Jerusalema – joy in a hard time

In the late summer of 1996, I spent several months as a Canadian observer of the post-Dayton elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). The terrible fighting in the war had ended the previous year but the reminders of war were all around us. 

Nowadays, election observation is a very organized process. But then, it was very ad hoc. I had to find accommodation, interpreter, and driver and car myself, and pay for it with Deutschmarks I carried in a money belt I wore almost constantly.

One other international, who had just moved from an apartment downtown to a house up on the hill overlooking the town, offered the apartment. It was on the second floor, overlooking an alley. The bar across the street would set out tables and chairs.

And play the Macarena, over and over again.

That time came back instantly when I first heard the song Jerusalema during the pandemic. Not only was the melody incredibly catching but it seemed to inspire people to dance, just as the Macarena did. As the New York Times wrote, it “provided a moment of global joy during the lockdowns of the pandemic, a welcome distraction from the isolation and collective grief.”

Official music video, Dec. 13, 2019 premiered

There are various stories about how it came to be written in 2019 in South Africa. DJ Kgaogelo Moagi, better known as Master KG, wrote the melody, and the singer Nomcebo came up with the words and sang them in the Zulu language. “Jerusalem is my home,” she sang. “Guard me. Walk with me. Do not leave me here.”

Listening to it a day after it was recorded, she burst into tears. “I heard the voice saying to me, ‘Nomcebo, this is going to be a big song all over the world.’” And so it was.

In February 2020, the Fenomenos de Semba troupe in Luanda, Angola uploaded a video showing off their choreography, and challenging others to outdo them. The response was amazing, and often surprising. I remember reading then about how the Swiss Federal Office of Police challenged the Irish Garda Síochána. The resulting video was well received in both countries and the Swiss police flew the Irish flag at their headquarters for the day.

Healthcare staff in hospitals, prison officials, monks and nuns, Latino dancers, fire safety workers, lawyers, police, school students, and even priests across Africa, the US, UK, Europe, Russia, and Australia participated in the challenge. Spotify streamed it 100 million times, and on YouTube it got close to 600 million views. Thousands of new videos were uploaded every day.

And it came full circle in the fall of 2020, when South African president Cyril Ramaphosa urged South Africans to take part in the dance challenge “to reflect on the difficult journey we have all travelled, to remember those who have lost their lives, and to quietly rejoice in the remarkable and diverse heritage of our nation”. Nigerian musician Burna Boy, who featured on the Jerusalema remix, hoped it would be a unifying force for Africa. “We are not in competition, we are one Africa, we are united,” he said.

Somehow Jerusalema had reminded us of how much we have in common. “To me it does not matter whether the lyrics are gospel-themed, as the song celebrates a city, which is revered by all people of the Book, and it is high time that we realise that tensions amongst them are the root cause of the many problems and conflicts facing us,” Asad Mirza wrote in the Times of India. The spirit of convivencia (living together) might give us “a new approach of looking at the world and solving its problems, for the better.”

And in The Elephant, William Shoki of Africa Is A Country, reflected on how “for the first time in a long time, there is belief that self-determination can only be understood as a collective achievement—of creating institutions in our society by guaranteeing the conditions of life for all.”

“The fate of Africa is determined not by the state of the West or China, but only by its people themselves. Maybe, what is becoming stronger as we search for a new city on the hill, is the conviction that we are going to build it ourselves,” he wrote.



Jerusalema: Why a South African song has become the soundtrack to a world in lockdown., Oct. 14, 2020

Jerusalema: dance craze brings hope from Africa to the world amid Covid. Guardian, Sep. 24, 2020

Jerusalema : The song Jerusalema celebrates life and is full of joie de vivre! The Times of India, Dec. 24, 2020

Another Now: Why the “Jerusalema” Dance Challenge Reveals a Longing to Re-Imagine the World. The Elephant, Oct. 16, 2020

How viral song Jerusalema joined the ranks of South Africa’s greatest hits. The Conversation.

Millions Danced Joyfully to Her Song. She Drew on Her Pain to Write It. New York Times, Jul. 7, 2023

Cover: South World Feb. 2021