It’s Thursday night in downtown Johannesburg and some 500 people are packed into Bassline, a warehouse-like club in a hipster-friendly neighborhood. They’re here for South Africa’s longest-running sound system, or crew of reggae DJs. But tonight they get something extra: a young woman with dreadlocks and an army cap gets on the mic to freestyle.
Her name is Nkulee Dube, and she carries two storied legacies on her shoulders. She’s now the country’s biggest reggae star — and the daughter of the man sometimes dubbed “Africa’s Peter Tosh.”
“When I travel around the world, people are like, ‘We are just happy there is someone taking over, putting on your dad’s shoes,’ ” Dube says. “I’m like, ‘What? I cannot put on those shoes. They’re very heavy!’ ”
Reggae, after all, runs deep in South Africa. During the 1970s, songs by Peter Tosh and Burning Spear were gospel to the anti-apartheid movement. James Mange, a reggae artist and former resistance leader, was the first Rastafarian prisoner on Robben Island, alongside such anti-apartheid activists as Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela. He says they were huge reggae fans.
“Walter Sisulu even asked for certain albums in particular: ‘That one, that one, by that boy. What is his name?’ We’d say, ‘Bob Marley; he has about three,’ ” Mange recalls. “[Sisulu would say] ‘Exodus—give me that one.’ ”
Mange became known as the Bob Marley of Robben Island, where reggae was a mainstay even when warders censored political songs.
“It was not anything for entertainment. It was almost like your prayer time, if you like,” Mange says. “It was a time when we started remembering why we were where we were and what lay ahead. And it was the kind of food we needed to sustain us during the hard times.”
During the ’80s, South African acts like O’Yaba and Johnny Klegg recorded political reggae tunes and Lucky Dube would become the first African reggae artist to perform in Jamaica. Lucky Dube released 22 albums in three languages. Meanwhile, his daughter, Nkulee, has toured four continents and released her debut album, My Way, in 2011.
Read more: NPR