Roger Lucey sits thoughtfully on a quilted mustard armchair in his quaint Durham home. Having been built and restored mostly by its owner, it reflects a life of South African adventure. Splashes of exotic color—from the red swinging bench on his front porch to the vibrant paintings which hang among hand-crafted flutes and acoustic guitars—offer hints about his inspiring and evocative past.
Lucey’s life before arriving at this Durham house has been anything but ordinary. One of the most important political musicians in apartheid-era South Africa, now an instructor at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, Lucey wrote confrontational songs about the grueling injustices of an oppressive political regime. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Lucey’s songs served as a voice for an underground movement that reached its peak with the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994.
Lucey’s music was born long before that seminal moment in world history. His political views were molded at a young age, stirring mischief as a kid on the streets of Durban, South Africa.
Lucey was raised in an average, middle-class household in Durban. His family—with the exception of his free-thinking father—rarely questioned the apartheid regime. This passive indifference was further reinforced by his early Catholic education, which encouraged discipline and obedience. For Lucey, school was a place where “little boys kind of believed what they were told about what this apartheid thing was all about.”
Unlike most of his peers, however, Lucey had firsthand experience with the injustices of the system. He developed a close relationship with the black son of a neighbor’s maid that spanned his childhood. This friend, Jabula, took Lucey to the township where he lived, located on the outskirts of Durban in a poor area designated for the black populations that serviced the white cities.
“I saw a life [in the townships] that didn’t correspond with the story I had been told,” Lucey said. “I was seeing things. I was seeing a world that I had no idea existed. It was awful and ugly, and I saw it as being hugely unjust, even at an early age.”
What began as child’s play eventually became an incredibly moving and deeply disturbing form of education for Lucey. At age 15, he made a bold statement. He wrote a paper on the evils of apartheid and posted it on his school notice board. The subversive outcry captured the attention of the administration, who disciplined and later expelled him for his rebellious behavior. For Lucey, the motivation was personal and deeply emotional.
“I was politicized on the street,” Lucey said, adding that he neither finished high school nor attended university. “I was politicized from the heart, not from head. And that was important for me. When one goes through that process, you often get things wrong, and you often respond to things very emotionally. And that’s how it was for me.”
A few years later, Lucey wrote his first song.
While in high school, Lucey first learned how to play the guitar from a cousin. He had already become proficient on the flute, and with his cousin on guitar, the two began performing mostly covers at small, local venues. Then, at 18, Lucey began writing his own music.
“I started on a mission with writing songs that would reflect my South African reality,” Lucey said. “I felt that it was important. And because I wasn’t successful academically, I found from an early age that music was a voice for me.”
Emerging from the 1970s folk scene, Lucey drew inspiration from Bob Dylan, as well as Chilean musician-activist Víctor Jara and British alternative rock bands like Jethro Tull. This politically-charged, folk-rock fusion became characteristic of Lucey’s early style, and was epitomized by his first album, The Road is Much Longer, released in 1979.
“[Folk music] was the kind of music that was easy to play,” Lucey said. “The acoustic guitar and the voice became this very powerful thing. And it still remains like that.”
During the late seventies and early eighties—a period Lucey describes as “the pinnacle of apartheid”—most South African musicians curbed their political opinions. If their music reflected anti-apartheid views, they conveyed their messages indirectly or symbolically, not only to preserve their careers, but also their personal safety.
Lucy, on the other hand, challenged the system head on, writing explicitly and openly about the cruelties of apartheid. His music and message began to spread, and by the early 1980s, he had become extremely popular. However, for Lucey, fame was short-lived—the apartheid government performed swift actions to terminate his career.
“There were many ways you could be on the opposite side of the state, and whichever way that was you were often lumped into the same kind of category,” Lucey said. “So if you were just a maverick, just a young kid doing your own thing and up to no good, you could easily be lumped in with the politicos at the time. And, in many ways, that’s what happened.”
Of the many steps taken to silence Lucey, the most extreme was the assignment of Paul Erasmus, a South African police officer, to the task of ending Lucey’s career. Erasmus worked tirelessly—tapping Lucey’s phone line, intercepting his mail, canceling shows and confiscating Lucey’s records from stores.
“It was a peculiar situation, because really, I was on a roll,” Lucey said. “I had become very popular in South Africa. I had a band that was playing and touring around the country. And we were really doing well. And within a short span of time, this whole thing suddenly stopped.”
Soon after authorities began shutting down his shows, his record company dropped him and his album was banned. If a person was caught with his record, he or she could be jailed for up to five years. For Lucey, the experience was devastating.
“[Music] was more than just a hobby, something that I did in my spare time. Music was my voice,” Lucey said. “And when it was taken away, it was extremely painful.”
Lucey was forced to give up his music, his career and life as he knew it—without fully knowing what had happened. He was blind to the steps the government was actively taking to dissolve his career. He only knew that venues would no longer take him, and that stores had stopped stocking his albums.
“By stopping playing, there was a sense that I was acknowledging a defeat of sorts,” Lucey said. “Even though I wasn’t completely aware of the enemy that had defeated me. That came later.
It was only after his music career collapsed that Lucey began filmmaking. From 1982 to 1995, Lucey worked for Worldwide Television News—at that time one of the biggest television news agencies in the world—in Johannesburg. His new job required him to travel all over Africa and later, across Eastern Europe, to places like Bosnia and Chechnya. While working for WTN, which provides services for ABC News in America in addition to the majority of large broadcasters in Europe and Asia, Lucey pursued stories and began making documentaries.
