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21 ICONS: Hugh Masekela



Trumpeter, singer, composer, and two-time Grammy award nominee, Hugh Masekela is the first of three musicians to be featured in filmmaker/photographer Adrian Steirn’s project 21 ICONS South Africa.


Shot in a public park near Masekela’s home in Bryanston, Johannesburg, his portrait plays on the title of his smash hit “Grazing in the Grass”. Steirn wanted to shoot it outside but simultaneously create a shot-in-studio feel, combining the natural and the artificial, and says, “It’s a self-fulfilling portrait: one of the greatest jazz musicians on our planet standing in African grass. It tells the story of the hit that put him on the map.”


Masekela left South Africa shortly after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 to pursue music studies in the UK and at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, US. He received enormous assistance from another South African musical icon, the late Miriam Makeba, who was already living in the US and introduced the 21-year-old musician to international stars such as Harry Belafonte, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.


By the time he was ready to return to South Africa four years later to teach others what he had learnt, Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists had been incarcerated, the country had become a brutal police state and for Masekela it had become “impenetrable”, as he writes in his biography, “Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela”.


Masekela ended up staying in New York for another 26 years and would only return to South Africa after Mandela’s release in the early Nineties. In this short film, Masekela describes his fear of losing his ability to speak South African languages and says, “I used to have a place in Central Park where I would go to talk to my imaginary friends. I was terrified that I was going to lose my language. So I would go there and I would start to speak in Sotho first, and I would change from that to Zulu and then to Xhosa and then I would go into tsotsi Afrikaans.”


Steirn’s portrait of Masekela, signed by the musician, will be auctioned at the end of the series and the money donated to charity.


Over 21 weeks black and white portraits of 21 South African heroes will be shared as collectable posters in the Sunday Times newspaper, and the accompanying short films will air on SABC3 at 6.57pm, just before the 7pm news. Fans can follow the series online through the digital campaign launched by Quirk Joburg on Facebook, on Twitter or at, where you can find icon profiles and behind the scenes images uploaded weekly. Or you can catch up here every Monday.


21 ICONS South Africa is proudly sponsored by Mercedes-Benz South Africa, Nikon, Deloitte, The Sunday Times, SABC3 and the Department of Arts and Culture. Additional credits go to content-creation company Ginkgo Agency.









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