Music as strength: Soweto Gospel Choir

In the days of apartheid South Africa, music and dances like the toyi toyi were used by indigenous Africans to communicate resistance without fear of punishment from the institutionally racist white minority government. In today’s South Africa, Soweto Gospel Choir’s voices exude hope in a country that has the sixth highest prevalence of HIV in the world.

“Music has the same role as it did in apartheid South Africa of getting people together and holding people together,” says SGC’s choir master Lucas Bok. “Music has a role of teaching people and still has the role of getting us together to appreciate life and getting to know that we are fortunate enough to be where we are right now. There is something about the human voice. We can’t understand how God created it. It takes you to a place where you enjoy life, it’s okay no matter what you’re going through, you just feel good. I love singing. I love what happens to the audience, people appreciate it. Definitely music is a language that speaks to the heart and speaks to the soul.”

The choir’s members are made up of individuals from church choirs around Soweto, a South African municipality created when black Africans were expelled from Johannesburg. The south western townships were the setting of the 1976 Soweto uprising, where youth organized a march to Orlando Stadium to protest education funding which provided white South Africans with seven dollars for every dollar that was invested into a ‘coloured’ child’s education. The peaceful march resulted in 566 deaths and brought pressure from the international community on South Africa’s oppressive regime.

“Life in the Soweto townships was difficult, but we managed to pull through,” says Bok. “Right now it’s the place to be because people are full of optimism, there seems to be things happening everywhere around us. It makes our life much easier. It was difficult, but right now there is some hope.”

As well as performing in several benefit concerts with stars like U2’s Bono and Diana Ross, the Soweto Gospel Choir has raised over $210,000 for the charities they created–Nkosi’s Haven and Nkosi’s Haven Vugani–which provide assistance to AIDS orphans. The choir is also an ambassador for 46,664, Nelson Mandela’s music-led campaign to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. Although Bok said the choir has no specific stance on AIDS, he says abstinence and control are two major factors in the struggle against the disease.

“We believe in trying to help where we can,” Bok says. “We know that AIDS is running havoc with our people. We do our best to help wherever we can. We have started our own charity, Nkosi, which means ‘Arise! Wake up!’ We are definitely affected by AIDS. Our families, our relatives and our friends are really going through this stuff. So it’s something that is close to our hearts and that’s why I believe we try our best and get on tour to try and help where we can. We’ve been blessed that we can do that.”

Not only does the choir provide hope to South Africans in the form of action and music, but the group is talented too. They won a 2007 Grammy in the best traditional world music category for their sophomore album Blessed, a first for South Africa. SGC is currently touring through North America and Europe after the release of their third album, African Spirit, and plans to start an African tour this September.

“The choir is something that will give you an idea what South Africa is about as a nation,” says Bok. “Basically we stand for righteousness, we stand for justice for others. We understand the reality of not having. We understand going through struggle. We understand being exploited, therefore we feel that it’s important that people should get what they deserve and we should live life and enjoy life.”