Mandela and music
Rhymes and rhythms that became an essential anti-apartheid songlist.
NELSON Mandela was, quite famously, a fan of European classical music. His two favourite composers were George Frideric Handel and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, but he grew up exposed to the country’s rich tradition of vocal groups forging a unique form of sacred rhythm music.
That changed while the former South African president and longtime democratic activist was imprisoned by the pro-apartheid government from 1962 to 1990. He wasn’t allowed access to music.
Artists, however, used Mandela’s jailing to fuel global protest songs, and during his years in captivity Mandela’s messages were delivered on the wings of rhythm and melody.
The response to Mandela’s cause, in fact, helped bridge cultural divides that continue to hold. One of the best known songs, Artists United Against Apartheid’s I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City, for the first time brought together on record superstars of rock and R&B with the kings of a rising young genre called hip-hop.
On the African continent, anti-apartheid couriers such as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Youssou N’Dour and the Malopoets expressed outrage through song. As the anti-apartheid movement grew in the 1970s and 1980s, marquee names such as U2, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt and Stevie Wonder spoke or sung out on behalf of Nelson Mandela’s cause.
What follows are 10 essential works that celebrate the late Nelson Mandela and his efforts. His spirit, perseverance and dignity fuelled not only the cause of liberty and equality, but drove music to great heights. NelsonMandela (1994)
In 1994, singer Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse was commissioned by the African National Congress to write an election song in support of Nelson Mandela’s campaign. The activist had been released from prison four years before, and Mabuse eagerly agreed; he’d been singing about Mandela’s plight for years. The result was, simply, Nelson Mandela, which featured Mandela himself reading from a speech he gave during one of his trials in 1964.
In 1985, Stevie Wonder was at one of his many career peaks, and used that power to expose the injustices occurring in South Africa. Employing exiled South African musicians, Wonder put the rhythmic breakdown that is It’s Wrong on his In Square Circle album. That same year he was arrested during a Washington, D.C. anti-apartheid protest and dedicated the Oscar he won for the song I Just Called To Say I Love You to Nelson Mandela. The South African
government responded by banning Wonder’s songs! MyBlackPresident (1989)
A song banned in South Africa when it was released in 1989, My Black President was a tipping-point song, offered as it was a year before his exit from jail in 1990. It’s a thrilling song, filled with the sound of black South Africa: a harmonious choral group, smooth as chrome, humming through the song while Fassie sings, imagining the moment that Mandela is released.
One of the most popular anthems of the antiapartheid movement was South African singer Johnny Clegg and his band Savuka’s Asimbonanga, which, translated, means “We haven’t seen him.” A protest whose Zulu chant brings Mandela’s absence to life.
Clegg and Savuka:
by Artists United Against Apartheid:
In 1985, guitarist Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band (and future actor on The Sopranos) helped spearhead a musical boycott of South Africa’s big ticket resort town Sun City, which until then had paid handsome money for superstar concerts. Van Zandt banded together a lineup for the song I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City that nearly 30 years later remains not only impressive in its scope, but marks a symbolic first. Biko (1980) Biko is a song not about Mandela but his peer and founder of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement, Stephen Biko, who died in 1977 while in police custody. Gabriel’s devastating song was a few years after Biko’s murder and helped focus international attention on the crimes being committed by the apartheid government.
by Peter Gabriel:
The Specials’ Jerry Dammers wrote a memorable and joyous protest song in Free Nelson Mandela, a work whose simple message, chanted over and over throughout the song, became a rallying cry everywhere. Released under the band name Special A.K.A. due to various legal wrangling occurring within the band at the time, Free Nelson Mandela roars and taps into South African rhythms with pure celebratory spirit.
The Special A.K.A.:
Senegalese griot singer Youssou N’Dour was one of Africa’s rising stars when he
recorded his album Nelson Mandela in Paris’ Studio Montmartre in 1986. The album featured the title track, which conveyed in French the cause of Mandela and apartheid. TheEndIsNear (1988)
Featuring a fiery speech by Allan Boesak, the Malopoets’ The End Is Near fearlessly attacks the powers behind apartheid through a buttery-smooth but insistent beat. The black South African township group was one of the first to be allowed to perform a residency at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, and helped push boundaries during the final years of apartheid.
Mandela had a direct connection to reggae music, even if he wasn’t able to hear its ascent while he was imprisoned. He had, however, met with one of the spiritual fathers of reggae music, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, in Ethiopia in 1962, the same year that Mandela began his incarceration.
Reggae, born in the streets of Jamaica less than a decade later, took up Mandela’s cause while he was holed up in Robben Island prison. In addition to Eddy Grant’s Gimme Hope, Jo’Anna, Nigerian high life singer Sonny Okosun delivered his incendiary reggae jam Fire In Soweto in honour of South Africa’s plight. — Los Angeles Times/ McClatchy Information Services