There is no single way for one to put into words the fountain of emotion felt by the University Currently Known as Rhodes during the #RUReferenceList protests against rape and sexual violence. However, the Rhodes Chamber Choir managed to encapsulate this through song and poetry.
I went to their first performance, titled ‘Light from Darkness’, and absolutely bawled my eyes out when they performed their adaptation of the struggle song ‘Senzenina’. The room was stunned into silence. This was conductor AJ Bethke’s aim – creating a space where these very specific feelings could be felt and expressed however people were comfortable with. A safe space was created, even if it were only for a single evening.
With purple bands wrapped around each performer’s arm in solidarity with survivors, the chamber choir conveyed the hurt and sorrow felt and experienced by the community with a multitude of carefully-selected songs. The evening was made more diverse with performances by various poets, their words echoing the common emotions associated with the theme of the night.
We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to see the choir and poets perform a second time with ‘Light from Darkness V.2.0’, and my time to share this experience arrived.
“We felt that to ignore these important issues when they were very much part of our community here would be a mistake. So we needed to create a space here in the university that was more of a healing space than a confrontational space, and music offers that,” conductor AJ Bethke explained when asked about his motive to put on a performance such as this. The audience and choir members alike were afforded a space “where feelings could be felt, acknowledged, and just allowed to be”.
Whilst the people who chose to attend the performance were able to confront their thoughts and feelings about this issue through musical means, choir members were also able to embark on a journey of healing alongside each other. This performance and process towards it enabled members “to let out the feelings and the angst that was there, but also lift people up afterwards and not leave them withering in the darkness”, AJ said.
As well as contributing to a process of healing, the choir’s performance was aimed at raising awareness constructively. AJ explained that “I think any confrontational violence in any way is not going to help. I prefer to see something constructive through poetry, through music, through dance, through listening as a process of non-violent reaction.”
Megan van der Nest, also a member of the choir, worked alongside AJ in constructing the evening and the pieces that were performed to reflect accurately the choir’s stance by selecting lyrics and pieces of poetry to contribute to this narrative:
There was a suggestion by a member of the choir to have the struggle piece ‘Senzenina’ alongside ‘Ukuthula’, which means ‘peace’, because a few members of the choir are actually survivors of sexual violence, and some of the pieces came from their experiences, some of them were suggested by members of the choir, so it wasn’t only survivors speaking but there were survivors in the group. So we were trying to create a space where they could feel safe as well.
On the night where the protests at Rhodes reached their peak, Megan explained that she was a part of a choir that was “on the verge of falling apart”. With so many conflicting opinions about the role of the choir and how visible it should be during such a tumultuous time, they decided to take action. This led to the creation of a workshop that was geared towards the final product of their ‘Light from Darkness’ performances. Megan said that:
There were a lot of dissenting opinions, people who felt that the choir should have been more visible in the protests themselves, and they personally couldn’t do that for their own reasons, that being in the protests would have been too upsetting for them, and others that felt that violence and intimidation wasn’t the way to go. So there was a lot of tension. And I give AJ full credit for diffusing that tension. We managed to create a safe space where we could all be heard instead of tearing each other down.
Not only did the chamber choir achieve full awareness of what music can do when integrated with these protests, they managed to create a sense of strength amongst one another as they grew through this process. Megan explained that “Going to the protests with people screaming and shouting can be traumatic in and of itself. But being in a very healing space, having a discussion with AJ leading us, we were feeling much closer to one another … There was so much hurt and anger and we managed to come through that much stronger as a result. The value of that cannot be underestimated.”
Words of poetry in ‘Senzenina/Ukuthula’
To view their performance of their adaptation of ‘Senzenina/Ukuthula’, click on the YouTube link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6IPKhsk8fo (please note that I did not have a tripod so my recording is not as good as it should be, but I hope it still does the performance justice and moves you as much as it moved me.)
Photos and words by Gabi Bellairs-Lombard