Jerusalema, a song from Mzansi — an informal isiZulu name for South Africa — became a global hit during the Covid-19 pandemic. Set to a repetitive, slow four-to-a-bar beat characteristic of South African house music, the gospel-influenced song was released through Open Mic Productions in 2019 by the DJ and record producer Kgaogelo Moagi, popularly known as ‘Master KG’. The production resulted from a collaboration between Master KG, the music producer Charmza The DJ, who composed the music, and the vocalist Nomcebo Zikode, who wrote the lyrics and performed the song for the master recording.
Jerusalema immediately trended on social media and, as a “soundtrack of the pandemic” (Modise), became one of the most popular songs of 2020. Soon, it reached no. 1 on the music charts in Belgium, Romania, the Netherlands, South Africa, and Switzerland, while going triple platinum in Italy and double platinum in Spain (Hissong). By September 2020, Jerusalema was the most Shazammed song in history. To date, it has generated more than half a billion views on YouTube.
After its initial success as a music video, the song’s influence was catapulted to a global cultural phenomenon by the #JerusalemaDanceChallenge video posted by the Angolan dance troupe Fenómenos do Semba in 2020, featuring exquisite dance steps that inspired a viral social media challenge.
Some observed that footwork in several of the videos posted, suggested dance types associated with pantsula jive and kwaito music, both of which originated from the black townships of South Africa during the apartheid era. Yet, the leader of the Angolan dance troupe Fenómenos do Semba, Adilson Maiza claimed that the group’s choreography mixed kuduro dance steps (derived from the Angolan Portuguese term “cu duro” or “hard ass”) and Afro-beat. According to Master KG, indeed, the choreography made famous by the Angolan dancers conveyed an Angolan touch, described by Maiza as signature ginga e banga Angolana (Angolan sway and swag; Kabir). As a “counter-contagion” in the age of Coronavirus (Kabir), groups of individuals, ranging from school learners and teachers, police officers, and nursing staff in Africa to priests and nuns in Europe and Palestinians in the Old City of Jerusalem were posting Jerusalema dance videos. Famous efforts came from Vietnam, Switzerland, Ireland, Austria, and Morocco. Numerous videos of healthcare workers became a source of hope for patients with COVID-19 (Chingono).
Following the thought of Zygmunt Bauman, in this article I interpret Jerusalema as a “re-enchantment” of a disenchanted world. Focussing on the song’s “magic”, I interrogate why this music video could take on such special meaning for millions of individuals and inspire a viral dance craze. My understanding of “magic” draws on the writings of Patrick Curry, who, in turn, bases his definition of the term on the thought of J.R.R. Tolkien. Curry (5) cites Tolkien in differentiating between two ways in which the word “magic” is generally used: “one to mean enchantment, as in: ‘It was magic!’ and the other to denote a paranormal means to an end, as in: ‘to use magic’”. The argument in this article draws on the first of these explications.
As a global media sensation, Jerusalema placed a spotlight on the paucity of a “de-spiritualized, de-animated world,” a world “waging war against mystery and magic” (Baumann x-xi). However, contexts of production and reception, as outlined in Burns and Hawkins (2ff.), warrant consideration of social and cultural values and ideologies masked by the music video’s idealised representation of everyday South African life and its glamourised expression of faith. Thus, while referring to the millennia-old Jerusalem trope and its ensuing mythologies via an intertextual reading, I shall also consider the song alongside the South African-produced epic gangster action film Jerusalema (2008; Orange) while furthermore reflecting on the contexts of its production.
Why Jerusalema — Why Its “Magic”?
The global fame attained by Master KG’s Jerusalema brought to the fore questions of what made the song and its ensuing dance challenge so exceptional and what lay behind its “magic” (Ndzuta). The song’s simple yet deeply spiritual words appeal to God to take the singer to the heavenly city. In an abbreviated form, as translated from the original isiZulu, the words mean, “Jerusalem is my home, guard me, walk with me, do not leave me here — Jerusalem is my home, my place is not here, my kingdom is not here” (“Jerusalema Lyrics in English”). These words speak of the yearning for salvation, home, and togetherness, with Jerusalem as its spiritual embodiment.
