Funny, the way music affects us all in different ways; how one song can take on so many meanings to so many very different people. I was ten years old when Aretha Franklin and George Michael’s “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” came out, in January 1987. George Michael had been a household name since around 1984, and with each single my little already-music-geeked brain would explode anew, thinking, “THIS! THIS. Is. The. BEST. SONG. I HAVE EVER HEARD!!!!”
When “I Knew You Were Waiting” came out, it quickly replaced “Careless Whisper”, which had replaced eight-year-old me’s choice of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” as my BEST SONG EVER RECORDED.
At the time, in Apartheid South Africa in the aftermath of the tumultuous “State of Emergency” years of 1985/86 – years in which the simmering tensions simmered so high that the country teetered just on the edge of full-blown civil war – there was something delightfully transgressive about loving this song. I guess that was part of the thinking behind it: Whiteboy Soul meets The One Queen of Soul. But in South Africa, to this geeky boy’s brain at least, it took on a special kind of glow. The country around me had been, through my entire existence and long before, trying to trick us all into believing black and white could never “work” together, that they should be kept apart, that they shouldn’t love each other, that they shouldn’t play together.
And here came this white artist I adored, singing so beautifully with a black woman my parents and older siblings worshipped. Though I was too young to fully grasp the intricacies of what was being fought around me at the time, I understood that the fake government I’d grown up with wouldn’t want me to like this song. That it went against everything they were trying to force upon us. And the rebellious part of me loved this note-perfect duet even more for giving the finger to all the nonsense surrounding me.
Thirty years later, when I hear that heavenly chorus, my strongest association is not to a longed-for love in the form of a person. Instead I find myself remembering what the long-awaited arrival of 27 April 1994 felt like to my by then 17-year-old heart. My heart leaps unstoppably to the still-fresh memory of what freedom felt like when it finally arrived for the South Africans who’d lived to see the day: “When the river was deep, I didn’t falter. When the mountain was high, I still believed. When the valley was low, it didn’t stop me… No, No: I knew you were waiting for me.”
I don’t know if George Michael and Aretha Franklin realised the song might give hope to people in all sorts of situations – and not just those pining for romantic love – but, regardless, it did. To me this song was a promise sung from their hearts and injected into my ten-year-old brain; a promise that something better waited beyond the mess of what South Africa looked like in 1987.
Thirty years later, I’m sad at the loss of an artist who meant a great deal to me during a difficult time in my country’s and my personal history; an artist who was among a handful who provided the most hope to me that things change, things get better, right will win over wrong. Playing it over and over since Christmas Night, it’s helped, once again, to remind me that no matter how deep the river, how low the valley, South Africa will get through it. We’ve survived apartheid and colonialism – and I still believe we can take care of all the new problems democracy has delivered unto us. I’ll get to see my country arrive at whatever the next major point is that is “waiting for me”.
Thank you, Tannie Aretha, thank you, George. You helped this boy to not falter on so many occasions.