How rock ‘n’ roll helped free Nelson Mandela

Before the 1980s, I had no idea who Nelson Mandela was. But being a child of the ’70s in America, that should come as no surprise.

Nelson Mandela had been rotting in a South African prison for two decades when The Special AKA released a peppy tune with a serious message: “Free Nelson Mandela.” I was a sophomore or so in college when the album came out, and expecting something like the band’s predecessor The Specials, I picked it up. Classic vinyl. I was a poor college student who couldn’t afford one of them newfangled CD players. That same album included “Racist Friend” and “Alcohol,” which was particularly haunting.

Anyway.

“Free Nelson Mandela” featured a lively horn section, the kind of stuff you’d expect from a ska band. And while the tune was upbeat, what The Special AKA had to say was politically charged.

That song made me aware of Nelson Mandela, although I had been somewhat aware of apartheid and its cruelty before. It seemed far away, just another corrupt government in Africa.

Mandela died Dec. 5, in case you’ve been hiding in a cave recently.

That song energized a movement that was driven in no small part by rock music (include ska and hip-hop in the overall pop/rock category). The anti-apartheid struggle had been going on for decades, but it didn’t get widespread attention in the West until the 1980s.

Pretty soon you heard a rising chorus of “divest from South Africa” and demands for more sanctions and boycotts against the officially racist South African regime to pressure South Africa ending apartheid, a policy reminiscent of Jim Crow in the United States.

Soweto, de Klerk, Botha, Mandela were names that became increasingly prominent in the news, especially for budding journalistas such as your humble akrondave blogger.

Then along came Sun City in 1985. Led by Steven Van Zandt of E Street Band and The Sopranos fame, an all-star group calling itself Artists United Against Apartheid took direct aim at a swanky South African resort known as Sun City, urging artists not to perform there until South Africa put and end to apartheid. The chorus said it all: “I ain’t gonna play Sun City.”

The list of artists who participated was long and diverse: Bono, Keith Richards, Miles Davis, Bonnie Raitt, Joey Ramone, Lou Reed, Run-DMC, George Clinton, Pete Townshend, Peter Wolf, and so on.

The album featured powerful tracks including the title track and Revolutionary    Situation, but the one that blew me away was a last-minute addition that didn’t make the album cover or sleeve material: Silver and Gold. A sticker was slapped on the cover: “Added bonus song.” Bono, the lead singer of U2, collaborated with Keith Richards and Ron Wood (do I have to say of the Rolling Stones?), inspired after meeting several other artists who had volunteered for the project.

I wrote a review of Sun City as a tryout for my collej paper, the Lantern at Ohio State, and it won me a gig as cub music beat writer. Although the album earned praise from critics, it was only a minor commercial success. But the mark had been made on public consciousness.

In 1989, Lethal Weapon 2 featured the apartheid regime as the villain. Funniest moment: Danny Glover’s character Murtaugh at the South African embassy telling the official he wants to return to his “homeland.” The official says, “But you’re blek.” Levity aside, the movie further pushed the issue of apartheid into public awareness.

By 1991, it became clear that apartheid’s days were numbered and in 1994 Nelson Mandela, who had been jailed for 27 years and branded as a terrorist by critics, was elected president.

But rather than conduct a campaign of revenge against his former oppressors, Mandela sought reconciliation and compromise. He prevented what could have become a blood bath, which many white South Africans feared. After all, the white minority colonists had oppressed the natives for decades.

The pressure to end apartheid came from many corners, but make no doubt, pop/rock music was a major player.

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