Nelson Mandela was a pivotal agent for change who inspired a rich musical legacy of resistance. Biographer Richard Stengel describes Mandela, who passed away yesterday at the age of 95, as "the last pure hero." And while he was all that and more, the music the iconic historical figure inspired was pure protest music, particularly for those caught up in the struggle for South Africa's freedom but living here in America in the '80s. The music and the movement was pure in a way that just doesn't seem possible today.
The artists back then didn't care about their corporate sponsors -- mostly because they didn't have any -- and they certainly weren't worried about their fortunes. But before that whole anti-apartheid movement really took root, the first to speak out about the injustice was Gil Scott-Heron, whose missive correctly captured the insidious nature of apartheid. Back in 1976, when the song was written, "Johannesberg" was more than half a world away; the crimes committed on a daily basis were mere hearsay. By the time "Johannesberg" was an underground classic, Mandela had already been jailed for over a decade.
Thanks to public outcry and the uncovering of the story of Steve Biko, the world would soon know enough about South Africa's hideous society to demand boycotts and sanctions -- by everyone, that is, except the United States. In the '80s, Ronald Reagan deemed the African National Congress (ANC) a terrorist organization and denounced their violent tactics.
Mandela, of course, was a member of the ANC, which happened to receive support from the Soviet Union. Reagan and many major corporations in this country were receiving financial profits from South African businesses, and so ultimately, the United States' allegiance to the bottom line left our leaders standing on the wrong side of history and put the pop stars of the day in a difficult place.
In 1985, when Lil' Steven Van Zandt formed Artists United Against Apartheid, his goal was to spread awareness and create dissent. The result was the song and album Sun City, a labor of love designed to educate artists that even though a Sun City gig was lucrative, the balance was paid in the blood of black South Africans. The lineup of artists assembled on Sun City was legendary.
It is impossible to imagine such a popular group of artists getting together today to sponsor an insurgency -- can you imagine an all-star cast of rappers and singers making a song about drone strikes in Afghanistan? Now imagine that song has taken a hard line stance against U.S. policy. "Sun City" received absolutely no radio play, and stagnated on the charts. But the new media in the '80s was more than willing to give the record and the cause lots of airtime. That "new media," of course, was MTV.
To put this in a modern context, imagine Katy Perry being interviewed on MTV, and speaking frankly about how we really need to support the people of Afghanistan. Hard to believe right? Jackson Browne had this to say about South Africa to MTV at the time: "[South Africa is] a society which is very oppressive and denies basic rights to the majority of its citizens, [that wants to] try to buy us off and to buy off world opinion."
"Sun City" was a hit outside the U.S., where radio stations supported it, and it wasn't long before an artist from the U.K. added a masterpiece to the movement. The Specials released "Free Nelson Mandela" against the backdrop of increasing awareness and protests against apartheid. Calls for western companies to divest their financial interests in South Africa were pitch perfect with the voices singing "Free Nelson Mandela." The song is a dance floor anthem and captured the zeitgeist of the '80s. It was the perfect song to bring things to a critical mass. Protesters all over the world had a perfect pick me up; it was like a Black Eyed Peas song, without all the dirty shame that you feel for liking it.
Pop artists during the '80s knew that it was important to appear to be about "something." Even the dirtiest, poorest wretches from places like the Bronx were using rap music to try and influence their world. From the beginning, the 1988 Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Concert was designed to convert the critical mass of worldwide protest and awareness into real change.
Tony Hollingsworth told the UK Telegraph that the televised concert viewed by 600 Million people worldwide would "position Mandela and the movement in a positive way" and it would "get rid of the word 'terrorist'" being used in association with Mandela.
That day in 1988, 83 artists graced the stage, including the Eurythmics, Salt-n-Pepa, and Whitney Houston. The concert was broadcast here in the United States by Fox, who refused to air the program with the intended title and instead called it simply "Freedomfest." But the die was already cast, and the movement had reached its apex.
In the months that followed, the United States' sanctions against South Africa truly took their toll. Inflation was sky high, the value of the South African rand was falling, and chaos reigned in the streets. Releasing Mandela was the least the South African government could do at that point. On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out of jail in South Africa. The power of this moment was not lost on the pop music community. In the years that followed, we would see concerts for Tibet, acts like Rage Against the Machine and Farm Aid. This was a rock-and-roll cause that worked. The people and the music had made the change.
The powers that be definitely took notice. By the mid 1990s, popular musicians were being recruited to sing and compose campaign songs, and even sing at corporate events. The subversive core of pop music was squeezed out to make room for corporate-sponsored mega tours and appeasing business interests. Pop music was all too willing to oblige. Artists licensed their songs to advertisers and campaign managers, and by the end of the 20th century, the most important statement an artist could make would be "get rich or die trying."
The '80s was a time when it was your responsibility as a pop star to say "something," even if saying something meant standing against America and the west. Rebellion was part of the job description. Time has sanitized the job description of pop star. It now conveniently reads: "instagram, twitter, rehab, Oprah interview." We expect less and less of our pop stars. Lady Gaga is "controversial" for wearing a dress made out of meat.
Time has also sanitized Mandela and threatens to undermine his true legacy. He blatantly showed that America and the West were on the wrong side of freedom in the '80s, and he had the guts to bring it up again during the Iraqi war in the aughts. It's too late for pop music. Just as radio playlists are increasingly homogenized and programmed by committee. Pop artists are defanged and declawed and shoved out if front of us all fluff, naked and shivering for our approval and scared to say something, anything that might challenge us.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.