For nearly 40 years Hugh Masekela’s trumpet-led jazz scores have been the sound track for South Africa. In his early twenties, he left home to take his music out into the world; by 1968, at age 29, he was an international star. In 1988 his acclaimed Broadway show, Sarafina!, received several Tony nominations. In 1990, after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Masekela returned home, and today, at 65, he’s completed his first book, Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela (Crown). It reveals Masekela’s career hardships and his struggles with addiction.
Ultimately Still Grazing provides a map for moving out of hurt into healing.
Music saved my life—there’s no doubt about that. I am sure that had I not been a musician and left South Africa I would have been a radical activist, and I would have been killed. Music grabbed me and eventually took me abroad. I was 13 when I decided to become a serious musician. I saw Young Man With a Horn, in which Kirk Douglas played the lead role as a famous trumpeter. His character crystallized my ambition, and I gave in to my obsession with music. The songs I made complemented what was going on at home. I think artists pressured people to demand that their governments turn their back on South Africa.
Music can transform a society — But it’s not just the music; it’s really about what happens after the music. What are people inspired to do when they hear the message? Yes, music has the power to effect change, but only if people react and do something as a result of the message conveyed.
Early on in my career I learned that you cannot succeed in this business on talent alone. You have to have a little hustle in you, and you have to be hungry for success. I think that I had some talent, but it was also my tenacity and my knocking on doors and bugging people that got me recognized as an artist.
Everyone I learned music from when I was a teenager is dead from alcohol-related causes. I have had a wild life, but I was able to survive it and get away from it. I come from a very, very rough world of street fights, booze, women, drugs and gangsters. I survived because music was more important than all those other things. And my family and very close friends got to me by saying: “We don’t know you anymore. You’ve taken my friend, you’ve taken my brother, and we want him back.” Then they all cut me off. I couldn’t stand the loneliness; I felt as though I had finally hit rock bottom. I decided to go into rehabilitation in England. My rehab was paid for by the Musicians’ Assistance Program, which over the years has helped hundreds of musicians overcome addiction. I wanted to help other musicians who were going through similar trauma. With help from friends and donors we set up a foundation in South Africa to help artists kick their addiction.
While in exile in Botswana, I got a birthday card from Nelson Mandela, smuggled to me by underground mail. He’d heard from Winnie—she was the only person who could visit him at the time—about what I was doing with my music, and he sent a message encouraging me to keep at it. I was blown away. Here was a man in jail writing me a card encouraging me, and I couldn’t fail him or myself.