Sometime during “the world’s strictest lockdown” in April, an eccentric video popped up on my Twitter feed. It showed a small group of young people starting into backyard lunch, then getting caught up in an infectious house beat over lyrics in some language I couldn’t understand. Quickly falling into step, they line-danced – still munching from their plates – with lots of smiles, style and swagger.
It was all rather charming, and reminded me of the teenage parties I grew up attending in Bandra and Santa Cruz in Bombay, as well as long afternoons with my cousins and their friends: what our grandparents generation used to refer to as “good clean fun”.
Like so much social media, the video promptly disappeared into the digital aether. But soon after the monsoon began pounding the windows of my home in Goa, it popped up again and then constantly. I learned the joyous kids were dancers from the Fenomenos de Semba troupe in the Angolan capital of Luanda, and the song that had them shimmying featured Zulu lyrics. It has been recorded in Johannesburg in November 2019, by the producer Kgaogelo Moagi (aka Master KG) and the singer Nomcebo Zikode (she uses only her first name).
That summer – which in South Africa means December to March – it became the country’s favourite jam. Then on June 19 this year, another remix starring Nigerian superstar Burna Boy propelled Jerusalema on the global stage, where it has remained ever since.
The song’s numbers are highly impressive. Spotify has streamed it 100 million times, it is the most searched in Shazam history, and on YouTube it’s got close to 200 million views. Besides hitting the top five in France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Belgium, it was also number one in the Billboard world digital charts. Meanwhile, thousands of new videos are being uploaded every day hash-tagged #jerusalemadancechallenge or simply #jerusalema. Italian marines made one (their commander now faces disciplinary proceedings) and so have Palestinians in (the occupied Eastern part of) the actual city of Jerusalem. There are countless more interesting examples, from what seems like every corner of the world.
Late last month, another unlikely twist took the song into the realm of politics, when South African president Cyril Ramaphosa urged his fellow citizens to actively celebrate it, “to reflect on the difficult journey we have all travelled, to remember those who have lost their lives, and to quietly rejoice in the remarkable and diverse heritage of our nation”.
He said, “There can be no better celebration of our South African-ness [and] I urge all of you to take up this Jerusalema challenge and show the world what we are capable of.” That healing potential is also perceived in other countries.
On Wednesday, for example, the Kenyan parliament has taken the day off to film its own version, “to show that in diversity we can find peace”.
This isn’t just empty rhetoric, especially in South Africa. Just last year, Ramaphosa’s government faced an unusual boycott – from the Zambian football team to World Economic Forum delegations – after days of attacks seen as targeting foreigners. At that time, Burna Boy tweeted, “ I should come here and say something to try and calm the situation because my Dream has always been to Unite AFRICA and make us realise that Together we will Literally rule the world [but] I personally have had my own xenophobic experiences at the hands of South Africans and because of that I will NOT EVER go to South Africa again for any reason until the government wakes up and really performs a miracle because I don’t know how they can even possibly fix this.”
Burna Boy is an immensely important pan-African figure, whose cultural and moral authority in the continent – and right across its global diaspora – resembles that of Bob Marley in the Jamaican legend’s heyday. Originally named Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu, the 29-year-old partly grew up in London, and his music is both resolutely centred in his ethnicity (he sings and raps in Yoruba and English pidgin, without any concession to widespread intelligibility) and wildly globalized, fusing dancehall, Afrobeat, rhythm and blues and many other styles. Beyoncé is one of his biggest fans, and his last album was produced by Sean Combs (the rapper previously known as Puff Daddy).
Earlier this year, Combs told the New York Times that Burna Boy “isn’t just on a musical artist trip. He’s a revolutionary. His conviction is serious.” The musician himself told Jon Pareles, “We’re all going through the same problems. We just speak different languages. I want my children to have an African passport, not a Nigerian passport. I do not identify with any tribe. I do not identify with any country. I identify with the world in the universe – I believe I am a citizen of the world, and I have a responsibility to the world. But at the same time in the world, it’s my people who are really getting the short end of the stick.”
Given that background, when Burna Boy reached across to Master KG, and they decided to make another version of Jerusalema – with the Nigerian singing deftly in Zulu – it was every bit as impactful as the 1978 One Love Peace Concert hosted by Bob Marley in Kingston that brought the warring political factions of Jamaica together. But this 2020 event was on a much grander, continental scale. “We can only do our part individually to work towards uniting Africa, a song may not fix that, but the principle is what’s important, seeing beyond the lines and borders, you know?” Burna Boy told The Sowetan. “My hope is that it unites us through our divisions and misunderstandings and dance together. We are not in competition, we are one Africa, we are united.”
