chapter  9
22 Pages

Stars of Song and Cinema: The Impact of Film on 1950s Johannesburg’s Black Music Scene


In Dolly and the Inkspots, a documentary about the performing careers of Dolly Rathebe and the African Inkspots, Rathebe tells the camera: “Music is my entire life. Music made me to survive the problems, the struggle of apartheid. Without music, I don’t think many of us would be where we are today.”1 Upon fi rst hearing this remark, a reader may think this seems understandable, as she is widely remembered as South Africa’s dominant female singer for the 1950s as well as one of its most recognized performers of all time. Upon further consideration, however, Rathebe’s statement seems to diminish the role of local cinema in the blossoming of music and nightlife within 1950’s Johannesburg. In particular, she undermines cinema’s impact on her own career, as she appeared in two fi lms (starting with her cinematic debut in 1949’s Jim Comes to Jo’burg) and these appearances aided in launching her career as a professional singer. Unfortunately, both popular and scholarly histories regularly underplay this impact by this era’s local cinema due the African fi lm industry’s brevity (essentially three years) and poor quality of its products. Gwen Ansell’s Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music and Politics in South Africa describes the decade’s fi lms as “an effective showcase for many young musicians,” but does little to demonstrate how they actually showcased such performers.2 David Coplan’s In Township Tonight!: South Africa’s Black City an Theatre goes further than Ansell’s analysis regarding fi lm’s impact on local music, but it stops short of fully exploring the ways in which local cinema shaped black music and society in Johannesburg throughout the 1950s.