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A news report describes the protest set off by British pop star Dusty Springfield when she refused to perform during a tour in South Africa unless she could sing to a non-segregated audience. Although her 1964 tour was cancelled, many other British rock stars joined her in condemning apartheid.
3 The 1936 Olympics
Years before Hitler&rsquos rise, Germany had been selected to host the 1936 Olympics. As the games drew closer, the US decided to wait until they had guarantees that the Germans would be playing a fair, unbiased game before sending their Olympians.
Avery Brundage, head of the American Olympic Committee, was sent overseas to assess the status of the German games. He returned with a report stating that all was well even though he was only allowed to interview Jewish athletes with Gestapo supervision.
Many people did not believe him, and the push to boycott the Olympics continued. When the Amateur Athletic Union put the matter to a vote, the final results were 58.25 for going and 55.75 for a boycott.
Leading the charge for the boycott was an Irish Catholic named Jeremiah Titus Mahoney, who clearly didn&rsquot believe Brundage&rsquos account of German affairs. Weeks after Brundage&rsquos visit, Hitler enacted the Nuremberg Laws. But the games went on.
Boycott South African Goods
The Anti-Apartheid Movement began as the Boycott Movement, set up in 1959 to persuade shoppers to boycott apartheid goods. It invoked Chief Albert Luthuli’s appeal for an international boycott of South African products.
For 35 years the consumer boycott was at the heart of anti-apartheid campaigns. Hundreds of thousands of people who never attended a meeting or demonstration showed their opposition to apartheid by refusing to buy goods from South Africa. Boycotting South African fruit and other products was something that everyone could do.
‘LOOK AT THE LABEL’
The first Boycott Movement leaflet listed South African fruit, sherry and Craven A cigarettes as goods to avoid. The AAM regularly updated its lists of South African brand names, asking shoppers to ‘Look at the Label’. With the growth of supermarket chains like Tesco and Sainsbury’s, it campaigned to stop them stocking South African products and organised days of action outside local shops.
As South Africa diversified its exports in the 1980s, the AAM focused on fashion chains like Marks and Spencer, Next and Austin Reed. Next and the Co-op Retail Society stopped selling South African goods. Between 1983 and 1986 British imports of South African textiles and clothing fell by 35%. In June 1986 an opinion poll found that 27% of people in Britain boycotted South African products.
When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher undermined international sanctions in the mid-1980s, the AAM recast the boycott campaign as a call for ‘people’s sanctions’. In 1989 its Boycott Bandwagon, a converted double-decker bus, took the message to cities and towns all over Britain. The campaign spread to gold, coal and tourism, and anti-apartheid activists targeted the South African and Namibian stands at the World Travel Market at Olympia.
The boycott was one of the most successful of all the AAM’s campaigns. It was only lifted in September 1993 after South Africa was irrevocably set on the path to democratic elections.
Sheffield AAM supporters outside Tesco on 13 October 1989. Over 2,000 shoppers signed Sheffield AA Group’s petition asking Tesco to stop selling South African goods. Earlier in the year, 320 of Tesco 380 stores all over Britain were picketed in a special Day of Action on 22 April. Copyright © Martin Jenkinson Image Library
Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’: 10 Things You Didn’t Know
Paul Simon‘s joyous, vibrant Graceland, released 30 years ago today, remains one of the most beloved albums in pop history. And also one the most controversial. Simon had ventured to South Africa to record the album with local musicians, ignoring an international boycott set in place by the United Nations Anti-Apartheid Committee. “What gives [governments] the right to wear the cloak of morality?” he railed at the time. “Their morality comes out of the barrel of a gun.”
Though striving to make art that transcended politics, Simon quickly found himself at the center of a dire human-rights crisis. To some he represented a rebellious hero taking a stand against bureaucracy and totalitarian regimes to others he was a naïve fool who undermined the anti-apartheid cause. Still more felt he was a little more than a common thief. “The intensity of the criticism really did surprise me,” he reflected years later. “Part of the criticism was ‘Here’s this white guy from New York, and he ripped off these poor innocent guys.'”
Paul Simon: African Odyssey
Paul Simon's Amazing Graceland Tour
'Silence of the Lambs': 'It Broke All the Rules'
How Guns N' Roses Formed
The fundamental debate hinges on a double-pronged query: Was Simon right in breaking the boycott, and did he have the right to make the album at all?
The latter question is made more complicated by the passage of time. Terms like “cultural appropriation” barely existed when Graceland was recorded. Whether you call it “borrowing,” “paying homage to,” “riffing on” or “stealing,” white artists had been incorporating traditionally black music into their work for most of the 20th century. But Graceland was groundbreaking for wearing its influence for all to see. South African musicians and singers were invited to share the spotlight with Simon, giving many of them mainstream international exposure for the first time. Still, some elements of the project remain problematic. Famed South African trombonist and anti-apartheid activist Jonas Gwangwa summed up the thoughts of countless black artists when confronted with Graceland ‘s success: “So, it has taken another white man to discover my people?” Simon’s insistence that the album was a true collaboration is arguable, but at the very least Graceland provided a platform to a group who were legally prohibited from participating on an international stage.
There are many who would argue that the South Africa cultural boycott was a deeply flawed strategy that did more harm than good for the black population it was put in place to support. This view was shared by practically all of the musicians who played with Simon on Graceland. “In South Africa, we had no opportunity,” recalled saxophonist Barney Rachabane in 2012, “You could have dreams, but they never come true. It really destroys you. But Graceland opened my eyes and set a tone of hope in my life.”
Yet this uplifting revelation is countered by Dali Tambo, founder of Artists Against Apartheid, who felt that Simon put the showbiz ambitions of a handful of local musicians above the struggles of a nation. “We were fighting for our land, for our identity,” he told The New York Times. “We had a job to do, and it was a serious job. And we saw Paul Simon coming as a threat because it was not sanctioned … by the liberation movement.”
The Graceland saga is a tale of black, white and a sprawling gray area. As the album turns 30, here is the story of its creation as told through 10 little-known facts.
1. Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels was the patron saint of Graceland.
A wealth of underrepresented people and cultures contributed to the innovative music Simon made on his 1986 masterwork, but there’s one figure who seldom gets recognized for his role in the Graceland odyssey. Surprisingly, the album probably never would have happened without television titan Lorne Michaels.
In 1980 Michaels moved on from Saturday Night Live, the landmark comedy series that he helped create. His next project, aptly titled The New Show, failed to connect with viewers and ran for just nine episodes before being cancelled in the spring of 1984. A short time later he received a visit from the defunct show’s bandleader, Heidi Berg, who bad been lured away from her prior role in the SNL band. When Berg inquired about possible music opportunities, Michaels suggested she visit his good friend Paul Simon, who kept his offices just down the hall in New York City’s Brill Building. It was Berg who would introduce Simon to the sounds of South Africa.
Two years later, after Michaels had returned to produce SNL during the show’s 11th season, he invited Simon to perform tracks from the yet-to-be-released Graceland. Backed by his South African band and the Zulu choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the memorable appearance on May 10th, 1986, gave the public its first sample of Simon’s new sonic stew. In the 2012 documentary Under African Skies, Michaels referred to the occasion as “a revolution in taste” in the United States. “It was the synthesis of two cultures, and the obvious affection they had for Paul, and that Paul had for them. It was the perfect moment.” What’s more, it set the scene for recording one of Graceland‘s standout tracks, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”
Simon also used the time on SNL‘s Rockefeller Center stage to film a music video for the album’s first single, “You Can Call Me Al,” but he was ultimately displeased with the result. Michaels alluded to this when hanging out with old friend (and former leading man) Chevy Chase. “Paul had a test pressing of the album and Lorne Michaels had a copy at his summer house,” said Chase in Laura Jackson’s book Paul Simon: The Definitive Biography. “We all live out in Long Island in the East Hampton area and Lorne said, ‘Have you heard it?’ I said, ‘I hadn’t yet.’ He said, ‘It’s great.’ And Lorne played a couple of songs for me and then told me, ‘Paul’s unhappy with this [first] video. Why don’t you do something?'”
