STEVE INSKEEP, host:
All this week on MORNING EDITION, we've been showcasing emerging cultural voices from Africa, and today we go to South Africa. Lebo Mashile is a poet, performer and writer there, and she is a leading voice of the born-frees - the young generation of post-apartheid South Africa. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has this profile.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: At the Horror Cafe in downtown Johannesburg, the emcee introduces the next act.
Unidentified Man: And most of you have seen her grow to become one of the most outstanding poets we have in this country. Ladies and gentlemen, I am very proud to introduce Lebo Mashile. Give it up.
Ms. LEBO MASHILE (Poet): In ancient hands, you'll find the sweat that fuels the light in every home. The tears that bless the heartache in every story and every poem. I hold a pen for every ancient who built her home not out of bricks, but beat her fury into building blocks and made the mortar out of licks.
QUIST-ARCTON: Lebo Mashile, poet and performer, recites "The Ancient Ones," a poem that pays tribute to strong South African women. Thirty-year-old Mashile was born in Providence, Rhode Island, where her parents were living in exile from apartheid. She moved to South Africa 14 years ago.
Ms. MASHILE: This is the country where I discovered my voice as an artist. This is the country where I think I discovered my true identity, where I really discovered my place in the world.
QUIST-ARCTON: Mashile says growing up in the U.S. was good training.
Ms. MASHILE: I feel like America, in many ways, was preparation for living in South Africa. You know, it helped me to understand my identity as a black person globally. And I think for the first time in my life, I felt passion, and for the first time in my life I felt a sense of purpose. I stood on stage the first time, and I knew that I was at home, you know. And I've been standing on stages ever since.
QUIST-ARCTON: She describes what it was like moving from America to South Africa, which had just attained freedom from white minority rule.
Ms. MASHILE: I didn't understand at the time, but the transition that I was making was a transition that millions of children, you know, in this country had to make. I belonged to a generation that has had to encounter, I think, many firsts, you know. My generation in South Africa is one of the first generations to go to white schools, you know - or some of us, you know.
QUIST-ARCTON: Lebo Mashile says she appreciates guidance from those who fought so that the youth could be born free.
Ms. MASHILE: We are the first generation that's really eating, enjoying, you know, and also kind of fighting with - grappling with the fruits of freedom. Being a born-free means that I experience the legacies of apartheid, you know. But it also means that I have access to opportunities. I have access to freedoms and privileges that my parents, that my grandparents, that, you know, generations of my family never, ever, ever experienced, you know.
QUIST-ARCTON: A reality reflected in Lebo Mashile's poetry, published in two volumes to date: the award-winning "In a Rhythm of Ribbon," and last year, "Flying Above the Sky."
Ms. MASHILE: The ancient ones plait their stories into the futures of their children. The ancient ones, they use their hands to heal the backs of broken men, and I hold a pen for every ancient who dared not hold a fist against the tyranny that sucked the life and hope out of her breath.
QUIST-ARCTON: Thelma Machogo is a cultural commentator and patron of the arts. She says Mashile's poetry speaks volumes about the powerful voice of young South Africans.
Ms. THELMA MACHOGO (Cultural Commentator): The power of what she conveys is in the performance. She's an amazing performer and very compelling with the way that she constructs her words, and the message as well. She's an amazing social commentator, and she has an amazing eye into interpreting what happens, and a very brave, intended way of saying it as well, in a way that maybe some people wouldn't even dare say it.
QUIST-ARCTON: Mashile's poems draw from South Africa's past, but she considers herself a modern, young, woman writer.
Ms. MASHILE: We are fortunate because we are living in an era - we're coming of age and we're expressing ourselves professionally, politically, artistically, in an era where there's a political agenda to empower people like us.
QUIST-ARCTON: And that's a view shared by some of her contemporaries.
Mr. MPHO SLENDA LAKAJE:: My name is Mpho Slenda Lakaje. I was born in a black township called Soweto. My thoughts about Lebo are that she is a genius. She is brilliant. I love the way she recites her poetry. She's basically saying, well, as young South Africans, we have to believe in ourselves because at the end of the day, we've got these opportunities that have been brought by democracy. We have arrived. This is our time. And also, she is saying that, you know, we have to live our lives in such a way that it's not apologetic. We are the generation that's going to lead this country, for sure.
QUIST-ARCTON: Yet, Lebo Mashile questions whether all young South Africans appreciate the legacy given to them.
Ms. MASHILE: My generation is incredibly materialistic. And we as black people, you know, as young people, as young women, especially, young black women, we part with our money faster than anybody else. And I think we've got a lot of points to prove. We've been denied so much historically, so everybody wants to show, you know, what they've got. You need the nice house. You need the sexy car. You need the flashy clothes. You need all these things to feel good about yourself - which is a lot of bullocks, really, you know. I think in many ways, we use materialism to fill the void in our heart.
QUIST-ARCTON: Back at the Horror Cafe, Mashile performs again.
Ms. MASHILE: This poem is about the relationship between the artist and the audience. (Singing) You and I…
(Soundbite of cheers)
Ms. MASHILE: (Singing) …are the keepers of dreams, mold them into light beams, weave them into life's seams. You and I know life isn't what it really seems. We strip the fat from the lean and find the facts in between.
QUIST ARCTON: Lebo Mashile has experimented with her poetry, setting it to dance and to music. She says she's always trying out new creative forms.
Ms. MASHILE: And that makes it a wonderful environment to be a writer. I think the beautiful thing about being a poet in this country and on this continent is that poetry is a living force in Africa, you know, and in South Africa, which makes it possible for me to occupy space in the mainstream media, you know. I think that's only possible because I exist at this particular moment on this particular continent, right now in South Africa.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. MASHILE: This morning rolls in with rain shadows and a cool voice crispy, shaking the last of winter's world winds to a standstill. There will be no pain his morning.
QUIST-ARCTON: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Johannesburg.
Ms. MASHILE: It has been sucked into the sky from the other side of forever, where the ghosts of our former selves will bind their dreams from its sinew. Their cares keep our dreams…
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
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