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Chance in South Africa: How to Take Pain and Turn it Into Spiritual Healing

Chance the Rapper's recent Johannesburg show was far removed from the Kanye controversy

When Chance the Rapper walked out onto the stage in Johannesburg, South Africa on Monday night, he was coming off the back of a serious Twitter storm in his native U.S.

That's par for the course with celebrities these days. But for the 25-year-old rapper, an activist at heart who volunteered phoning for donations during Barack Obama's reelection campaign, the nature of the backlash was particularly galling.

In an attempt to defend his friend Kanye West's increasingly bizarre pro-Donald Trump tweets, Chancelor Jonathan Bennett, to use his full name, tweeted "Black people don't have to be democrats." That was Wednesday. By Friday he had issued a lengthy apology.

Responding to Twitter's outrage is difficult. Scratch that. Impossible.

I should know. I lost my job as a high profile editor in South Africa in part thanks to Twitter's outrage around race—albeit from the opposite end of the colour spectrum.

The pressure to rush and put out an apology often ends badly. But Chance's response was considered, thoughtful and sincere. Of course, Twitter being what it is, there were still those who wouldn't want anything less than seeing him burn at the stake. But those sort of folks usually have something larger going on in their lives they need to pay attention to.

Still these things can hurt. Badly. I'm still recovering a year later, to be honest.

Two days after the apology, Chance touched down in Johannesburg, noting it was his first time "in the motherland." He must have still been smarting, or at least a little raw, when he traipsed out in a simple T-shirt and patchwork trousers. The nature of the Twitter criticism struck at the very core of his identity as a politically conscious black artist. And here he was, in the motherland.

Perhaps that vulnerability, matched with the vulnerability of where South Africans are at right now, was the magic of it. Because something magical definitely happened that night.

Globally people of colour (or as we say in South Africa, black people) have been going through the most lately. The aftermath of a hard-fought for freedom and equality—in the US and across Africa—leaves shattered, hyper-sensitive people behind. I sometimes think of it as a sort of collective post-traumatic-stress disorder: one from first-hand experiences, and those we have felt or heard from the generations before us. (I still tear up when I think about how my mother can't talk about the forced removals under apartheid, which broke down her family home and forced her community into government-decreed segregation: a far-flung town for people of "Indian descent".)

Chance was on the receiving end of rage from black people in the US that, like the rage that informs the larger black experience, is sometimes raw and unprocessed.

Take the pain that African Americans experience as a minority, and try to understand it when your people are in the majority, and you'll have an inkling of the race issues plaguing South Africa.

But when Chance walked on to the stage that pain was inverted into a collective, spiritual moment of healing. Instead of being on the receiving end of perhaps a disproportionate anger, as he briefly was that week in his home country, he found himself conducting an orchestra of 10 000, all desperate for healing and reprieve from racial pain that scars this country perhaps worse than any other.

I was surrounded by people, of all races, grinning from ear to ear or jumping up and down, yelling out lyrics on songs like "Same Drugs:"

"Wide eyed kids being kids

Why did you stop?

What did you do to your hair?

Where did you go to end up right back here?

When did you start to forget how to fly?"

Or laughing along at the beautiful honesty of him mixing up his lyrics, in an age of lip-synching. Or watching in awe at the raw artistry of the man; vacillating between spitting rapid beats, reciting lines in spoken word fashion, or simply singing in that child-like timbre that defines his voice.

Faced with those adoring faces in a stadium in the decidedly unfashionable north western regions of the city, 72 hours after the conclusion of the Twitter debacle, Chance was visibly moved. "I'll never forget this night," he said repeatedly, tweeting it after the show too.

And it was his last song that drove the message home most forcefully.

It was the encore. But instead of walking back to the stage after the usual faux-departure, the stage lights lit up to reveal something out of the set of Black Panther. It was The Soweto Gospel choir, dressed up in a stunning set of costumes inspired by traditions from across the continent.

If we were expecting the choir to start up the backdrop for "Blessings," we were premature. They first launched into an up-tempo take on Hlohonolofatsa, a seSotho hymn that most of the audience would have grown up singing at church. Before long the entire audience was singing along.

Black youngsters in South Africa have mostly grown up religious, in a country where church and prayer groups kept their mothers going through the tough times—or exploited them if they were unlucky. These days however discussions around decolonization has introduced a disdain for Western religion. But at the same time a collective spirituality has perhaps been lost.

That moment cued them up for a spectacular take of Blessings, which when it came, came with all them blessings.

It seems we're having a moment in Africa, as a place of healing that goes both way between the black experience in the US and right here. A fellow Okay Africa contributor felt this very thing at the J. Cole concert in Nigeria recently.

As the Jo'burg audience streamed out of the stadium after that last song, they couldn't stop singing, harmonizing together as they left:

"Are you ready?

For your blessings?

Are you ready?

For your miracle?"

I realized my pain was only a drop in an ocean, an ocean that was slowly healing itself. I realized we're all going to be okay. And I realised… ain't no Twitter in heaven.

Verashni Pillay is currently head of digital at radio station POWER 98.7. She still tweets, reluctantly, at @verashni

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Photo: Sean Thomas.

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