Light the candles for Edwin Hawkins and Keorapetse Kgositsile

From California to South Africa, candles should be lit to commemorate the passing of gospel giant Edwin Hawkins and noted South African writer and activist Keorapetse Kgositsile, best known as “Willie.”

And those candles are aglow with a common light. In 1970, when Melanie’s single “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” soared to a Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, it was listed as Melanie with The Edwin Hawkins Singers.

In 1971, when Kgositsile published his book, “My Name Is Afrika,” the poet Gwendolyn Brooks in her introduction wrote, “I would say that he is a ‘master.’ If it were not for my belief that no one ‘masters’ anything, that each finds or makes his candle, then tries to see by the guttering light. Willie has made a good candle. And Willie has good eyes.”

Hawkins, a Grammy Award-winning gospel singer who gained international fame and acclaim with his recording of “Oh, Happy Day,” died Jan. 15 at his home in Pleasanton, Calif. He was 74.

Kgositsile, the recipient of many awards and honors, including the Harlem Council Poetry Award and the Conrad Kent Rivers Memorial Poetry Award, died in Johannesburg Jan 3. He was 79.

Although their lives were separated in birth and death by thousands of miles, the two artists, of the same generation, left marks of excellence on their respective creative endeavors. Hawkins was only 7 years old when he replaced his mother as pianist in their church. It was in the church choirs that he honed his brilliance as a director, composer and keyboardist. He released his first album, “Let Us Go into the House of the Lord” in 1968.

“Oh, Happy Day” was one of the tracks on the album, an 18th century hymn, arranged by Hawkins in a call-and-response style, and was soon the banner launching inspirational music.

While Hawkins was acquiring recognition, Kgositsile was perfecting his writing after arriving in the states. Just as he had refused to continue matriculating at schools during the apartheid era in South Africa, he began his exile in America, which lasted from 1961 to 1975. Even so, his identification with the freedom fighters of his country was unwavering, and in the states he was able to solidify his literary pursuit and production.

A sample of his poetry is this stanza from “Dawn”:

“Remember in baton boot and bullet ritual

The bloodhounds of Monster Vorster wrote

SOWETO over the belly of my land

with the indelible blood of infants

So the young are no longer young

Not that they demand a hasty death.”

During this same period, Kgositsile began teaching at Columbia University and collaborating with other writers and activists in Harlem to found the Black Arts Theater.

Whether in the spiritual realm or on the revolutionary front in the fight against oppression, let the candles lit by Hawkins and Kgositsile forever burn and remind us of their legacies and commitment.