The video of Chase ferociously lip-syncing “You Can Call Me Al” became a mainstay on a budding MTV, no doubt contributing to the song’s enormous success.
2. It all started with a mysterious bootleg cassette tape.
When Heidi Berg took Lorne Michaels’ advice and ventured down the hallway to Paul Simon’s office, she couldn’t have realized that they had more in common than music. Both were at a professional crossroads. While Berg was newly unemployed, Simon had been at a low ebb for years.
After dominating the Seventies with a string of critical and commercial hits, he entered the new decade with One Trick Pony, a film written by and starring himself, plus an accompanying soundtrack. Neither made much of an impact. His fortunes improved during a Simon and Garfunkel reunion tour, but relations between the old friends were tenuous and a proposed album fell through. When the solo disc Hearts and Bones &ndash filled with allusions to his troubled relationship with actress Carrie Fisher &ndash was released in its place, it was the lowest charting record of his career. By the spring of 1984, he was wondering what to do next.
The answer arrived in the form of the young singer-songwriter standing at his office door. Having been briefed by Michaels, Simon asked to hear some of Berg’s songs. He found himself impressed by the music, and soon offered to produce an album for her. They met frequently at Simon’s Central Park West apartment, where Berg would play fragments of songs and discuss how she wanted the record to sound. For reference, she handed her soon-to-be producer a homemade cassette bearing the hand-written label “Accordion Jive Vol. II.”
Berg had come across the tape, a collection of South African pop bands, while cruising New York City in a friend’s car. It was mbaqanga, or ‘township jive,’ street music from Soweto, a poor black suburb on the outskirts of Johannesburg. She was enthralled by the sunny sounds of accordions, saxophones, jangly guitars and supercharged rhythms, and it quickly became her favorite music. She lent the cassette to Simon, on the condition that she could have it back in a week. It was, after all, her most treasured tape.
It would take a few days before he listened. At the time he was making regular drives from Manhattan to the East Hampton town of Montauk to supervise construction on his beach house being built a short distance from Lorne Michaels’ summer residence. One day, to liven up the journey, he popped in the tape. Just like Berg, he was bewitched.
“It was very good summer music, happy music. It sounded like very early rock & roll to me, black, urban, mid-Fifties rock and roll, like the great Atlantic tracks from that period,” he remembered. “I was listening to it for fun for at least a month before I started to make up melodies over it. Even then I wasn’t making them up for the purpose of writing. I was just singing along with the tape, the way people do.”
Aside from the nondescript title, the tape bore no hint of the music’s origins. He knew it came from South Africa, but to Simon that might as well have been another planet. “After a couple of weeks of driving back and forth to the house and listening to the tape, I thought, ‘What is this tape? This is my favorite tape, I wonder who this band is.’ And that’s when things started to perk up.”
He called Warner Bros. label chief Lenny Waronker, who got in touch with South African producer Hilton Rosenthal. Despite the limited information, Rosenthal was able to peg Simon’s favorite track as an instrumental called “Gumboots” by the Boyoyo Boys. Simon spoke excitedly of buying the rights to the song and putting his own melody and lyrics overtop, as he had done with an Andean folk song for the Simon and Garfunkel tune “El Condor Pasa.” But Rosenthal suggested that Simon record a full album of South African music. Simon liked this idea very much.
Unfortunately, Berg did not. Weeks went by and her prized tape had still not been returned. Though Simon was touring through much of the summer of 1984, she got the distinct feeling that he was avoiding her. When they finally connected backstage at one of his shows, Simon told her about his plan to record a whole album of mbaqanga sounds. According to an interview with Peter Ames Carlin for his upcoming book Homeward Bound, Berg extended her palm and angrily exclaimed, “Where’s my end?” Their working relationship deteriorated shortly after.
3. Simon entered the studio without a having single song prepared.
When Paul Simon heard music that sent his spirit soaring, he was not content to approximate the sound with session pros and studio tricks. Instead, he wanted the very same hands to play on his records. Two decades of pop music superstardom had given him license to make a number of musical field trips. When he wished to explore the emerging reggae genre on his 1972 track “Mother and Child Reunion,” he traveled to Kingston, Jamaica, to record in the famed Dynamic Sound Studios. When he sought to add an extra dose of funk to the album that would become There Goes Rhymin’ Simon the following year, he decamped to Alabama and hired the services of the Muscle Schoals Sound Rhythm Section. “I learned pretty early on if you want to get the music right you should probably travel to where it’s being played as opposed to asking musicians who are not familiar with it to copy it,” he told National Geographic in 2012.
To get the sounds he heard on the bootleg “Accordion Jive” tape, he knew he would have to go to South Africa. “At first I thought: it’s too bad [the tape] isn’t from Zimbabwe or Zaire or Nigeria,” he said. “Because life would be simpler.”
“Simpler” would be an understatement. Recording in South Africa in the mid-Eighties was not only dangerous &ndash it was prohibited by the United Nations. The South African government had been globally condemned for the unjust and immoral practice of apartheid (or “separateness”) that ensured white minority rule and stripped black individuals of their rights and citizenship. In December 1980, the U.N. General Assembly passed resolution 35/206, which forced “all states to prevent all cultural, academic, sporting and other exchanges with South Africa” and ordered “writers, artists, musicians and other personalities to boycott” the nation. Even working with South African players elsewhere in the world was forbidden.
Paul Simon refused to be told what to do &ndash by the U.N. or anybody else. The headstrong artist would record where he wanted, with whomever he wanted, whenever he wanted. Determined to chase his muse, he resolved to venture to South Africa whether the politicians liked it or not. “I knew I would be criticized if I went, even though I wasn’t going to record for the government &hellip or to perform for segregated audiences,” he told The New York Times. “I was following my musical instincts in wanting to work with people whose music I greatly admired.”
He sought the advice of Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte, whose reputations as civil-rights activists rivaled their prodigious musical output. Both encouraged Simon, but Belafonte urged him to pause until he could speak to contacts in the African National Congress, South Africa’s anti-apartheid opposition party that had been led by Nelson Mandela before his imprisonment in 1964. But Simon was far too excited to wait. “It’s like having your dad tell you not to take the car on a date you really want to go on,” he admitted in Under African Skies. “You take the car anyway.”
Accompanied only by longtime engineer Roy Halee, Simon arrived in early February 1986, less than a year after first hearing the music. With Hilton Rosenthal on hand to bridge the cultural gap, they holed up in Johannesburg’s Ovation Studios and called in a steady stream of local musicians. Instead of having a specific song in mind, Simon just wanted to play and see what happened.
“My typical style of songwriting in the past [had] been to sit with a guitar and write a song, finish it, go into the studio, book the musicians, lay out the song and the chords, and then try to make a track,” Simon said in a New York Times profile. “With these musicians, I was doing it the other way around. The tracks preceded the songs. We worked improvisationally. While a group was playing in the studio I would sing melodies and words &ndash anything that fit the scale they were playing in.”
Rosenthal contacted many of the bands who were heard on the “Accordion Jive” tape. The band Tau ea Matsehka gave “The Boy In the Bubble” its urgent beat, while General M.D. Shirinda and the Gaza Sisters provided the distinctive backing to “I Know What I Know.” The Boyoyo Boys ran through a blistering version of their own “Gumboots,” the unofficial theme song of the project. With Simon as an active participant, they would engage in lengthy, unstructured jam sessions as a way to get to know one another, and potentially stumble across a usable idea for a song. “Here we were going in there with nothing on paper,” recounts Halee in Under African Skies. “It was an idea, a concept. I know they thought we were both nuts.”