As Ndzuta notes, few South African songs have achieved the kind of global status attained by “Jerusalema”. A prominent earlier example is Miriam Makeba’s dance hit Pata Pata, released in the 1960s during the apartheid era. The song’s global impact was enabled by Makeba’s fame and talent as a singer and her political activism against the apartheid regime (Ndzuta). Similarly, the South African hits included on Paul Simon’s Graceland album (1986) — like Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Homeless — emanated from a specific politico-historical moment that, despite critique against Simon for violating the cultural boycott against South Africa at the time, facilitated their international impact and dissemination (Denselow).
Jerusalema’s fame was not tied to political activism but derived from the turbulent times of the COVID-19 pandemic, which, according to statistics published by the World Health Organization, by the end of 2020 had claimed more than 3 million lives globally (“True Death Toll of Covid-19”). Within this context, the song’s message of divine guidance and the protection of a spiritual home was particularly relevant as it lifted global spirits darkened by the pandemic and the many losses it incurred. Likewise, the #JerusalemaDanceChallenge brought joy and feelings of togetherness during these challenging times, as was evidenced by the countless videos posted online.
The Magic of the Myth
Central to the lyrics of Jerusalema is the city of Jerusalem, which has, as Hees (95) notes, for millennia been “an intense marker of personal, social and religious identity and aspirations in words and music”. Nevertheless, Master KG’s Jerusalema differs from other “Jerusalem songs” in that it encompasses dense layering of “enchantment”. In contrast to Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Awu Jerusalema, for instance, with its solemn, hymn-like structure and close harmonic vocal delivery, Master KG’s Jerusalema features Nomcebo’s sensuous and versatile voice in a gripping version of the South African house/gospel style known affectionately as the “Amapiano sound” — a raw hybrid of deep house, jazz and lounge music characterised by the use of synthesizers and wide percussive basslines (Seroto). In the original music video, in combination with Nomcebo’s soulful rendition, visuals featuring everyday scenes from South African township life take on alluring, if not poetic dimensions — a magical sensory mix, to which an almost imperceptible slow-motion camera effect adds the impression of “time slowing down”, simultaneously “softening” images of poverty and decay.
Fig. 1: “Enchantment” and the joy of the dance. Still from the video “Jerusalema”.
From a philosophical perspective, Zygmunt Bauman (xi) contends that “it is against a dis-enchanted world that the postmodern re-enchantment is aimed”. Yet, in a more critical vein, he also argues that, within the postmodern condition, humanity has been left alone with its fears and with an existential void that is “here to stay”: “postmodernity has not allayed the fears that modernity injected into humanity; postmodernity only privatized these fears”. For this reason, Bauman believes, postmodernity “had to become an age of imagined communities” (xviii-xxix). Furthermore, he deems that it is because of its extreme vulnerability that community provides the focus of postmodern concerns in attracting so much intellectual and “real-world” attention (Bauman xxix). Most notably, and relevant to the phenomenon of the media craze, as discussed in this article, Bauman defines the imagined community by way of the cogito “I am seen, therefore I exist” (xix).
Not only does Bauman’s line of thought explain the mass and media appeal of populist ideologies of postmodernity that strive to “fill the void”, like Sharon Blackie’s The Enchanted Life — Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday, or Mattie James’s acclaimed Everyday Magic: The Joy of Not Being Everything and Still Being More than Enough; it also illuminates the immense collective appeal of the #JerusalemaDanceChallenge. Here, Bauman’s thought on the power of shared experience — in this case, mass-mediated experience — is, again, of particular relevance: “having no other … anchors except the affections of their ‘members’, imagined communities exist solely through … occasional outbursts of togetherness” (xix). Among these, he lists “demonstrations, marches, festivals, riots” (xix). Indeed, the joyous shared expression of the #JerusalemaDanceChallenge videos posted online during the COVID-19 pandemic may well sort under similar festive public “outbursts”. As a ceremonial dance that tells the story of shared experiences and longings, Jerusalema may be seen as one such collective celebration. True to African dance tradition, more than being merely entertainment for the masses, each in its own way, the dance videos recount history, convey emotion, celebrate rites of passage, and help unify communities in one of the darkest periods of the recent global past.
