doubt that there are proper music fans here. But I’m now ready to take another step and hopefully explore how other parts of the world see my music, and also grow as an artist.”

Andre le Roux, director of the Southern African Music Rights Organization, said it’s “natural” for extremely talented artists to leave South Africa.

The Dave Matthews Band “is doing far better in the U.S. than they would have done, ever, in South Africa,” he said. “So when people grow a little bigger [than the South African music scene], it’s time to leave.”

But he added that “what isn’t natural” is that exceptional, and scrupulous, musicians like Field often can’t get airplay in South Africa.

“There is the reality of payola, which is corruption —  taking money where you’re not supposed to take money to give people airplay when you’re not supposed to give them airplay,” he said.

Le Roux also said that South Africa’s national broadcaster, the SABC, was failing to fulfill its pledge to play 90 percent local music.

“Was it a policy that was put in place, or was it a statement that was made? In our view, it was very much a statement that was made, because we haven’t seen the policy position,” he said. “Which radio station do you know that has played 70, 80, 95 [percent local music]; who’s done the assessment?”

The SABC insists its stations are playing “mostly locally produced” music.

Lack of support seen

Le Roux is adamant that the state isn’t doing enough for music. Most public schools, for example, don’t teach it.

“Are those institutional tools in place to support an environment in which the arts and the artists can thrive?” he asked. “The honest answer to that is no.”  

The government says it’s doing its best with “limited funding” to support arts.

Field said another reason for her leaving is her disenchantment with politics in South Africa — something reflected in her track “Born Under the Stars.”

“It’s a song that has a political edge to it, coming just out of frustration for the future of South Africa and the leaders that aren’t leading,” she said.

Pride in artists’ progress

Le Roux expects more of the cream of local music to leave the country — not necessarily because of politics or corruption, but because they’re simply “too big” for the nation’s small, underfunded music sector.

“We don’t have the ability to absorb them within our cultural space,” he said. “That’s the problem of the state. But do we like to see them grow? Yes. Those that go abroad, good for them. Those that stay here, let’s build an industry together.”

Ultimately, he said, South Africa should be proud that its artists, like DJ and rapper Spoek Mathambo, are successful worldwide, in bigger, ultracompetitive markets.

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