By the second week of recording, Simon and Halee had homed in on a core group of musicians to form the backbone of the Graceland players: Chikapa “Ray” Phiri of the band Stimela on guitar, Tao Ea Matsekha bassist Bakithi Kumalo and Stimela’s Isaac Mthsli on drums. With a revolving cast of locally famous musicians from nearby Soweto, the jams continued. “It was a concept of getting good grooves and coming back and re-writing it. There was nothing really written,” continues Halee. “It was a gamble, I guess.”
Simon, the consummate perfectionist, took the approach of letting go, leaning back and letting the spirit move him. “Instead of resisting what’s going on, I’ll go with it and I’ll be carried along and I’ll find out where we’re going. Instead of assuming that I’m the captain of the ship, I’m not I’m just a passenger.”
In just under two weeks, he had the raw music for eight tracks from which he could tease out usable riffs and instrumental passages to manipulate at will. The technique was not unlike a modern hip-hop producer chopping pre-existing songs to create new beats. “The amount of editing that went into that album was unbelievable,” says Halee. “Without the facility to edit digital I don’t think we could have done that project.” With everything in the can, Simon returned home to Montauk to piece it all together and compose lyrics.
4. The evils of apartheid could be felt in the recording studio.
Simon went to great lengths to ensure that his South African musical colleagues were treated as equals throughout the sessions. He offered the band almost $200 dollars an hour &ndash triple the scale wages for top players in New York City &ndash at a time when the going rate in Johannesburg was around $15 a day. Moreover, he promised to share writing credits for any musical or lyrical input. The deal was fair enough that the justifiably suspicious South African black musician’s union passed a resolution to formally invite Simon to record in their country. When sessions were shifted to New York City and London, the maestro made sure his musicians flew first class, stayed at the top rate hotels, and dined in five-star restaurants.
While Simon’s recording sessions in the rest of the world were generally cheerful and relaxed, the early dates in Johannesburg had an undeniable edge. “There was a surface tranquility, but right below the surface there was all this tension,” Simon told Rolling Stone in 1986. “For instance, we would begin recording sessions at noon, and we would stop when we got a finished track. So a session could go past dark. But once it gets past dark, the musicians have to figure out a way home. They couldn’t use public transportation. They are not allowed to be on the streets of Johannesburg after curfew. They would have to show papers, and it was something they clearly didn’t want to have to do. So always around six or seven o’clock, there would be an uncomfortable time when the players couldn’t concentrate until they knew there might be a car to take them home.”
In a 2012 interview with NPR, he recalled a particularly distressing incident from an early recording date. “I was putting a saxophone on ‘Gumboots’ with Barney Rachabane and I wanted him to play a harmony to a part that he wrote. He said, ‘I have to go. I have to be out of the garage by five o’clock because I don’t have a permit to be in Johannesburg after five o’clock. And if I don’t have a permit, I could be arrested.’ So in the middle of the euphoric feeling in the studio, you would have reminders that you’re living in incredibly tense racial environment, where the law of the land was apartheid.”
5. “You Can Call Me Al” got its title from a misunderstanding at a party &ndash and its bass solo is technically impossible to play.
While the irresistible riff came flowing out of Ray Phiri’s guitar one day in Ovation Studios, the inscrutable lyrics of “You Can Call Me Al” stemmed from an incident that took place at a party Simon had attended years before with his then-wife, Peggy Harper. During the evening they had chatted with fellow guest Pierre Boulez, the French composer and conductor. As Boulez prepared to make his exit, he tapped Simon on the shoulder. “Sorry I have to leave, Al,” he said with utmost civility. “And give my best to Betty.”
Simon found the faux pas extremely funny. “Ever since then, Peggy would call me Al, and I would call her Betty,” he said years later during a seminar at Rollins College. “It became a running joke.” When penning lyrics for Phiri’s riff back in Montauk, he remembered the moment.
While the story helps demystify the perplexing lyrical content, the song’s stunning bass breakdown continues to dazzle. It was performed by Baghiti Khumalo on May 10th, 1986 &ndash his birthday. “I wasn’t slapping the whole thing, but when it came to that break, I just used my slapping because in the studio, the fretless sounded unbelievable!” he recalled in For Bass Players Only.
Simon loved the sound so much that he decided to artificially extend Khumalo’s solo by playing the tape backwards. The result is a musical palindrome with a one-measure descending phrase mirrored by the reversed ascending portion. It was enormously effective, and technically impossible to reproduce live exactly as heard on the record. “That kind of thing was always happening &ndash ‘Let’s try it in reverse,'” Halee explained to Sound on Sound. “We would wild-track all the time. Anything to make it sound more interesting.”
6. “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” was a last-minute addition to the album.
Graceland was originally due out in June 1986, but Warner Brothers decided to push back the release until the end of August. So when Simon reconvened with the Soweto rhythm section and Ladysmith Black Mambazo for an appearance on SNL that May, it seemed like a great excuse to get together in the studio. “Well, we’re all here, we might as well do another track,” he thought at the time.
Simon’s relationship with the a cappella choir had been cemented months earlier when recording “Homeless” at London’s Abbey Road Studios. The group’s leader, Joseph Shabalala, adapted the words of a traditional Zulu wedding as an introduction for the song. To the surprise and delight of the close-knit group, Simon joined them around the microphone to sing the delicate vocal takes. “I nearly fainted!” Shabalala said in Under African Skies. “I’m thinking, who is this guy?’ He is my brother. Why is he hiding himself in America? I call him ‘brother.'”
This feeling of intimacy and camaraderie carried over into that May’s sessions at New York City’s Hit Factory. They began with an extended vocal tag in the traditional African mbube style. The Zulu dialect of the refrain roughly translates to “It’s not usual but in our days we see those things happen/They are women, they can take care of themselves,” but perhaps Simon’s imagination was triggered by mbube’s history as the music of migrant coal and diamond miners.
Regardless of its precise lyrical origin, the stunning “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” became the 11th song recorded for the album. The vocals from Ladysmith Black Mambazo were accented by percussion work from Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour, marking the first time they had blended their voices with instruments.
7. Linda Ronstadt’s appearance on the album also sparked a major controversy.
With her string of soulful hits, Linda Ronstadt hardly seems like a lightning rod for controversy. Yet her vocal cameo on the Graceland track “Under African Skies” caused nearly as much of a firestorm as Simon’s decisions to employ South African musicians and record in Johannesburg.
The trouble stemmed from her six appearances at a South African luxury resort called Sun City in May 1983. She had been approached to appear as a last-minute replacement act for the strange duo of Frank Sinatra and boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. Bookers apparently told Ronstadt that the venue was located in the semi-independent (and semi-fictitious) territory of Bophuthatswana. Though nominally integrated, this area was effectively the South African equivalent of a North American Indian reservation, where many displaced black individuals were relocated. Either Ronstadt misunderstood the geopolitical complexities of the region, or had fallen victim to a promoter’s ruse to lure international superstars to their resort. In any event, she accepted the $500,000 fee.
While conscious of South Africa’s abysmal human-rights practices, she claimed that she was unaware of an official boycott until she had already arrived at Sun City. “I had two days to decide [to come],” she told Rolling Stone at the time. “I talked to everyone. I called friends of mine at Motown. Their story was: ‘Black artists go, so we can’t tell you not to go.'” Even after learning of the cultural ban, the singer remained defiant. “The last place for a boycott is in the arts. I don’t like being told I can’t go somewhere.” Though she repeatedly maintained that her appearances were not an endorsement of the South African government, Ronstadt received worldwide condemnation for the concerts.
Simon himself had turned down prior offers to perform at Sun City. But given Ronstadt’s troubled relationship with South Africa, his choice to feature her prominently on Graceland comes with conflicting implications. The lyrics to “Under African Skies” were composed with Ronstadt’s direct input, contrasting her youthful memories in the American Southwest with the natural serenity of an African sunset. “He called me up one day and said, ‘I’m having a hard time writing. Give me some images from your childhood,'” she later recalled. “I said, ‘OK, I grew up in Tucson near the San Javier Mission.’ I’ve loved that place and considered it my spiritual homeland. I told him about the mission, and he included that part in the song.”
