Vusi Mahlasela was 11 years old when South African police responded with violence to a peaceful march in Soweto by students who were protesting the use of the Afrikaans language in local schools.
The uprising in 1976 spread across the country, and Mahlasela never forgot it.
“That’s when I started to be politically aware,” he said. “I started joining the movement.”
Known for his singing, songwriting and activism, Mahlasela will join American two-time Grammy Award winner and blues legend Taj Mahal and his trio for a concert on Friday, Nov. 15, at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts.
Joining them will be Taj Mahal’s daughter, Deva Mahal, part of Fredericks Brown, a trio with New Zealand roots.
The troupe of family and friends is on its World Blues tour, celebrating the global influence of American blues. The tour started in California in early October and ends in Connecticut in mid-November.
The concert is part of the university’s Global View series, which showcases artists and ensembles from around the world.
Taj Mahal, who has incorporated influences from around the world in his music, met Mahlasela at a benefit concert for Nelson Mandela’s 46664, an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign. He produced Mahlasela’s 2010 album “Say Africa.”
“He really let me do what I wanted to do,” said Mahlasela, whose songs are about Africa and sharing, community, interconnectedness, respect and human kindness, values embodied in the African humanist philosophy of ubuntu.
Mahlasela also has collaborated with other musicians, including Paul Simon, Sting and band leader Dave Matthews, who also was born in South Africa. Mahlasela’s CDs are released through ATO Records, which is partly owned by Matthews.
Born in 1965 in Mamelodi township just outside of Pretoria, where he still lives, Mahlasela was drawn to music early, building his first guitar out of tin and fishing line.
Because of apartheid, black South African music was hard to find, but he and his friends were able to listen to recordings by Miriam Makeba and Fela Kuti, the Nigerian pioneer of Afrobeat. They also listened to music on the radio by Motown singers, James Brown and the Commodores.
Mahlasela formed a band with friends, became involved in the freedom movement and often was harassed by police.
“It was not legal to be doing this, and they were looking for us,” he said.
After Soweto he also joined a poetry group, The Ancestors of Africa, and the Congress of South African Writers, a group that included Nobel Prize-winning novelist Nadine Gordimer.
Known as “The Voice,” Mahlasela continued to write and perform, and in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected president in the country’s first free elections, he performed his song “When You Come Back” at the inauguration.
In the song Mahlasela sings to friends and political exiles that “we will ring the bells and beat the drums when you come back.” He also performed the song at the World Cup soccer finals in Soweto in 2010.
Also well known is his song “Say Africa,” about his happiness at coming home after touring for a long time on the road: “I may be working in the streets of [foreign city] but the dust on my boots and rhythm of my feet and my heart say Africa.”
Mahlasela said it’s been nearly two decades since the end of apartheid, and the feeling of freedom in South Africa is “really great. But he also said it takes constant vigilance and work to preserve it.
“Democracy is very fragile; it needs to be protected all the time,” he said.
“The youth are the most important people today,” he said. “It’s important for them to understand what people fought for and died for.”