An Intertextual Context for Reading “Jerusalema”
However, historical dimensions of the “Jerusalem trope” suggest that Jerusalema might also be understood from a more critical perspective. As Hees (92) notes, the trope of the loss of and longing for the city of Jerusalem represents a merging of mythologies through the ages, embodied in Hebrew, Roman, Christian, Muslim, and Zionist religious cultures. Still, many Jerusalem narratives refrain from referring to its historical legacy, which fuelled hostility between the West and the Muslim world still prevalent today. Thus, the historical realities of fraud, deceit, greed, betrayal, massacres, and even cannibalism are often shunned so that Jerusalem — one of the holiest yet most blood-soaked cities in the world (Hees 92, 95) — is elevated as a symbol of the Heavenly City.
In this respect, the South African crime epic Gangster Paradise: Jerusalema, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2008 and was later submitted to the Academy Awards for consideration to qualify as a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film (De Jager), stands in stark contrast to the divine connotations of Master KG’s Jerusalema. According to its director Ralph Ziman (Stecker), the film, inspired by a true story, offers a raw look into post-apartheid crime and corruption in the South African city of Johannesburg (De Villiers 8). Its storyline provides a sharp critique of the economic inequalities that torment South Africa in post-apartheid democracy, capturing the dissatisfaction and the “wave of violent crimes that resulted from the economic realities at its root” (Azuawusiefe 102).
The irony of the narrative resides in the fact that the main protagonist, Lucky Kunene, at first reluctant to resort to a life of crime, turns to car hijacking and then to hijacking derelict, over-crowded buildings in the inner-city centre of Hillbrow (Hees 90). Having become a wealthy crime boss, Johannesburg, for him, becomes symbolic of a New Jerusalem (“Jerusalem Entjha”; Azuawusiefe 103; Hees 91-92). Entangled in the criminal underbelly of the city and arrested for murder, Kunene escapes from prison, relocating to the coastal city of Durban where, again, he envisages “Jerusalem Enthjha” (which, supposedly, once more implies a life of crime). As a portrayal of inner-city life in Johannesburg, this narrative takes on particular relevance for the current state of affairs in the country. In September this year, an uncontainable fire at a derelict, overcrowded hijacked building owned by Johannesburg municipal authorities claimed the lives of 73 people — a tragic event reported on by all major TV networks worldwide.
While the events and economic actualities pictured in the film thus offer a realistic view of the adversities of current South African life, visual content in Master KG’s Jerusalema sublimates everyday South African scenes. Though the deprivation, decay, and poverty among which the majority of South Africans live is acknowledged in the video, its message of a yearning for salvation and a “better home” is foregrounded while explicit critique is shunned. This means that Jerusalema’s plea for divine deliverance is marked by an ambivalence that may weaken an understanding of the video as “pure magic”.
Fig. 2: Still from the video Jerusalema showing decrepit living conditions in the background.
“Jerusalema” as Layers of Meaning
From Bauman’s perspective, Jerusalema — both as a music video and the #JerusalemaDanceChallenge — may represent a more profound human longing for imagined communal celebration beyond mass-mediated entertainment. From such a viewpoint, it may be seen as one specific representation of the millennia-old trope of a heavenly, transcendent Jerusalem in the biblical tradition, the celestial city providing a dwelling for the divine to enter this world (Thompson 647). Nevertheless, in Patrick Curry’s terms, as a media frenzy, the song and its ensuing dance challenge may also be understood as “enchantment enslaved by magic”; that is, enchantment in the service of mass-mediated glamour (7). This implies that Jerusalema is not exempt from underlying ideologised conditions of production, or an endorsement of materialistic values. The video exhibits many of the characteristics of a prototypical music video that guarantee commercial success — a memorable song, the incorporation of noteworthy dance routines, the showcasing of a celebrated artist, striking relations between music and image, and flashy visuals, all of which are skilfully put together (compare Korsgaard). Auslander observes, for instance, that in current music video production the appearance and behaviour of artists are the basic units of communication from which genre-specific personae are constructed (100). In this regard, the setting of a video is crucial for ensuring coherence with the constructed persona (Vernallis 87). These aspects come to the fore in Master KG’s video rendition of Jerusalema. The vocalist Nomcebo Zikode is showcased in settings that serve as a favourable backdrop to the spiritual appeal of the lyrics, either by way of slightly filtered scenes of nature or scenes of worshippers or seekers of spiritual blessing. In addition, following the gospel genre type, her gestures often suggest divine adoration.