To Simon, the purpose of the track was to both celebrate music’s power to nourish the soul and also illustrate how we are all united under the same sky. But not everyone viewed it with such tenderhearted optimism. Nelson George of Billboard likened the choice of Ronstadt to “using gasoline to put out birthday candles.” Legendary rock writer Robert Christgau was another cynic. “Even if the lyric called for total U.S. divestiture, Ronstadt’s presence on Graceland would be a slap in the face to the world anti-apartheid movement,” he wrote at the time. “A deliberate, considered, headstrong slap in the face.”
8. The only Graceland musicians to openly accuse Simon of plagiarism were Americans.
The final two tracks on Graceland bucked the mbaqanga theme. “I didn’t want it to be just an African album,” Simon said in Rolling Stone. “I wanted to say, ‘Look, don’t look upon this as something so strange and different. It actually relates to our world.'” The rollicking “That Was Your Mother” featured zydeco dance band Good Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters, and the closer, “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints,” included backing from Chicano rockers Los Lobos. While Simon weathered accusations that he went to South Africa to “steal” their music, these two North American bands were the only Graceland players to openly complain of plagiarism.
Good Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters reacted with little more than annoyance. Listening closely to “That Was Your Mother,” one can hear certain similarities in chord structure and accordion passages to a zydeco song called “My Baby, She’s Gone,” registered to Alton Rubin Sr. (a.k.a. Good Rockin’ Dopsie). His name failed to appear on the Graceland writing credits, but Rubin decided that the exposure was all the payment he needed and did not make any further claim.
On the other hand, Steve Berlin of Los Lobos wasn’t interested in exposure. His band was already hot following the release of their third major label album, 1984’s How Will the Wolf Survive? The disc drew the attention of many industry notables &ndash including Simon, who put out word that he wanted to record with the band. But according to Berlin, the collaboration was fairly one-sided.
“We go into the studio, and he had quite literally nothing,” he said in 2008. “I mean, he had no ideas, no concepts, and said, ‘Well, let’s just jam.'” One full day of playing failed to yield any results, but something caught Simon’s attention on day two. “Paul goes, ‘Hey, what’s that?’ We start playing what we have of it, and it is exactly what you hear on the record. So we’re like, ‘Oh, OK. We’ll share this song.'” When Los Lobos found no trace of their names on the album’s writing credits, they initially assumed that it had been an honest mistake. But when months went by with no restitution, the band’s bemusement turned to anger. “It was not a pleasant deal for us,” maintains Berlin. “I mean he quite literally &ndash and in no way do I exaggerate when I say &ndash he stole the song from us.”
He claims that he brought to matter to Simon’s attention and was met with the less-than-conciliatory response of, “Sue me. See what happens.” The guitarist holds a grudge to this day, dubbing Simon “the world’s biggest prick.” However, Simon says it’s all a case of opportunism. “The album came out and we heard nothing. Then six months passed and Graceland had become a hit and the first thing I heard about the problem was when my manager got a lawyer’s letter. I was shocked.”
9. Steven Van Zandt got Paul Simon taken off an African hit list.
Graceland stirred up controversy even before it was released on August 26th, 1986. While no one could deny the album’s brilliance, some critics felt it amounted to a kind of musical colonialism: a white man going to Africa, strip-mining raw materials, and bringing it home to the West where it could be refined and sold at a massive profit. While the question of cultural appropriation can be considered a gray area, violating the cultural ban against South Africa was much more concrete. The act could be &ndash and often was &ndash interpreted as tacit support of a brutal racist regime.
Not that this was his intention. Simon insisted that all of his fellow musicians were there on their own free will and paid fairly. They split food, lodging, transport and songwriting credits. “I wasn’t going there to take money out of the country,” he explained to The Washington Post. “I wasn’t being paid for playing to a white audience. I was recording with black groups and paying them and sharing my royalties with them.” Guitarist Ray Pieri agreed in the documentary Classic Albums: Graceland. “We used Paul as much as Paul used us. There was no abuse. He came at the right time and he was what we needed to bring our music into the mainstream.”
Simon also cited the invitation from the South African black musician’s union, and the encouragement from Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte. But for anti-apartheid sects, it was not enough. “When he goes to South Africa, Paul Simon bows to apartheid,” declared James Victor Ghebo, the former Ghanaian ambassador to the UN. “He lives in designated hotels for whites. He spends money the way whites have made it possible to spend money there. The money he spends goes to look after white society, not to the townships.”
Still others expressed outrage that Simon’s lyrics didn’t directly address the human-rights violations and make some kind of overt stand against apartheid. “Was I supposed to solve things in a song?” he sputtered in his own defense. While admitting that he simply wasn’t any good at writing Bob Dylan/Bob Geldof&ndashlike protest anthems, he claimed that the mere existence of Graceland was a political statement in itself. “I never said there were not strong political implications to what I did,” he told Rolling Stone . “I just said the music was not overtly political. But the implications of the music certainly are. And I still think it’s the most powerful form of politics, more powerful than saying it right on the money, in which case you’re usually preaching to the converted. People get attracted to the music, and once they hear what’s going on within it, they say, ‘What? They’re doing that to these people?'”
The debate intensified when Simon announced a six-month world tour entitled “Graceland: The African Concert,” which would feature a front line of South African session players, Lady Smith Black Mambazo, and South African exiles Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. As 1987 dawned, Simon found himself on the UN Anti-Apartheid Committee’s boycott violator’s list, putting him in unsavory company. Obviously distressed by this, he undoubtedly would have been much more disturbed to know that he was also at the top of a hit list.
Bizarrely, Simon was unwittingly saved from a tragic fate by Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band deputy, Steven Van Zandt. The guitarist had been active in the South African freedom movement for many years, founding the Artists United Against Apartheid organization. He wrote, produced and performed on the 1985 all-star protest song “Sun City,” a rock & roll denunciation of all artists who dared to perform at the titular resort. Van Zandt had originally asked Simon to participate in the recording, but he refused after being shown an early draft of the lyrics that called out his friend Linda Ronstadt by name. The pair apparently shared a rocky relationship for some time after that. In a recent Sirius XM interview with Dave Marsh, Van Zandt claims that Simon questioned his pro&ndashNelson Mandela stance around the time of the Graceland sessions with a scornful, “What are you doing, defending this communist?”
Van Zandt’s anti-apartheid activities took him into Soweto to meet with a group of militant black radicals known as the Azanian People’s Organization, or AZAPO. They were so die-hard that they had a lengthy discussion with Van Zandt about whether to kill him on the spot simply for showing up. “That’s how serious they were about violating the boycott,” he said. “I eventually talked them out of that.”
He soon gained their trust. “They showed me that they [had] an assassination list, and Paul Simon was at the top of it. And in spite of my feelings about Paul Simon, I said to them, ‘Listen, I understand your feelings about this I might even share them, but … this is not gonna help anybody if you knock off Paul Simon. Trust me on this, alright? Let’s put that aside for the moment. Give me a year or so &hellip to try and do this a different way. I’m trying to actually unify the music community around this, which may or may not include Paul Simon, but I don’t want it to be a distraction. I just don’t need that distraction right now I gotta keep my eye on the ball.’ And they took him off that assassination list.”
10. Paul Simon was the first major international artist to perform in a free South Africa &ndash and it nearly killed him.
The political instruments of apartheid began to deteriorate by the end of the decade, culminating in Nelson Mandela’s release from Victor Verster prison in 1990. The symbolic victory sparked dramatic results in the fight for majority rule, and by December 1991, the cultural boycott was finally lifted. With artists now free to tour South America as they pleased, it seemed appropriate that Paul Simon be welcomed into the nation to perform his greatest work for the very people who influenced it. At the invitation of Mandela and with the full support of the African National Congress, promoter Attie van Wyk booked Simon and his band for a series of five shows, beginning at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium.
