Rathebe radiated American-style glamour and homegrown sophistication against apartheid’s dehumanizing backdrop, her elegance and dignity a potent symbol of protest. Born in 1928, in Johannesburg, she had her first big break in one of the leading roles in South Africa’s first full-length feature film, Jim Comes To Jo’burg(1948), where she got to perform as a nightclub singer. Thanks to this, she was selected to appear on the cover of the influential South African music magazine, Drum, but was arrested, along with the photographer, at the photo shoot, for being in violation of the Immorality Act, which forbade interracial relationships. Though the charges were later dropped, the experience underscored just how risky the simple act of pursuing a career as a jazz singer could be under the apartheid regime.
But by the ’60s, Rathebe was a bona fide star, a played with a number of jazz bands throughout the decade. In 1964 she made her greatest musical mark yet, when she joined the great Elite Swingsters, a staple of the township jazz scene since 1958.
In the early ’70s things got too hot for artists in South Africa, and Rathebe left her musical career to run a shebeen in Cape Town. She didn't return until 1989 when the Elite Swingsters reunited to perform in the documentary Sophiatown. The reunion proved so successful that the group stayed together and began releasing new material (Woza in 1991, Now Or Never in 1994, Siya Gida—We Dance in 2000, and Call For Peace in 2001).
Rathebe enjoyed a renaissance as the grande dame of South African jazz, and in 2001, she received a long-overdue Lifetime Achievement Award at the South African Music Awards. When Rathebe died of a stroke on September 16, 2004, she was mourned as one of South Africa’s great musical pioneers: remembered for her big voice, outsized personality and inspiring courage.
The Definitive Collection: The Grand Dame Of African Music (Wrasse)
A Call For Peace (Indigo)