Fig. 3: Vocalist Nomcebo Zikode in a still from the video Jerusalema.
However, again some ambiguity of meaning may be noted. First, the fashionable outfits featured by the singer are in stark contrast with scenes of poverty and deprivation later in the video. The impression of affluence is strengthened by her stylish make-up and haircut and the fact that she changes into different outfits during the song. This points to a glamorisation of religious worship and an idealisation of township life that disregards South Africa’s dire economic situation, which existed even before COVID-19, due to massive corruption and state capture in which the African National Congress is fully implicated (Momoniat).
Furthermore, according to media reportage, Jerusalema’s context of production was not without controversy. Though the video worked its magic in the hearts of millions of viewers and listeners worldwide, the song’s celebration as a global hit was marred by legal battles over copyright and remuneration issues. First, it came to light that singer-songwriter Nomcebo Zikode had for a considerable period not been paid for her contribution to the production following Jerusalema’s commercial release in 2019 (Modise). Therefore, she resorted to a legal dispute. Also, it was alleged that Master KG was not the original owner of the music and was not even present when the song was created. Thus, the South African artists Charmza The DJ (Presley Ledwaba) and Biblos (Ntimela Chauke), who claimed to be the original creators of the track, also instituted legal action against Kgaogelo Moagi, his record label Open Mic Productions, and distributor Africori SA whose majority shareholder is the Warner Music Group (Madibogo).
The Magic of the Dance
Despite these moral and material ambiguities, Jerusalema’s influence as a global cultural phenomenon during the era of COVID spoke to a more profound yearning for the human condition, one that was not necessarily based on religious conviction (Shoki). Perhaps this was vested foremost in the simplicity and authenticity that transpired from the original dance challenge video and its countless pursuals posted online at the time. These prohibit reading the Jerusalema phenomenon as pseudo-enchantment driven only by a profit motive. As a wholly unforeseen, unifying force of hope and joy, the dance challenge sparked a global trend that fostered optimism among millions.
Fig. 4: The Angolan dance troupe Fenómenos do Semba. (Still from the original #JerusalemaDanceChallenge video.)
As stated earlier, Jerusalema did not originate from political activism. Yet, Professor of English literature Ananya Kabir uncovers a layer of meaning associated with the dance challenge, which she calls “alegropolitics” or a “politics of joy” — the joy of the dance — that she links on the one hand with the Jerusalem trope and its history of trauma and dehumanisation, and, on the other, with Afro-Atlantic expressive culture as associated with enslavement, colonialism, and commodification. In her reading of the countless videos posted, their “gift to the world” is “the secret of moving collectively”. By way of individual responses to “poly-rhythmic Africanist aesthetic principles … held together by a master-structure”, Kabir interprets this communal dance as “resistance, incorporating kinetic and rhythmic principles that circulated initially around the Atlantic rim (including the Americas, Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa)”. For her, the #JerusalemaDanceChallenge is “an example of how dance enables convivencia (living together)”; “it is a line dance (animation in French, animação in Portuguese, animación in Spanish) that enlivens parties through simple choreography that makes people dance together”. In this sense, the routine’s syncopated steps allow more and more people to join as each repetition unfolds — indeed, a celebratory example of Bauman’s imagined community that exists through an “outburst of togetherness” (xix). Such a collective “fest” demonstrates how, in dance leader Maiza’s words, “it is possible to be happy with little: we party with very little” (Kabir).
Accordingly, as part of a globally mediated community, with just the resources of the body (Kabir), the locked-down world partied, too, for the duration of the magical song. Whether seen as a representation of the millennia-old trope of a heavenly, transcendent Jerusalem, or, in Curry’s understanding, as enchantment in the service of mass-mediated glamour, Jerusalema and its ensuing dance challenge form an undeniable part of recent global history involving the COVID-19 pandemic. As a media frenzy, it contributed to the existing body of “Jerusalem songs”, and lifted global spirits clouded by the pandemic and its emotional and material losses. Likewise, the #JerusalemaDanceChallenge was symbolic of an imagined global community engaging in “the joy of the dance” during one of the most challenging periods in humanity’s recent past.
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