The multi-national touring party was treated to a formal reception at an upscale hotel on January 9th, 1992, with Mandela himself in attendance. The future South African president locked hands with Simon for photos and wished him “a real success indeed.” An ebullient Simon echoed the goodwill, seemingly putting aside any misgivings about Mandela’s alleged communist leanings. “I hope my presence here and the concerts will bring people pleasure as a musical evening and that for those few hours at least people can put aside their differences and simply enjoy the pleasure of the music.”
Mandela’s public support should have been a peak moment Simon considering the years of controversy and public scorn he had endured because of his African sojourn. But the victory was tainted later that night when three hand grenades were tossed into Van Wyk’s office. The premises were completely destroyed, but no one was hurt. Still, Simon was understandably shaken.
AZAYO, a sect of the militant AZAPO, claimed responsibility. Presumably Van Zandt’s influence was enough to dissuade AZAPO from murdering Simon outright, but the act sent a very clear message: They did not want the concerts to take place. A terrified Simon paced his bedroom, fretting that someone could be hurt or killed. He considered cancelling the African leg of the tour altogether, but local security forces insisted that AZAYO consisted of “three guys and a fax machine.”
Simon held a clandestine meeting with representatives of AZAYO to negotiate a truce, but they were unwilling to settle for a portion of the tour’s proceeds. Later they appeared at a press conference to deliver unveiled threats. “We have always pointed out that should his show go on, there is the potential for violence.” Nearly a hundred demonstrators congregated outside the venue before the show on January 11th, many brandishing placards promising blood on the soles of Simon’s shoes. But they were no match for the 800 policemen and the shows went off without further incident.
Though the risk of AZAYO an attack put a serious dent in ticket sales, Simon was finally able to perform for the people who inspired his music and rejuvenated his soul.
The unforgettable concert that history somehow forgot
In mid-1980s South Africa, Nelson Mandela was still languishing in prison, and the now-ruling African National Congress was a banned movement.
Many people were held in detention, while anti-government activists in the townships engaged in violent confrontations with the security forces. Acts of sabotage were commonplace and thousands of young white men were expected, under pain of imprisonment, to perform military duties on South Africa’s borders.
For the international community, South Africa was a pariah, subject to sanctions and a cultural boycott. In 1980, the U.N. General Assembly carried a resolution asking states to “prevent all cultural, academic, sports and other exchanges with South Africa.” Performers such as Queen, Frank Sinatra, Cher and Shirley Bassey, who agreed to play in the country, were put on a U.N. blacklist.
Inside South Africa, local musicians had to fend off government censorship, as the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) routinely deprived airplay to songs or albums deemed politically or morally problematic. Vinyl records were scratched to make it impossible for disc jockeys to ignore diktats. The police periodically teargassed concerts and some performers had their tires slashed.
“Internal resistance to apartheid was growing, and the state was stepping up its attempts to repress resistance, as evidenced in the declaration of states of emergency in parts of the country. External resistance in the form of sanctions and the cultural and sports boycotts was also impacting on the state’s paranoia,” says associate professor Michael Drewett of South Africa’s Rhodes University. Bookended by internal and external pressure, many South African singers and musicians chose exile or packed in their careers.
This Could Be a Great Place for a Concert
Radio 702, one of the few independent radio stations inside South Africa, decided to launch a telethon fundraiser for Operation Hunger. The charity was set up in 1980 by two doctors, Selma Browde and Nthato Motlana, to tackle countrywide malnutrition. In late 1984, Radio 702 decided to open a new studio, in what was then the homeland of Bophuthatswana (now Gauteng province). The owner Issie Kirsch decided to take a helicopter to visit the site, and he brought record producer, Hilton Rosenthal, along for the ride.
At the time, Rosenthal owned South Africa’s largest independent record company and was responsible for producing hit records that propelled the British-born Jewish singer Johnny Clegg, dubbed “le Zoulou blanc” in France and the group Juluka to international stardom.
As the men made their way back to Johannesburg, the helicopter passed over the enormous Ellis Park Stadium (now Emirates Airline Park), best known to outsiders for international rugby matches including the 1995 Rugby World Cup, depicted in Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film “Invictus.” Looking down, Rosenthal believed more could be done to boost the telethon’s success and the thought came to mind that, “this could be a great place for a concert.”
Kirsch spoke to Ellis Park’s manager Louis Luyt who generously agreed to loan the stadium out for free. Radio 702 would handle advertising for the concert, and the only payment required was for cleaning the stadium.
The organizers had just two months to prepare. Rosenthal insisted that the band lineup would include both black and white musicians. More than 20 acts, including Johnny Clegg and Juluka, agreed to play for free.
Clegg, who died of cancer in 2019, was inspired as a teenage boy by Zulu dance and culture. He later partnered with the musician Sipho Mchunu, and together they created rich compositions that infused traditional Zulu music styles with folk and rock music.
Three Years Later: South African singer Johnny Clegg (C) and dancers of South African band Savuka perform on stage on May 11, 1988 at the Zenith concert hall in Paris
Clegg had frequent run-ins with the security police, over concerts featuring mixed audiences. Though as the years went by, his overseas success afforded him a level of protection.
Other invited acts included Steve Kekana, who lost his eyesight as a young boy, but later found he had a talent for singing. Then there was the powerful voice of Margaret Singana, whose musical talents were discovered while she worked as a domestic cleaner PJ Powers and Hotline, who had amassed a strong following in neighboring countries and “Madonna of the Townships” Brenda Fassie.
Other acts included Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse and Harari singer-songwriter Pierre de Charmoy Afro-rock group Via Afrika the masters of “ethnotronic” rhythms éVoid, as well as Petit Cheval, Ella Mental and Face to Face.
There Were So Many People
In the days leading up to the concert, organizers hoped to attract an audience of 30,000. But on the day, Jan. 12, throngs descended on the stadium.
“The whole city seemed to shut down. There were so many people,” says Craig Else from Petit Cheval. At least 100,000 tickets were sold, and a further 20,000 people turned up, raising concerns of a stampede. Technicians raced to find larger speakers to musically accommodate the growing crowd. But, despite the unforeseen events, “everything fell into place,” says Rosenthal.
Under the southern sun, the audience, composed of every race, decked out in caps, some holding umbrellas and beer cans were treated to an eclectic range of music.
‘There was a strange mix of bands, a seemingly incompatible group of artists. Not a melting pot, more of a salad bowl,” Else recalls. For South Africa, the early 1980s saw a proliferation of new musical talent. There was, “so much self-expression during this era,” says éVoid bandmember Erik Windrich.
As the event got underway, Brenda Fassie and the Big Dudes fired up the crowd with the massive hit “Weekend Special.”
The upbeat track “Jive Soweto” “attracted a surprisingly exceptional response from the multiracial audience,” said Harari frontman Sipho Mabuse. Then P.J. Powers, who 10 years later would grace the same stage for the Rugby World Cup, belted out the Afro-pop hit “Dance Mama.”
Many of the songs, particularly those by Afro-pop group Via Afrika, were notable for their adoption of South African and broader African elements, such as the penny whistle infused sounds of kwela, the jazzy notes of mbaqanga or the upbeat melodies of bubblegum.
For black musicians such as Mabuse, what made this event special was, “given the status quo, neither white people were exposed to the music from the other side of town, the townships, nor were Black people familiar with white music. It made for an exhilarating atmosphere.”
Many, including Rosenthal, remember that it was the appearance of Johnny Clegg and his performance of “Scatterlings of Africa” that made the crowd go “nuts.”
“There was one Juluka fan who had a wooden leg, and he held the leg in the air and people were throwing it up and catching it,” recallewd Rosenthal. “There was a jovial, celebratory atmosphere, and it showed what a non-racial South Africa could be.”
As a young student in the crowd, Lisa Brittan, remembers that it felt “like a moment of coming together. It signaled something that stood apart.”
But for groups, such as éVoid, the event was tinged by sadness it was the last time they would play in front of such a large audience, before they, like so many others, decided to leave South Africa.
