According to family lore, I met Dorothy Masuka when I was just a few days old. My parents were returning to the capital city, Lusaka, after my mother gave birth to me in the tourist town of Livingstone. Mam Dorothy was also travelling and offered to hold me while my parents sorted out the luggage. My parents retell this story with a sense of pride – that I was held by the Queen of southern African music. I like to think that in the few minutes that she held me, some of her magic sprinkled onto me. And although I have no recollection of any of this, I grew up listening to her music, and have always returned to her soothing voice whenever I need comfort.
My intrigue with Dorothy Masuka has grown the older I’ve become. The way she spoke in a soft but self-assured way; her effortless style and her prolific song writing. She was, as the kids say, goals. Unlike Miriam Makeba who became well known internationally for hits like Pata Pata (which was written by Dorothy Masuka), Mam Dorothy spent much of her time in southern and east Africa. Touring and composing music as well as being a fierce anti-colonial activist. I’ve always wondered why the emphasis hasn’t been on her activism when much of her music was about and engaged with the liberation of African countries. A proud pan-Africanist, her contribution to the struggle is largely overlooked.
Traditionally, archives quantify, list and name people, things, places. But for people from backgrounds historically excluded from history, the archives go further – they can serve as a memory, where we find ourselves and can testify to what we have endured.
The contribution of Black women generally in political movements has historically been erased and undervalued, and Mam Dorothy is no exception. Many narratives centre the experiences and stories of male figures. Ironically, it is through her music that we learn about the lives of Black women in southern Africa. In Hamba Notsokolo, she sings about a woman struggling with life and the world around her. Centring the experiences of these women in her music is an archive. Traditionally, archives quantify, list and name people, things, places. But for people from backgrounds historically excluded from history, the archives go further – they can serve as a memory, where we find ourselves and can testify to what we have endured. I’ve always wondered about who is deemed to be a historical subject. Unremarkable Black women are barely recorded since they are not seen as worthy historical subjects, but Dorothy Masuka shines her light on them for us to see them, hear them, and know them.
Much of the music recorded by Dorothy Masuka is upbeat and yet speaks to the everyday struggles Black people were enduring in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s in southern Africa. Listening to her music as Black woman in the diaspora brings up a few questions: What does it mean to be African and a settler living on colonised land? How does one reflect the experiences of Black African women? Is it possible to capture the experiences of a diverse group of people? And while I might not have the answers, Mam Dorothy’s example of activism through art and bearing witness to the experiences of women like herself, presents an opportunity to reimagine what my identity can be.
Santilla Chingaipe is an award-winning journalist, filmmaker and author based in Melbourne, whose work explores colonialism, slavery, and post-colonial migration in Australia.