Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
In the 1980s, the South African band Umoja made upbeat pop hits under the watchful eye of the South Africa Broadcast Corporation. It’s impossible not to love “Money, Money.”
Welcome to the latest installation of “Public Access,” where CityLab shares its favorite videos—old and new, serious and nutty—that tell a story about place.
Before negotiations to end apartheid began in South Africa, “Om” Alec Khaoli could always be counted on for an escape.
The songwriter and musician’s band, Umoja (Swahili for “unity”), dominated South African charts in the 1980s, when self-expression by black artists faced intense government scrutiny. Their songs felt apolitical on the surface but clearly hinted at dreams of a better life. “We wanted people to come together and unite and just form a oneness,” Khaoli recalled to Awesome Tapes From Africa, a U.S.-based record label and website that re-released their 1988 LP 707 last year. “If you wrote songs about apartheid, we would disguise them. If we used language as it was, we would get arrested.”
With relentlessly positive vibes and English lyrics, Umoja was able to reach both white and black audiences. As Awesome Tapes notes, 707 went double-platinum in South Africa, with each song reaching #1 on the country’s pop charts.
Perhaps the best example of their sound and energy can be seen in their lighthearted video for “Money, Money.” No white faces appear, but a down-on-his-luck black man solicits a tip from the anonymous white hand of a BMW driver and a low-five from another before striking it rich at a slot machine. The spree of personal assistants, fur-coat shopping, and fine dining that ensues shows a life of luxury that most black South Africans could only dream of (then and now). After a ride down the streets of Johannesburg in a yellow convertible, his fantasy comes to an end downtown—the driver and new following of women speed away down Rissik street, leaving him alone and empty handed again. But the mood will pick up as soon as the next song on 707 starts.