We Will Never See Such an Event Again
Many feared that fights could break out, but as Else remembers, “People checked all their aggression at the door. They just wanted to have a good time.” Despite the large numbers there were hardly any incidents. Drummer Jarrod Aston-Assenheim of Face to Face recalls that even members of the police were, “dancing, high-fiving and smiling.”
In the days after, the concert went unnoticed by the international press, but in an extraordinary mirroring of events, just months later, in July, the press and the world’s attention would be drawn to Africa, as thousands of people would fill concert arenas in the U.S. and the U.K. to support Live Aid’s famine relief efforts in Ethiopia. Meanwhile, South Africa, would plunge into a state of emergency and violence would continue unabated through the decade.
But for over 100,000 people, on a balmy Johannesburg night, the Concert in the Park, punctuated a bleak period in South African history.
“We will never see such an event again,” says Aston-Assenheim, since no event to date has ever showcased such an array of South African musical talent in one place, and incredibly people of all races were able to experience it. A little bit of history was made that day, as it proved that no matter the circumstances, when you play great music, the world cannot help but stop and listen.
Boycotts and sanctions helped rid South Africa of apartheid
Ask an older generation of white South Africans when they first felt the bite of anti-apartheid sanctions, and some point to the moment in 1968, when then-South African prime minister John Vorster banned a tour by the England cricket team, because it included a mixed-race player, Basil D’Oliveira.
After that, South Africa was excluded from international cricket until former South African president Nelson Mandela walked free from prison 22 years later.
The D’Oliveira affair, as it became known, proved a watershed in drumming up popular support for the sporting boycott that eventually saw the country excluded from most international competition including rugby union, the great passion of the white Afrikaners who were the base of the then-ruling National Party and who bitterly resented being cast out.
Illustration: Mountain People
For others, the moment of reckoning came years later, in 1985, when foreign banks called in South Africa’s loans. It was a clear sign that the country’s economy was going to pay an ever higher price for apartheid.
Neither of those events was decisive in bringing down South Africa’s regime. Far more credit lies with the black schoolchildren who took to the streets of Soweto in 1976 and started years of unrest and civil disobedience that made the country increasingly ungovernable until changing global politics, and the collapse of communism, played its part.
However, the rise of the popular anti-apartheid boycott over nearly 30 years made its mark on South Africans who were increasingly confronted by a repudiation of their system.
Ordinary Europeans pressured supermarkets to stop selling South African products. British students forced Barclays Bank to pull out of the apartheid state. The refusal of a Dublin shop worker to ring up a Cape grapefruit led to a strike and then a total ban on South African imports by the Irish government.
By the mid-1980s, one in four Britons said they were boycotting South African goods — a testament to the reach of the anti-apartheid campaign.
The musicians union blocked South African artists from playing on the BBC and the cultural boycott saw most performers refusing to play in the apartheid state, although some, including Elton John and Queen, infamously put on concerts at Sun City in the Bophuthatswana homeland.
The US did not have the same sporting or cultural ties, and imported far fewer South African products, but the mobilization against apartheid in universities, churches and through local coalitions in the 1980s was instrumental in forcing the hand of US politicians and big business in favor of financial sanctions and divestment.
By the time former South African president F.W. de Klerk was ready to release Mandela and negotiate an end to apartheid, a big selling point for part of the white population was an end to boycotts and isolation.
Twenty-seven years after the end of white rule, some see the boycott campaign against South Africa as a guide to mobilizing popular support against what is increasingly condemned as Israel’s own brand of apartheid.
As South Africa showed, building popular support for action takes years — and those who back the campaign face a far more effective opponent in the Israeli state.
For all that, significant shifts in attitudes toward Israel, particularly in the US and within the Jewish diaspora, have presented campaigners with their best prospects to date for building a boycott and they are looking to the anti-apartheid movement as the example.
One of the most important changes is the breaking of the taboo on comparisons with South Africa’s racist system.
Israel’s leading human rights group, B’Tselem, issued a report in January called: “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid.”
Human Rights Watch in the US followed last month, accusing Israel of “crimes of apartheid.”
For years, Israel and its supporters have dismissed claims of similarities as anti-Semitic on the grounds they imply that the Jewish state is a racist enterprise.
Israel continues to claim to the outside world that the occupation is temporary, even as it entrenches control ever more deeply, and that the Palestinians only have themselves to blame for failing to negotiate their way to an independent state.
However, the increasing focus on campaigns for racial justice in the US has contributed to a shift in focus from arguments about two states to abuses of individual human rights.
The anti-apartheid boycott movement had credibility in good part because it was called for by South Africans even if it never had universal support among the country’s black population, in part over fear of loss of jobs.
Then-African National Congress (ANC) president Albert Luthuli made the call in 1958. The following year the Boycott Movement, later renamed the Anti-Apartheid Movement, was launched in London. Among the speakers was Julius Nyerere, future president of newly independent Tanzania.
“We are not asking you, the British people, for anything special. We are just asking you to withdraw your support from apartheid by not buying South African goods,” he said.
“The South African government is fighting against history and they are bound to lose. We know that the liberation struggle will triumph in South Africa. If you have confidence then we are going to win,” he said.
Nyerere was right, but it took another 30 years.
The Palestinian campaign, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, is not led by political leaders, but civil society, which does not have the same standing in the kind of international forums where the ANC had leverage.
On the face of it, that is a weakness.
However, the absence of the aging and compromised Palestinian Authority leadership has opened the way for a younger generation usually much better at communicating how the Palestinian experience fits with growing global demands for racial justice.
Add to that the wave of protests by a new generation of Palestinians inside Israel and the occupied territories, united by anger at two systems built on discrimination.
White South Africa’s apologists, who included conservative politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, cast the ANC as a violent anti-democratic movement and a front for the Soviet Union.
The UK’s right-wing tabloids looked around other parts of the African continent and asked why South Africa was being picked on when Idi Amin’s Uganda was so much worse.
However, millions of ordinary people saw through that for what apartheid was — a crime against the humanity of every South African subjected to its racist laws and practices.
Israel has worked hard to keep the focus on Hamas and it routinely disparages critics by asking why they are “singling out” the Jewish state when its Arab neighbors are less democratic and more oppressive.
However, the events of the past few weeks have shown the extent to which that tactic is increasingly ineffective, particularly amid international criticism of the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes to make way for Jews in East Jerusalem.
While Israel claims the BDS movement has no credibility and little support, its actions suggest it believes something else.
Pro-Israel groups have worked hard to persuade US states to pass anti-boycott laws and to codify the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, with its ambiguous examples of when criticism of Israel is unacceptable.
The long and terrible history of boycotts of Jews, particularly in Europe, adds a dimension to the campaign that South Africans did not have to consider.
However, it is no longer enough in itself to dismiss sanctions outright as too reminiscent of the 1930s. A group of more than 200 Holocaust academics around the world has pushed back with the Jerusalem Declaration, which said that comparisons between Israel and apartheid, and calls for a boycott, are not in themselves anti-Semitic.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not helped himself by allying with former US president Donald Trump or the far-right in Europe, such as Hungarian President Viktor Orban, who has long trafficked in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Still, the challenges for the boycott movement are clear. FIFA — world soccer’s governing body — rejected demands for action over six Israeli league teams based in Jewish settlements on the grounds that the issue was too “political,” which points to popular action leading the way, as happened against South African apartheid.
In echoes of the cultural boycott of South Africa, actors and filmmakers have refused to play in Israel. Some called for the Eurovision Song Contest to be withdrawn from Tel Aviv in 2019. New Zealand singer Lorde canceled a concert in the city three years ago after fans urged her to join the artistic boycott of Israel. A pro-Israel group placed an advert in the Washington Post calling her a “bigot.”
Three years ago, Argentina canceled a World Cup warm-up match with Israel after the players voted to boycott the game. The appearance of Palestinian flags at English Premier League and FA Cup matches in the past few days suggests there is support for such action.
