Content warning: Racism
It was late January and I had convinced my friends to join me on a night out at a jazz club in Capetown. The sole reasons we came to South Africa were to discover the history of the nation and experience the Safari bush life, so a night out was a bit outside of the itinerary. However, as a musician I could not leave a city with such a vibrant musical culture without experiencing a gig – so we went.
The Crypt was Capetown’s leading jazz club. It had a long and distinguished hall of fame hosting performances from Africa’s leading jazz, blues and soul artists. My friends and I took our seats at our reserved table, which was draped with a fancy white tablecloth and dimly lit candles. It was a fancy jazz club, just like any other in the world, with the exception of the obvious and unspoken divide within it. As I looked around the room only those who were ‘white’ or of a privileged ‘colored’ background were seated at a table. To our left were a crowd of spectators.
Almost all of them were black.
They huddled against the bar anxiously, waiting for the music to begin. It wasn’t that these people weren’t allowed to sit at the tables; the days of legal segregation had long passed. Still, there was an ingrained racial divide preventing them from taking a seat. At a jazz venue like Canberra’s Hippo Co, where the crowd would generally be ethnically diverse, the act of anyone sitting at a table would involve little thought.
I may have felt uneasy, but for everyone else this racial divide was a normal part of life in South Africa, even 20 years after apartheid. Yes, people of all different races can now legally co-exist peacefully in South Africa. They will never, however, mingle or interact on a social capacity.
As an outsider, it was very apparent. As a mixed race person, it was a wake up call. I am truly privileged to live in a country where being multicultural is praised, and people of all backgrounds mingle, become friends and even get married.
Before the music began I went to the bathroom and waited, and waited, and kept on waiting for what felt like a very long time, until a larger-than-life black South African lady appeared from the cubicle. Before she took notice of my appearance, she apologized for the wait, stating that she felt ill. Seconds later, she looked at my face and her expression changed. She exclaimed in a piercing, upset tone, “Because of you Asians, I’m sick tonight. I’m supposed to be on stage singing but instead I’m on the toilet. I should have never ate your people’s food, it makes me sick.”
Never in my life had I felt so startled at something so completely out of my control. Sure, I might have been half-Asian, but I certainly had nothing to do with her eating habits that day. Despite my disbelief, I knew that as guest of her country I had to act respectfully. I apologized for her sickness, sympathizing that I was a singer as well and that I understood her frustration.
That put an end to the grimacing temper, but then she stood up and snapped into full sassy mode, blurting out, “Oh yeah?! An Asian girl can sing? I’ve never seen an Asian be able to sing. PROVE IT.” So just like that, my quick trip to the toilet turned into a mini concert, in an effort to secure my exit from the congested space I found myself in. As I sang, thoughts ran through my mind. Would I be kicked out of the club for supposedly making the singer sick because I’m Asian? Is singing to her even a good idea? Why does being a certain race even matter when you’re a musician? When people listen all that should matter is our sound!
Singing to her was probably the best thing I could have done that evening. She was so shocked that an Asian could sing. Yes, I am not kidding – in the space of five minutes, I went from enemy to best friend. She grabbed me excitedly exclaiming, “I can’t believe an Asian has a voice like that! Giiiiiirl, you can sing. I’ll have to get you up on stage tonight with the band. Let me introduce you to my friends!”
Later that evening I met the band, who were also the African members of the international band Playing for Change. I got to jam out on stage with them and it was incredible. One by one, I got to meet the locals who were all equally dumbfounded and then thrilled by the fact there was an Asian singer in the room. It was odd, but nonetheless I was delighted, and to be honest, the events that happened that night are something that I will never forget. It’s moments like those that remind you that music is a global language. Who cares if you’re black, white, yellow, brown, red or a mix of the above? If you can play, groove and make music then you’re part of the global family.
But I think now, had I not been part-Asian would this have ever occurred?