“Part of it was just daily news—the hard stuff—and the other stuff was going up to the battle front in Angola with, say for instance, a Swedish journalist from Swedish television and going and covering a more extensive story and actually making a documentary for them,” Lucey said.
Working as an operative in the field, Lucey created numerous documentaries, experiencing worlds and adventures previously unknown to him. Yet during this period of his life, Lucey made very little, if any, music. Personally, he worked to reinvent his career and put music behind him. Practically, he needed to support two children and an ex-wife with the steady pay that came with the WTN job. However, the most daunting ghost of his past, a man he never even knew existed, revisited Lucey’s doorstep in 1995—14 years after Lucey had been silenced.
In line with the kinds of sentiments being expressed through South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, designed to help the nation deal with and move forward from its ugly apartheid past, Paul Erasmus resigned from the police force and wrote a book describing his experiences in the security branch. Burdened with genuine remorse, Erasmus reached out to Lucey, knowing that he owed him an explanation for why his musical career ended so abruptly, Lucey said. Erasmus told Lucey about the steps he had taken in the early 1980s. Initially, Lucey was outraged. But he used the opportunity to put down his thoughts in lyrics, and he returned to his first career.
Lucey first arrived at Duke in 2008 to pursue a Master of Arts degree in liberal studies. He was introduced to the University by long-time friend and colleague Paul Weinberg, a South African photographer who also taught at CDS. Weinberg encouraged him to pursue further studies abroad, and Lucey took advantage of the opportunity, graduating from the program in 2010. Since 2009, Lucey, who previously taught short mentorship courses with universities and broadcasters across southern Africa, has been teaching a spring documentary studies course on South Africa at Duke.
“I’ve enjoyed [Duke] enormously,” Lucey said. “It’s been absolutely fantastic for me. [My class here] has been sort of more academic than the classes I teach at South African universities.”
Looking back, Lucey can say that wherever life has carried him, he has always returned to music. Almost every meaningful experience, including his years abroad as a cameraman, has been translated to lyrics in his songs. And his reflections on his legacy are strikingly humble.
“I’m always very moved by how often people tell me in South Africa that my music meant an enormous amount to them,” Lucey said, describing the series of surprisingly successful performances he had during his last visit to South Africa. “And how they’ve remembered me now that so much water’s under the bridge, and we’ve survived the intervening years.”
Ingrid Byerly, ethnomusicologist and senior lecturing fellow of cultural anthropology, became fascinated by Lucey’s story while conducting reasearch on influential South African musicians in the transition from apartheid to democracy.
“Because Roger was so early and courageous in what he was doing, he managed to be silenced most severely,” Byerly said. “It was the story of a freedom fighter that was silenced—effectively silenced.”
Lucey, like many of the apartheid protest musicians of his time, was lucky enough to have been exposed to the other side of the apartheid issue. And those early experiences playing in the streets of the Durban township shaped his music in an incredibly earnest and enabling way.
“Musicians had the fortunate privilege of seeing the potential of everybody being part of the same community,” Byerly said. “[They] could hear harmony where other people couldn’t. They could hear all the voices—[but] more importantly, they were prepared to listen.”
More than three decades later, Lucey has found friendship in the unlikeliest of places. After confessing to his weighty role in curtailing Lucey’s career—and later meeting as gesture of reconciliation and forgiveness—Erasmus and Lucey have actually become friends. Following Lucey so painstakingly all of those years, Erasmus developed a strong liking, and even admiration, for his music. After confiscating Lucey’s records and tapes, he would regularly play them back. Even his children have become fans, Lucey said.
“He’s become a friend,” Lucey said. “There’s no other way to say it. I’m in constant contact with him, I get regular emails from him, and when I travel around the country, I always stop in and stay with him. As peculiar as it sounds, that’s what it is.”
At 58, Lucey is very much the same man he was back then—creative with his time and passionate about life. He has just completed an autobiography. He holds an impressive collection of Irish and Indian flutes, many of which he has handcrafted himself, using bamboo from the grove off of East Campus. The numerous projects he has completed on his cozy Durham home—building a front porch, beautifully re-tiling his bathroom floor, painting the living room walls deep red, to name just few—are small accomplishments, which make him beam contagiously with pride. Lucey lives in this home with his wife Karen Glynn, a visual materials archivist for the Special Collections Library who shares his love for South Africa. The two first met in 2008, when Lucey performed odd jobs around the house in exchange for a place to stay. Since moving to Durham, Lucey has also had the opportunity to see some of his “all-time musical heroes,” like John Hiatt, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle, perform. He and Karen have enjoyed the Durham music and culture scene tremendously, attending shows at Reynolds Theater, Page Auditorium, the Cat’s Cradle and other local venues.
In October, the two will rent out their Durham house and return to South Africa, where they hope to settle down. Though the future is open-ended for Lucey; he is determined perform his music more frequently once he returns home. Other plans include buying and renovating a cottage with Karen, opening their own music venue, and dabbling in theater—an old and enjoyable hobby—with a few friends.
“We’re really sort of following our hearts,” Lucey said. “You get to a point where you take it a bit easier.”