#JerusalemaDanceChallenge – South Africa’s display of soft power amid COVID-19, Daily Maverick, by Bobby J Moroe, 22 September 2020
The song Jerusalema and its dance challenge are South Africa’s gift to the world. They are also textbook examples of diplomatic ‘soft power’ at a time when the world desperately needs hope.
In his address to the nation on 16 September 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa urged everyone to use Heritage Day on 24 September as family time, “to reflect on the difficult journey we have all travelled, to remember those who have lost their lives, and to quietly rejoice in the remarkable and diverse heritage of our nation”.
But what was more profound in his closing remarks was a unifying appeal for the country to participate in the #JerusalemaChallenge on Heritage Day. Through #JerusalemaChallenge, the president was affirming and asserting South Africa’s “soft power”.
According to the African Union, Jerusalema has become “a song that has transcended its national boundaries and the continent, and has people across the world dancing to its vibrant rhythm. So vibrant it has inspired a dance challenge that has taken social media by storm.”
Jerusalema is the creation of South African DJ and record producer Kgaogelo Moagi, known professionally as Master KG, and features South African vocalist Nomcebo Zikode.
The gospel-inspired song, with a twist of House influence, gained popularity immediately after its release in the second half of 2019. It is hailed by many as a song that signifies victory and liberation in the soul of humanity… so deep that its lyrics can get anyone down on their knees to join in and sing along: “Jerusalem is my home, Guide me, Take me with You, Do not leave me here, Jerusalem is my home, Guide me, Take me with you, Do not leave me here.”
This musical masterpiece was followed by the release of a video in December 2019, at the very early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the full album was launched on streaming services after it went viral in mid-2020. This led to the establishment of one of the most popular global hashtags by far: #JerusalemaDanceChallenge.
According to the musical genius Master KG, the dance challenge itself was conceived in Angola when a group of friends recorded a video of the choreography that has since gone viral. But it was its remix featuring Nigerian singer Burna Boy that ushered Jerusalema on to the US Billboard charts. The song topped the UK Afrobeats singles chart on 15 August 2020, and subsequently held the #1 position for two weeks.
These great achievements unambiguously positioned Jerusalema as a force to be reckoned with, and an undisputed conduit for South Africa’s display of “soft power”.
The Digital Diplomacy Hub attributes the concept of soft power to Joseph Nye, an American political scientist who sets out three primary sources of soft power: political values, culture and foreign policy. According to Nye, “soft power shuns the traditional foreign policy tools of carrot and stick, seeking instead to achieve influence by building networks, communicating compelling narratives, establishing international rules and drawing on the resources that make a country naturally attractive to the world. But within these three categories, the individual sources of soft power are manifold and varied.”
In “Soft power: The origins and political progress of a concept”, Nye explains that he coined the term ‘soft power’ in his 1990 book, “Bound to Lead”, which challenged the then conventional view of the decline of American power. In essence, Nye holds the view that soft power is the ability to obtain preferred outcomes by attraction rather than coercion or payment.
This is precisely what Jerusalema has achieved as the world battles with the effects of Covid-19. It has been extremely successful in attracting attention throughout the world and the pride attached to it lies in its origins – South Africa.
This home-grown song remains a powerful tool for the promotion of “cultural diplomacy” between South Africa and other nations of the world.
Despite a recorded Spanish cover version of the song by Chilean artist Matias Javier, the Jerusalema remix by Buna Boy is a further illustration of the depth and influence of cultural diplomacy in the creation of cohesion between South Africa and Nigeria.
The song became a microscope through which humanity could witness the celebration of triumph over adversity. One would be forgiven for equating this song to the proverbial phrase, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”, which is often used to encourage positive energy and outlook during arduous times.
At a time when global morale is at a low point, the beats and tunes of Jerusalema infused people with a much-needed sense of optimism and hope.
Despite its isiZulu lyrics, reports have it that “from hospital hallways in France and Sweden, to rooftops in Pretoria, public places in Italy, Romania, the UK and Canada, the beaches of Cape Verde, streets of Abuja and Lagos, markets in Lubumbashi, favelas in São Paulo, apartments in Mexico City and Munich, in Jamaican compounds, somewhere in Tanzania, on Facebook, Twitter and TikTok… the #JerusalemaDanceChallenge has hundreds posting videos of themselves or others dancing to the song”.
As South Africa celebrates Heritage Month in September, many more people around the world will continue to share these videos and get down to the #JerusalemaDanceChallenge.
The world has witnessed friends and foes alike gathering together in laughter and joy to choreograph for the infectious beat of Jerusalema – South Africa’s gift to humanity.
In the context of cultural ties between South Africa and Nigeria, Master KG and Buna Boy, through Jerusalema, have created a means by which the two countries can harness the energies and synergies between South African and Nigerian artists.
During the pre-democratic era in South Africa, Nigeria used its soft power against the apartheid government and became one of the foremost supporters of the progressive movements, including the ANC. As a result of this history, cultural relations between the two countries are strong and vibrant.
For the first time in the history of South Africa’s democracy, the country’s Heritage Month – under the theme “Celebrating South Africa’s living human treasures” – is being celebrated virtually due to the devastating effects of the pandemic.
It is through Jerusalema that our nation’s cultures can be shared with the world. This is the song we shall use to celebrate and embrace our diversity and heritage; a song to celebrate humanity’s triumph during months of hardships.
The soft power that Jerusalema has become will once again unite the world on 24 September. Our country is about friendship, not competition. Our people seek to build bridges, not destroy them. What we want for ourselves as a country is what we want for other nations.
Our desire is to create a better South Africa and to contribute to a better and safer Africa in a better world. DM