Nomcebo Zikode – the voice behind the South African smash hit Jerusalema – admits that she was in a dark emotional space when she came up with the Zulu lyrics for her and Master KG’s single that has blown up internationally. “Master KG played the beat three or four times, and the words that came to me were ‘Jerusalema, ikhaya lami’ [Jerusalem is my home],” says the 32-year-old songstress who has now released her own full-length album titled ‘Xola Moya Wam’
Zikode says that at the time, she wanted God to take her to her own Jerusalem – a place where she could find the peace and contentment that she desperately needed. Zikode may not have travelled to Jerusalem, but her Zulu words and Master KG’s infectious beat ended up on the streets of the Middle East city recently, as Jerusalema reaches almost every corner of the globe.
Jerusalem music collective, JAW (meaning “mood” or “atmosphere” in Arabic) uploaded a Palestinian version of the #JerusalemaDanceChallenge in mid- August. The 3-minute video was filmed in the Babal-Majlies neighbourhood of East Jerusalem with the participation of the small Afro-Palestinian community there whose roots go back to Nigeria, Chad, Senegal and Sudan. Local dancers created their own version of the Jerusalema dance, adding elements of the dabkeh – the traditional Palestinian dance.
With over 100 million views on YouTube, Jerusalema’s creative dance beat spawned a catchy dance routine. The #JerusalemaDanceChallenge was born and the song trended on social media with videos coming from Angola, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Cape Verde and across North America and Europe.
But it is Zikode’s words that have moved Palestinians. The words of the song are essentially a plea to God to find a place where one can find peace. Zikode says that it’s about wanting protection, guidance and happiness.
Jerusalema ikhaya lami (Jerusalem is my home)
Ngilondoloze (Guard me)
Uhambe name (Walk with me)
Zungangishiyi lana (Do not leave me here)
Jerusalema ikhaya lami (Jerusalem is my home)
Ndawo yami ayikho lana (My place is not here)
Mbuso wami awukho lana (My kingdom is not here)
“But it’s like it was written by a Palestinian,” says Jaw spokesperson, Samer Hussam Abu-Esheh. The young Palestinian musician says that Zikode’s simple words describe the painful longing of thousands of Palestinians to return to their homes, families and peace in Jerusalem and throughout Palestine. “Jerusalema ikhaya lami,” Abu-Esheh says slowly and deliberately over the phone in heavily Arabic-accented Zulu.
Jerusalema has often been described as a global anthem, but the opening lines of the song are a deeply personal rallying call for displaced Palestinians, says Abu-Esheh. While many may consider Jerusalema a fun distraction from the Covid-19 pandemic, the song’s global reach has had a deeper impact.
Although the word Jerusalem roughly translates to “city of peace”, the city has a long, turbulent and violent history – having been conquered many times. In 1948, Israel divided Jerusalem into Israeli West Jerusalem and Palestinian East Jerusalem. In 1967, Israel occupied East Jerusalem, and since then has moved in hundreds of thousands of Israelis illegally into the area. As a result, thousands of Palestinians have had their homes demolished and have been pushed out of the city. They long to return to Jerusalem, while thousands of other Palestinians long to visit religious sites in Jerusalem.
Nomcebo Zikode is ecstatic that her words have resonated so strongly with Palestinians. “I understand why they feel so touched by the song after what happened. They’ve got the meaning and it’s on point.”
The Palestinian video also ended with a powerful message that touched on the deeper issues affecting young people in Palestine and South Africa:
“From Jerusalem to South Africa with love. This dance by the youth of Jerusalem is dedicated to our friends in South Africa. As our leaders before us, let us unite with renewed energy towards collective liberation. From Palestine to South Africa, Amandla Awethu, the future is ours.”
That message caught the attention of South African choreographer and dancer, Sosha Khumalo. Using Jerusalema as the sound-track, the young dancers of Love World Production – wearing the traditional Palestinian keffiyeh scarf on their arms along with the Zulu isicoco head-ring and the amabeshu waist-covering – infused traditional South African Zulu umshado dance moves with the Jerusalema dance.
Their short video was shot in Durban on the rooftop of the notorious KK Hostel – the largest male migrant labour hostel in the Southern hemisphere. South Africa’s apartheid regime used the hostel system as a tool of control and repression. “We chose this place because it reminds us of our past, which is so similar to the Palestinians’ present moment,” explains Khumalo. “Today, this place is a sign of hope. If we could fight our oppression, then Palestinians can also achieve their freedom.”
Abu-Esheh is eager for Nomcebo and Master KG to visit the occupied city once it is safe to travel, and he and other young Palestinian artists are keen to collaborate with the duo. Jerusalem also holds a special place in Zikode’s heart and faith, and hopes to one day visit the sacred city. “Insha Allah [God-Willing],” Zikhode repeats after me in Zulu-inflected Arabic.
“It’s an incredible mash up of cultures and languages,” said Nigerian Afrobeats star, Burna Boy, who remixed the track with Zikode and Master KG.
Suraya Dadoo is a writer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. An earlier version of this article first appeared in City Press newspaper in South Africa.