When I was 10 years old, my mother took me to African dance camp in upstate New York. Yes, my mother was a hippie. And still is. Proudly. When we got to the “camp,” every person was given a “camp” t-shirt that we would dance in. It was 1988. And on the back of every shirt, big bold words were printed that read, “Stop Apartheid.” I couldn’t pronounce the word. I was 10. I had no idea of what it meant. When I asked my mother the meaning, she said “wear that shirt with pride.” And I did. Almost every day. I wore it to school, even though other kids would tease me for wearing an “African” shirt. I wore it until the stains changed the color of the fabric. I was convinced that we would stop Apartheid…whatever that meant.
As a child, I remember hearing the rhythms of Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Ladysmith Black Mambazo scratch off the surface of my parent’s record player. I remember my mom and dad taking me to my first Broadway play and hearing the liberation music of South Africa sung by young freedom fighters in Sarafina. I remember Paul Simon’s Graceland. I remember Nelson Mandela coming home after 27 years in prison. I remember thinking that I was going to go to South Africa one day, and that when I got there I would be welcomed by Nelson Mandela himself. But, I also remember being a white kid and being teased for believing that black people were equal. Being made fun of because I listened to hip-hop before it was cool to listen to hip-hop. Being called names because during my senior year in high school only including a Nelson Mandela quote for my yearbook write-up. I was a white kid growing up in a confused country, and I thought Nelson Mandela would make it all better.
It was October 23, 1995. I was 17. My senior year in high school. Nelson Mandela was in New York City and I heard he was going to attend the premiere of Cry, My Beloved Country at the Ziegfeld Theater. I got to the theater before the red carpet was even laid down for the celebrities to arrive. I just wanted to see the man. I dreamt of maybe shaking his hand, but a glimpse of Mandela was good enough for me. I waited. I waited. And I waited. I was pushed to the side by the police. I was asked for my press credentials, which of course I didn’t have. I was told to go across the street. But, I wouldn’t move. I was determined. I wanted to meet my hero. The man, who in my head, would bring our world together. So, I stood my ground. And after six hours, the President of the new South Africa exited his limousine, wearing sunglasses! The man was wearing sunglasses at nighttime. So damn hip-hop, even before hip-hop wore sunglasses at nighttime. And I watched him walk in front of me. I snapped pictures on the camera I borrowed from my mother. No flash, so the pics came our horrible. But, the images are engrained in my mind, so no photos needed for memory. He looked at me and smiled as I yelled and screamed “Amandla”! Nelson Mandela smiled at me?!?!?!?! Rockin’ sunglasses at nighttime, so damn hip-hop. And I was in heaven.
And now Madiba is in heaven. Hanging with Martin, Malcolm, Mahatma, Mother Theresa, Rosa, Fannie Lou, Biko and Trayvon. Smiling down upon this earth as we celebrate an extraordinary life lived. A life that defined the meaning of compassion for the rest of us. A life that taught us about reconciliation. A life that challenged the notion that black people and white people could not live peacefully on this earth. Nelson Mandela, inspired me before I could understand what inspiration was. He presented a world that I thought that only kids who listened to hip-hop envisioned. A multi-racial, singular cultural planet that aspires for co-existence between all people, regardless of race, class, creed or color.
I traveled to South Africa for the first time in 1999. Mandela was still President. I have been back 10 times since. I have studied Zulu…I have made movies in Southern Africa. My nine month old son has a statue of Nelson Mandela in his room. His first song he danced to with his father was from the Sarafina soundtrack. He loves South African music just like his daddy. I am smiling from ear-to-ear knowing that I was able to share the triumphs of Nelson Mandela with my son, Mateo Ali, while he was still alive. He will certainly be raised under the Mandela teachings. I kiss him goodnight as he lays to sleep, and we kiss you goodnight as you finally found freedom…
I am who I am, because of Nelson Mandela. We are who we are, because of this angel that walked this earth for 95 years. But, in his death, I will not only mourn our loss, but I will certainly celebrate his greatness. I will celebrate the teachings. I will celebrate the challenges. And I will keep pushing on towards a more compassionate, a more generous and a more tolerant world. Cause that is what he showed us while he was alive. The blueprint. A real blueprint to a world that works. A world that doesn’t cry when angels die, cause he gave us the blueprint on how to fly. Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, Madiba. Thank you, Nelson Mandela. Siyabonga kakhulu baba wethu.