Hugh Masekela, a South African trumpet player and anti-apartheid activist, is being celebrated by an April 4 Google Doodle. Masekela is widely regarded as the father of jazz in his homeland. April 4 marks would have been Masekela’s 80th birthday. The famed musician sadly passed away in January 2018 after a battle with prostate cancer at the age of 78. Masekela was born in the township of Witbank, around 70 miles east of the Rainbow Nation’s capital of Pretoria. He had been considered an icon in the Johannesburg’s cultural quarter, Sophiatown.
Google announced the doodle in a blog post that read, “Today’s Doodle celebrates the world-renowned South African trumpeter, singer, bandleader, composer, and human rights advocate Hugh Masekela. Born 80 years ago today in the coal-mining town of Witbank, South Africa, Masekela got his first horn at age 14.” In addition to the doodle, a Twitter trend appeared on April 4, “#HughMasekela80th.” In Google’s promotion of the doodle, Masekela is quoted as saying, “My biggest obsession is to show Africans and the world who the people of Africa really are.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Masekela Spent 30 Year in Exile From His Homeland Beginning in 1960
Masekela first left South Africa in 1960 at the age of 21, beginning 30 years of exile. Masekela came to New York City to enroll at the Manhattan School of Music. At that time, Masekela rubbed shoulders with John Coltrane and Miles Davis. On Masekela’s official website, it’s written that Davis told him, “You’re just gonna be a statistic if you play jazz. But if you put in some of the stuff you remember from Africa, you’ll be different from everybody.”
Masekela was affectionately referred to as Bra Hugh in his homeland. He had been forced into exile in the 1950s in South Africa after the success of his all-black jazz band and their album, “Jazz Epistles.” Their success was at-odds with the apartheid government.
Masekela returned home for the first time in 1990 upon the release of Nelson Mandela. During his time away, Masekela would regularly perform in order to raise awareness of apartheid conditions in South Africa.
2. Masekela Was Once Married to Cab Calloway’s Daughter
Masekela was married four times during his life. His first wife, Miriam Makeba, was a frequent musical collaborator. Makeba passed away in November 2008. Following her divorce from Masekela, Makeba went on to marry Black Panther icon, Stokely Carmicheal, according to her Guardian obituary. Makeba once said of their divorce, “It was difficult because I was a little bit more popular; men always like to know they’re in control. We just decided, like he likes to say, ‘Let’s call it a draw.'”
The couple was married between 1964 and 1966. Following that, Masekela was married to Chris Calloway, daughter of jazz icon Cab Calloway as well as Jabu Mbatha and Elinam Cofie, whom he married in 1999. All of Masekela’s marriages ended in divorce.
Masekela’s son is former ESPN and NBC Sports reporter Selema Masekela. Masekela was also survived by his other child, a daughter named Pula. according to his Guardian obituary.
3. Like Many Musicians of the Time, Masekela Composed an Anthem Dedicated to Nelson Mandela’s Release
In 1986, like many of his contemporaries at the time, Masekela composed the song, “Bring Him Back Home.” Masekela also performed the anti-apartheid anthem “Soweto Blues.” The latter being sung by Masekela’s former wife Miriam Makeba.
Masekela’s sister, Barbara, served as Mandela’s chief of staff upon his release from prison. Upon Mandela’s election as president in 1994, Barbara Masekela was appointed as South Africa’s ambassador to the United States.
4. During His Career, Masekela Worked With Artists Such as Marvin Gaye, Paul Simon & Stevie Wonder
During his long and storied career, Masekela was nominated for multiple Grammy Awards. That’s in addition to touring with Paul Simon and working with Marvin Gaye, Harry Belafonte and Miles Davies. Masekela toured with Paul Simon alongside several other South African musicians, including his former wife Miriam Makeba, in support of Simon’s “Graceland” album. Arguably, Masekela’s most well-known work in the U.S. was his 1968 No. 1 hit “Grazin’ in the Grass.” A year earlier, Masekela performed at the Monterey Pop Festival alongside luminaries such as Jimi Hendrix and The Who.
Prior to his death, Masekela had been scheduled to perform in concert with fellow African music icon, Oliver Mtukudzi. The concert was canceled as Masekela’s health declined. A year after Masekela’s death, Mtukudzi sadly died.
5. Masekela’s First Inspiration Was a Kirk Douglas Movie
The first major inspiration in Masekela’s life was the 1950 Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall movie, “You Man With a Horn.” Masekela saw the movie when he was 14 years old. The film deals with the story of Bix Beiderbecke, one of the few white musicians to flourish in jazz.
In his BBC obituary, it’s written that after seeing the movie, Masekela managed to convince anti-apartheid activist, Father Trevor Huddleston, to buy him a trumpet. The exchange was that Masekela promised to stay out of trouble in return.