It is an even larger challenge to persuade big business to show its disapproval of Israeli policies. Yet even in the face of pressure from Trump, parts of the US private sector stood against further restrictions on voting rights in the US and pulled funding for Republicans who backed the mob that stormed the US Capitol in January.
The movement also has important friends, among them black South Africans who were at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid.
On Wednesday last week, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, a trade union leader who led the ANC’s negotiations with the white regime, said the forced removal of Palestinians to make way for Israeli settlers and the destruction of homes in Gaza “brings back very terrible memories of our own history and apartheid.”
“This, for us, is very close to our own suffering under apartheid. When we see those images, we can’t but help to side with the Palestinians,” he said.
Chris McGreal was the Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent from 2002 for four years after being based in Johannesburg since 1990.
The Rich History (and Controversy) of Paul Simon’s “Graceland”
It was on Thursday, exactly 30 years ago, when the music world was introduced to this:
In case you didn’t know, that was the acclaimed Paul Simon, along with famed SNL alum Chevy Chase, in the music video to one of the former’s greatest solo works, “You Can Call Me Al”. It was a song that, oddly enough, was inspired by a misunderstanding at a party between Simon, his then-wife Peggy Harper, and French composer/conductor Pierre Boulez, who mistakenly referred to the couple as “Al” and “Betty”, respectively, as he departed.
The song’s origin had been a highly contentious point of argument among the music community for the past 30 years. But, surprisingly enough, that isn’t the song’s most interesting bit of trivia. That would go to the song’s bass line — in particular, the song’s instantly recognizable bass solo, and the man that “technically” played it.
Bakithi Kumalo was the man behind the bass — producing a unique sound, with his uncanny ability on a fretless. To say he “technically” played the bass solo on “You Can Call Me Al” needs a bit of explanation: Kumalo produced the first half of the bass solo (which can be heard at 3:44 on the above video). However, Simon loved the solo so much, he decided to artificially extend it — if you listen carefully, you might notice that the entire solo is an audio “mirror image” of itself that is because Simon extended the solo by playing the tape backwards. Therefore, the solo cannot technically be played properly in a live setting — despite Kumalo’s unmatched talent on the fretless bass.
Kumalo’s unique bass solo is not where his mark on Simon’s music ends. In fact, his presence speaks to a much deeper, more significant meaning behind what would be considered Simon’s greatest, and most controversial, album: 1986’s “Graceland.”
Seen by many as one of the most beloved pop albums of the 20th century, “Graceland” was Paul Simon’s seventh studio album, at a time when his career and his personal life were at a low point. For Simon, it was simultaneously a spiritual revival, both musically and personally, and a lightning rod for controversy — sparking a much-needed debate about the line between honoring an underrepresented population, and unadulterated cultural appropriation.
Simon had recently come off a contentious reunion with former music partner Art Garfunkel, and their latest collaboration — 1983’s Heart and Bones — was a commercial letdown. This was off the heels of his failed second marriage to actress Carrie Fisher. As a result, Simon went through a period of depression — one that was lifted by friend and fellow singer-songwriter Heidi Berg, who loaned him a bootleg cassette tape of South African township music:
It was a happy instrumental music that reminded me of 1950’s rhythm and blues, which I have always loved. By the end of the summer I was scat-singing melodies over the tracks. I thought that the group, whoever it was, would be interesting to record with. And so I went on a search to find out who they were and where they came from.
It was a journey that, unbeknownst to him at the time, would take him all the way to Johannesburg. The music on the bootleg, Simon discovered, was Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Volume II — originating from either Ladysmith Black Mambazo or the Boyoyo Boys, both native acts from the politically contentious country of South Africa.
Therein lay the controversy surrounding the album — one, it seems, that still lingers to this day: The country of South Africa was, at the time, in an era of dangerously contentious politics. Under the racist, oppressive regime known as Apartheid, the white minority rule denied many fundamental rights, including citizenship, to its black denizens. As a result, the United Nations issued a variety of bans and sanctions on the country — including U.N. Resolution 35/206, a mandatory call for “all writers, musicians and other personalities to boycott” the nation.
Ultimately, however, Simon would have none of the boycott. He was willing to follow his artistic instincts to work with the South African artists that inspired him to create the album in the first place — the United Nations be damned.
And, thus, in regards to Simon’s decision to record in South Africa, two camps emerged. On the one hand, you had proponents of the decision, who believed that Simon’s collaborations with Soweto-born artists like Mambazo, Kumalo and Chikapa “Ray” Phiri was an altruistic effort to spread their culture to a global audience — something that would not have been possible, otherwise. Some might say that this cultural exposure to the free world was a vehicle to help spread awareness of their country’s despotic plight — which, in turn, might help hasten the end of Apartheid, as they knew it.
On the other hand, many opponents of Simon’s decision did not appreciate the artist essentially thumbing his nose in the face of United Nations sanctions. After all, as with all boycotts, U.N. Resolution 35/206 was meant as a global show of solidarity against the oppressive practices of Apartheid. Simon’s actions displayed a “naive” detriment to that solidarity.
Critics also could not ignore the cultural appropriation — accidental or otherwise — Simon demonstrated by what they deemed as exploitation of South African music. Some went as far as describing Simon’s creative actions as a form of modern colonialism.
However, as the artists themselves would contend, “exploitation” and “colonialism” were inflammatory ways of describing their recording relationship with Simon. In fact, Simon went out of his way to treat his fellow South African musicians as equals. This showed in his paying them $200 an hour for recording sessions the going Union rate in Johannesburg was $15 a day.
From these recordings, produced a smorgasbord of music unique to the township of Soweto, and a creative blueprint with which Simon could use to create his album. It should be noted that he went to Johannesburg with no songs in mind. As fate would have it, Simon came at the album, creatively, from a reverse perspective: instead of creating the song and having the musicians fill in his vision — a process that Simon was notoriously meticulous with — he would let the musicians dictate the music, to capture the sounds of South Africa, and create songs from there. It was no doubt an artistic renaissance for Simon’s creativity, and his career.
And, despite all of the controversy surrounding the album — including one sparked by, of all things, a Linda Ronstadt cameo — the resulting album, released in August of 1986, became the most successful of Simon’s career, and thrust him back into national relevance. Graceland won Grammys for Best Album in 1987, and for Record of the Year in 1988. It helped popularize African music in the Western world, and, just as important, it brought an amount of personal solace for Simon, in the wake of his depression:
There was the almost mystical affection and strange familiarity I felt when I first heard South African music. Later, there was the visceral thrill of collaborating with South African musicians onstage. Add to this potent mix the new friendships I made with my band mates, and the experience becomes one of the most vital in my life.
Songs of Struggle: Music and the Anti-Apartheid Movement of South Africa
“They used to clap hands. They’d think we made nice music . ‘Oh, these blacks can sing so nice!’ and they'd clap their hands and we'd sing: ‘We will shoot you, we will kill you … (laughter) . be careful what you say. . You’re going to die, slowly … (laughter). be careful what you say, what you do.'” - Sophie Mgcina, South African vocalist and actress, recalling the irony of singing protest songs in African languages in the face of white troops. From Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony
Music is dangerous. While often focused on love, loss, and personal struggle, songs can also be loaded with subversive messages and charged with rhythms that move people to rise up and fight.
Among the many social and political movements that have used song to give voice, cohesion, and power to its people, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa utilized music in a particularly powerful way. Some songs resonated internationally among exiled South African artists, while others were played in secret among the rebellious, youthful white communities. Music was everywhere.
Most powerfully though was the music that emerged from within the communities of black South Africans weighed down by the heavy blanket of apartheid. This group maintained, by far, the most unique and sophisticated musical styles, which allowed them to organize their community on a deep and poetic level.
South Africa and Apartheid
The social history of contemporary South Africa is complex, and the relationship between natives (i.e. descendants of innumerable African tribal and language groups) and whites (i.e. descendants of European immigrants who arrived in various waves starting in 1488) has historically been imbalanced and exploitative.