Why did this particular song become so meaningful to so many people, right in the middle of our collective pandemic predicament? Part of the reason is certainly musical brilliance: Master KG has made an earworm backing track, which soars with choral and symphonic effects, and Nocembo has an astonishing, androgynous voice that’s unleashed with an element of surprise because she was essentially unknown, even in South Africa. There’s also an undeniably genuine and heartfelt sincerity in her expression – the song’s lyrics are deeply spiritual, yearning for the solace that Jerusalem represents – because the singer was herself about to give up hope. She told The Guardian, “I was singing what I know.”
The other part of this winning formula is the dance, which looks so super-casual in the original Angolan video that even uncles like me might think they can look cool doing it (spoiler alert: alas, no). To find out more about this aspect of the Jerusalema phenomenon, I reached out to Ananya Jahanara Kabir who is on the faculty at Kings College in London, and both scholar of social dance and practiced adept of many different variants: salsa, kizomba, semba, samba de gafiera, forro, bachata and many more.
“These line dance choreographies, like the electro-base of the music they accompany, are a product of a long conversation across the two sides of the Atlantic world,” she said. “I see them as a firmly Afro-Atlantic phenomenon.”
That’s an essential insight, because so much of the greatest music of the modern era has emerged from the endlessly rich cultural criss-crossings between African countries and their hugely vital diasporas in Brazil, the American South, and Cuba along with the other Caribbean countries. This ongoing cycle definitely includes both Burna Boy and Master KG, as well as one of my all-time favourite jazz musicians, the fantastic South African pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim (he was born Adolph Johannes Brand, and used to perform as Dollar Brand).
“The way the dance steps evolve are always a mixture of Afro-Atlantic give-and-take, and an infusion of local ‘accents’ that are mutually intelligible because the broad logic is from a kinetic continuum that moves from central African cultural resources outward to other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, but also crossed the Atlantic because of slavery,” Kabir said.
She added: “Such songs and their choreographies keep circulating, but they don’t always break out to a wider, general audience. I think this one did because it showed people a simple way to connect to each other, and build a community out of contact at a time when we are all hungering for these possibilities. The first video was in particular a hit because it showed people eating together, and gradually transforming from one group activity to another (dance). Plus everyone recognises the word ‘Jerusalema’, so people can hum at least part of it while trying out the steps.”
Kabir said that Johannesburg is really a pan-African city, and its universities are magnets for talent. “It has a great combination of the right factors,” she said. “Here we’ve got to understand though, that the Angolan video popularised the South African anthem. This is a collaborative, demotic, grassroots kind of effort. It’s about what African American art historian Robert Farris Thompson called ‘the flash of the spirit’. It’s very difficult to bottle and market, but every now and then there is a winning combination with the market. Today social media makes things move differently and unpredictable but it feeds into the improvised magic of African-heritage popular dance.”
Could such an extraordinary, spiritually tinged global event have emerged from another country at this moment? It’s certainly possible. “You never know what’s going to become a hit, let alone a global hit,” Kabir said. But in my studied opinion that would be unlikely. This feel-good story has decidedly South African characteristics, built on the country’s resolute come-back story from Apartheid, and its stunning recent record of peace and reconciliation amid the implementation of constitutional democracy. It seems obvious to me that the Jerusalem of this song fits most perfectly with the South African dream, and we already recognise its Moses figure in Nelson Mandela.
Dilip Menon, the Mellon Chair of Indian Studies at the University of Witwatersrand, said that the idea of Jerusalema “ikhaya lami” (my home) works on two registers: “One is that of the promised land that we wait for here, and the other of the promised land that lies beyond this life.”
He directed me to the 2008 movie Gangsters Paradise, which was originally called Jerusalema, saying the term “is an invocation both of a secular and a religious future. South Africa is a Christian country (80% Christian) and religion has played a central role in resistance to apartheid, whether in black consciousness or among Afrikaner dissidents like Beyers Naudé. In short, the film was a secular, ironic take on the idea of Jerusalema, while the song summons up hope of bringing the nation together as indeed it has, across races.”
Menon, who moved to South Africa with his family in 2009, is a dedicated music fan. When I asked him whether we could expect more hits from the same source, he said, “SA continues with its galaxy of jazz musicians from Nduduzo Makathini to Kyle Shepherd and more recently Asher Gamedze, among others. And SA house music is popular all over Africa. But the earlier fame was also part of a political moment when the world identified with the anti-apartheid struggle. There is still excellent music and dancing across the board, which is known in Africa and that’s fame enough. It’s not only what America or Europe listens to that is important. It’s like Hindi cinema with its vast audience across Eastern Europe, Africa, SE Asia and the Middle East.”
Jerusalema hit as big as it did, explains Menon, because “it touched a chord in a country and indeed a world in lockdown. There are many things here. Wonderful lyrics that transcend religion and cultures; a deep vision of the future and of faith speaking to our troubled times. It is ethnic inasmuch as it is SA gospel combined with house, but as we have seen with all the memes the beat is actually, universal, and old film clips like that of Laurel and Hardy dancing have been set to it. It is of the moment, and in that sense represents as much the new South Africa as the present state of the world, and our need for collective hope.”
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.