Hugh Masekela: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

Hugh Masekela Google Doodle

Getty Hugh Masekela pictured during a performance in India in March 2004.

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

HARDTALK – Hugh Masekela – Musician & ActivistZeinab Badawi talks to the South African jazz musician and political activist Hugh Masekela. His life and music have reflected the struggles of the anti-apartheid era and the subsequent years of black majority rule. So why does he now describe South Africa as fast turning into a rubbish dump and becoming removed from its authentic,…2015-06-23T15:17:08.000Z

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

Hugh Masekela funeral

GettyA portrait of South African Jazz legend Hugh Masekela is displayed during the last public tribute, a musical celebration, to him five days after his passing, on January 28, 2018 at Soweto Campus of the University of Johannesburg.

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

Hugh Masekela – Mandela (Bring Him Back Home) – Jazz Day 2015The International Jazz Day Global Concert 2015 Hugh Masekela / John Beasley / Marcus Miller / Mino Cinélu / Guillaume Perret / Lee Ritenour / Avishai Cohen / Kelly Lee Evans & Michael Mayo Live from Paris. http://jazzday.com2015-05-11T03:22:33.000Z

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.

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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

Hugh Masekela Paul Simon

Hugh Masekela pictured performing with Paul Simon in New York City in April 2014.

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.

Hugh Masekela – Grazing In The Grass"Grazing In The Grass" – Hugh Masekela (1968) The nicest cowbells ever! Album: "The Promise of a Future" Masekela was born in Kwa-Guqa Township, Witbank, South Africa. Following the 21 March 1960 Sharpeville Massacre—where 69 peacefully protesting Africans were shot dead in Sharpeville, and the South African government banned gatherings of ten or more people—and…2014-06-07T14:09:15.000Z

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

Young Man with a Horn (1950) – Original Theatrical TrailerThe tragic life of jazz great Bix Beiderbecke, one of the few white musicians to flourish in the mostly black jazz scene.2014-08-13T17:19:23.000Z

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.

Hugh Masekela at Monterey Pop, 1967Hugh Masekela's performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop festival from the the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Monterey Pop. All rights etc. are theirs.2018-01-23T12:51:45.000Z

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.

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