Compromised Solidarity: Joy Simpson Breaks the Cultural Boycott of Apartheid South Africa

Wednesday 4 March 2020, 4.00PM to 5.30pm

Speaker(s): Juliana Pistorius

When African-American soprano Joy Simpson collapsed on-stage at Cape Town City Hall during the final notes of ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’, her audience thought it was part of the performance. It was 1987, and Simpson had defied the United Nations’ cultural boycott against apartheid South Africa to undertake a concert tour meant to ‘bring hope to the oppressed’. Despite condemnation from the international anti-apartheid movement, Simpson accepted special privileges from the apartheid government in order to appear before racially segregated audiences. Three days after her collapse, she was dead.

As an African-American woman bringing opera to a largely white public, Simpson’s arrival on and departure from the South African operatic stage signified an ambivalent musical and political reality. Though her voice challenged prevailing stereotypes about the confluence between culture and race, her presence alone implied endorsement of an abhorrent regime. In the face of increasingly urgent debates (Morgan 2012; Duncan 2017) regarding the moral and political pertinence of cultural boycotts, and building on work by Hilde Roos (2018) and Naomi André (2018), this paper offers a critical account of the gendered discourses of transgression, collusion, and demise inscribed into the relationship between Western art music and political protest. Drawing on Leela Gandhi’s (2017) concept of ‘minor globalism’, I argue for a discourse of international artistic exchange that accommodates individual transgressions of the universalising standards by which political agency are measured.

Dr Juliana M. Pistorius is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the University of Huddersfield, and Research Fellow at Africa Open Institute, Stellenbosch University, South Africa. She received her doctorate from the University of Oxford in 2018. Her research centres around opera in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa, and incorporates interests in voice, race, coloniality, and political resistance. She is currently developing a monograph on the operatic projects of visual artist William Kentridge.

Location: D003, Sally Baldwin D Block, Campus West