Nelson Mandela inspired a rich musical legacy


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."

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