Artists Of The Year CMU Approved

CMU Artists Of The Year 2013: Dear Reader

By | Published on Tuesday 10 December 2013

Dear Reader

Each weekday in the run up to the Christmas break, we will reveal another of our ten favourite artists of the year. To see each artist as they’re revealed, sign up to receive the CMU Daily or check this page. Today’s artist is Dear Reader…

In 2010, Dear Reader’s Cherilyn MacNeil left her native South Africa and moved to Germany, where she recorded her last album ‘Idealistic Animals’. In some ways her third LP, ‘Rivonia’, released this year, is a continuation of that record, which deconstructed her breaking away from a religious upbringing in Johannesburg.

MacNeil has said in the past that moving to Berlin was something of a culture shock after a relatively sheltered background. But her latest album shows that it wasn’t just her new locale that was previously undiscovered. As she got to grips with Berlin, she found new friends wanting to know more about where she had come from. Unable to answer a lot of their questions, she realised how many holes there were in her knowledge of her own country’s history. So she began reading up on it, starting with the area where she had grown up.

Now an affluent suburb of Johannesburg, Rivonia was once a rural village, home to the Lillesleaf farm, which for two years in the early 1960s was used as a secret meeting place for Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. With Mandela already arrested, on 11 Jul 1963 armed police raided the farm and arrested a further nineteen members of the ANC. The authorities had been tipped off by the son of the caravan park opposite, who had noticed black and white people mixing at the property – something unusual enough to be remarked upon in apartheid era South Africa, of course.

This incredibly significant event in apartheid’s history took place around the corner from where MacNeil later went to school for eleven years, yet it was an event she was never told about. But the story is now retold in ‘Rivonia’ track ‘Took Them Away’ – which is inspired by Mandela’s personal account of what happened on that farm, and is written from the perspective of the boy who inadvertently prompted the police raid on it.

Although the album deals with elements of history outside apartheid, this theme runs throughout. And it is faced unflinchingly as MacNeil examines her country’s history, taking on the roles of different characters involved to narrate each story. Though in doing this, she not only examines their viewpoints, but also her own relationship with South Africa’s recent past.

It’s a process which draws obvious parallels with PJ Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’, and which results in dark moments, but also, at times, in hope. Such as on the counterpoint to ‘Took Them Away’ – ’27/04/1994′ – named after the date of South Africa’s first democratic elections, at which Nelson Mandela was elected president.

Of course, last week, as I was writing the first draft of this piece, the content of MacNeil’s album took on a new poignancy, as it was announced that Mandela had died. ‘Rivonia’ is not an album about him, but he looms large over it nonetheless, having been such a significant figure in South Africa throughout the period MacNeil covers in her lyrics.

‘Rivonia’ is an album that many would have dismissed making, either for fear of not pulling it off or for offending any number of people with the finished product (both things that MacNeil has admitted being troubled by). But ultimately, by pushing herself out of her comfort zone, she has created a record, like Harvey’s, that not only shows how differently our past can be presented, depending on who is telling the story, but also explores what it is to be human.

Watch the video for ‘Took Them Away’ here: