Remembering Sathima Bea Benjamin

Sathima had the unique ability to strike first at your heart, not unlike the experience of hearing Billie Holiday for the first time.

The cover of Sathima Bea Benjamin's debut album recorded under the direction of Duke Ellington.

With what feels like a physical blow to the body I try to make sense of it all.  “Hi Rashid, is it true?” “Yes Matt she is on the other side.” Barely a month earlier I was in Cape Town for what was to be Sathima’s swan song: a live performance at Tagore’s in Observatory celebrating the reissue of her 1976 masterpiece African Songbird that I’d just reissued on my label. Although suffering from flu Sathima commanded the room with the voice of an angel. The electric atmosphere and crowded space only enhanced the palpable sense of being in the presence of greatness.

As we mark Sathima’s birthday today I’m still trying to make sense of it all. Her long struggle to be heard, never playing on her African roots and resolutely uncommercial with a complete commitment to classic jazz idioms. And a big shadow cast by her partner Abdullah Ibrahim, the challenges of motherhood exacerbated by exile and an uneasy homecoming from the Chelsea Hotel in New York where she said she felt most at home.

Sathima had the unique ability to strike first at your heart, not unlike the experience of hearing Billie Holiday for the first time. She cites hearing Billie’s performance in Lady Sings the Blues as being pivotal to her development as a singer. And Sathima’s original compositions like Africa and Nations in Me eschew the commonly prescribed categories of race and nationhood propagated by Apartheid. It’s a powerful combination.

Her final performance at Tagore’s was highly anticipated and packed shoulder-to-shoulder. Some initial microphone issues before Sathima took to the stage, backed by the Hilton Schilder Trio, to perform one more time her classic songbook tunes, laments and the anthem Africa. “I’ve been gone much too long/and I’m glad to say that I’m home, I’m home to stay…” I was so happy for her despite the knowledge that perhaps this might all be too late. We spoke late into the evening at the Labia Cinema on Sunday and at the Mahogany Room on Tuesday about taking this forward.

Too late, and now she’s on the other side. And that’s our lament: that home is still the other side.

Further Reading

Take it to the house

On this month’s AIAC Radio, Boima celebrates all things basketball, looking at its historical relationships with music and race, then focusing on Africa’s biggest names in the sport.

El maestro siempre

Maky Madiba Sylla is a militant filmmaker excavating iconic Africans whose legacies he believes need to be known widely—like the singer Laba Sosseh.

Madiba and Mali

There is a remarkable connection between Mali and South Africa, dating back to the liberation struggle, and actively encouraged by the author’s work.

A devil’s deal

Rwanda’s proposed refugee deal with Britain is another strike against President Paul Kagame’s claim that he is an authentic and fearless pan-Africanist who advocates for the less fortunate.

Red and Black

Yunxiang Gao’s new book takes a fresh look at connected lives of African American and Chinese leftist activists, artists and intellectuals after World War II.

The Dar es Salaam years

In the early 1970s, Walter Rodney, expelled from Jamaica, took a post in Tanzania. In Leo Zeilig’s new book, he captures those exciting, but also difficult years and how it formed Rodney.

Rushing to boycott

The cultural boycott of Russia turns to the flawed precedent of apartheid South Africa for inspiration, while ignoring the much more carefully considered boycott of official Israeli culture by the BDS Movement.

The party question

Marcel Paret’s book, “Fragmented Militancy: Precarious Resistance in South Africa after Racial Inclusion,” tries to make sense of politics in South African urban informal settlements.

The missing pieces

Between melancholy, terror, and disillusion, Petit Pays is a groundbreaking and eye-opening take on one of the darkest pages of African history, one that is often misunderstood in the West.