Translated from the Afrikaans as, literally, "the state of being apart," apartheid was a system of racial segregation enforced by the South African government for 46 years (1948-1994), under which the rights, associations, and movements of the majority black inhabitants were curtailed, while Afrikaner (white) minority rule was maintained.
The rise of apartheid is often attributed to the combination of two primary factors: the 20th century development of South African capitalism (with its strong reliance on cheap labor), and the country's strong history of racial prejudices and policies imposed by Dutch and British settlers.
MINING AND CHEAP (BLACK) LABOR
Undoubtedly, another major influence on the development of apartheid was the discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1886), which quickly transformed South Africa from an agrarian society at the edge of the world economy into a globally integrated industrial economy.
The mining revolution quickly pushed European colonization into the interior of the country and, by the end of the 19th century, indigenous peoples of South Africa had lost all political and economic independence. In addition, new (racist) laws enabled the white-owned mining companies to control workers' lives, keep wages very low, and gain immense profits from the diamonds and gold.
Many men worked in the mines and farms under dangerous conditions and most were migrant laborers, spending nine to eleven months out of the year in the mines while their wives and children remained in the countryside. Since wages were kept so low and there were little to no other options for work, these men would often return home without sufficient wages to feed and clothe their families, with some even returning to find their wives remarried and their families torn apart.
In addition to these severely limited opportunities, apartheid laws forcibly uprooted 3.5 million non-white South Africans from their homes and moved them into segregated neighborhoods as part of one of the largest mass removals in modern history. The government also segregated education, medical care, beaches, and other public services, and provided black people with services that were inferior to those of white people.
The sound of Resistance
During the course of the regime, the anti-apartheid resistance movements evolved and changed shape—from loosely organized unions of non-violent protestors, to powerful and armed coalitions. Throughout it all, music was there. More than any kind of performance, it was the communal act of singing that served as essential fuel for the movement and helped heal emotional wounds, shed light on the injustices of apartheid, and keep the people's spirits high.
During the early years of Apartheid, the songs arising from within the black community were pointedly critical of the regime and expressed overt political protest. One of the many prominent musical and political leaders at this time was Vuyisile Mini, who is recognized for writing some of the most influential songs of the early resistance period. As a gifted actor, dancer, poet and singer, he is remembered both for the songs he composed as well as his powerful bass voice.
One of the most popular liberation songs he wrote in the 1950s was entitled Ndodemnyama (Beware, Verwoerd) and it carried a fierce message to Hendrik Verwoerd, then Prime Minster and the so-called "Architect of Apartheid":
"Look out, Verwoerd, the black man is going to get you.
Look out, Verwoerd, the people have taken up the song."
As expected, overt protest and popular uprisings were met with violent repression from the government, which quickly banned all forms of opposition and imprisoned numerous anti-apartheid leaders:
"The political climate of South Africa soon changed with the general intensification of apartheid and increasing repression of political dissent. The Sharpeville massacre on 21st March 1960, where sixty‐nine unarmed protesters against the pass laws were shot and many more wounded, represents the beginning of the era of repression which stunted all political development among black South Africans in the 60s." (Schumann, "The Beat that Beat Apartheid")
In 1963, Mini was arrested and charged with 17 counts of sabotage and political crimes, including complicity in the death of an alleged police informer. For this, he was sentenced to death. While it would have been unthinkable for him to resist his execution physically, it is widely known that Mini went to the gallows singing many powerful protest songs. A prisoner serving time in Pretoria prison at the time of Mini's execution recalls his last moments:
“The last evening was devastatingly sad as the heroic occupants of the death cells communicated to the prison in gentle melancholy song that their end was near. It was late at night when the singing ceased, and the prison fell into uneasy silence. I was already awake when the singing began again in the early morning. Once again the excruciatingly beautiful music floated through the barred windows, echoing round the brick exercise yard, losing itself in the vast prison yards.
And then, unexpectedly, the voice of Vuyisile Mini came roaring down the hushed passages. Evidently standing on a stool, with his face reaching up to a barred vent in his cell, his unmistakable bass voice was enunciating his final message in Xhosa to the world he was leaving. In a voice charged with emotion but stubbornly defiant he spoke of the struggle waged by the African National Congress and of his absolute conviction of the victory to come. . Soon after, I heard the door of their cell being opened. Murmuring voices reached my straining ears, and then the three martyrs broke into a final poignant melody which seemed to fill the whole prison with sound and then gradually faded away into the distant depths of the condemned section." (from the South African History Online)
Mini's execution was the first of many tragic and abrupt shocks to South Africa's vibrant creative scene during the 1960s. The removal of the country's creative seat—Sophiatown—was a huge blow and triggered the exile of many prominent artists and musicians, including Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and Abdullah Ibrahim, among other.
Combined with the consistent and widespread imprisonment of resistance leaders, these shocks also inspired songs of mourning. One particularly beautiful song from the early years is Nongqongqo ("To Those We Love"). While Miriam Makeba's 1966 recording propelled the song into popularity, the following clip from the 1973 film A Warm December spotlights a young singer—Letta Mbulu—whose voice carries incredible emotion as she laments the imprisonment and torture of many powerful black freedom fighters (lyrics below):
Nongqongqo (To Those We Love)
Bahleli bonke etilongweni (They are together in prison)
Bahleli bonke kwa Nongqongqo (They are together at Nongqongqo*)
Nanku Nanku, Nanku uSobukhwe (Here he is, here he is, here is Sobukwe**)
Nanku, nanku etilongweni (Here he is, here he is, in prison)
Hee bawo Lutuli (Oh, father Lutuli**)
Hayi uzotheni, uzotheni (What have you done? What is your sin?)
Nanko Nanko Nanko uMandela (Here he is, here he is, here is Mandela**)
Nanku, nanku etilongweni (Here he is, here he is, in prison)
Nanko Nanko Nanko uSisulu (Here he is, here he is, here is Sisulu**)
Nanku, nanku etilongweni (Here he is, here he is, in prison)
Yini wema-Afrika? (What is wrong with us, Africans?)
Hayi uzotheni, uzotheni (What have we done? What is our sin?)
Bahleli bonke etilongweni (They are sitting together in prison)
Bahleli bonke kwa Nongqongqo (They are sitting together at Nongqongqo)
* Nongqongqo is the name of a prison in East London, South Africa.
** The names of popular political leaders of the resistance movement:
Soweto, militarization, and Toyi-toyi
In 1974, the apartheid regime passed the Afrikaans Medium Decree, which deemed Afrikaans the only language to be used for upper level mathematics, arithmetic, and social studies in both black and white public schools, with English relegated to instruction in general science and practical subjects (e.g. home economics, needlework, woodwork, metalwork, art, agricultural science).
This was a strong symbolic and practical act of oppression since black South Africans had long preferred English over Afrikaans, which was widely viewed as "the language of the oppressor." English had gained so much prominence that it had become that language most often used in commerce and industry and this change was intended to forcibly reverse the decline of Afrikaans among black Africans. It also required black students to refocus their time and energy on understanding a language they were less familiar with instead of subject material, imposing additional challenges to their learning process.
In response, on June 16, 1976, between 3,000 and 10,000 students in the Soweto township mobilized and marched peacefully to demonstrate and protest against the government’s directive. On their way to a nearby stadium, the students were met by heavily armed police who fired tear gas and live ammunition, killing many and wounding thousands. This initial clash resulted in a widespread revolt and developed into an uprising that spread across the country and carried on until the following year.
After the Soweto uprising, it became clear that the South African government was not interested in dialogue and thousands of youth left South Africa to join growing underground armies in nearby countries. When they returned, they brought both technical skills to organize and fight, as well as a new sound:
“The strategy became to train the people from within, people living in the cities and townships, who are already fighting. And with that, came the militarization of songs. You saw an army of South Africans with grenades, mackerels, AK47s, and that’s reflected a lot in the songs because the songs had to articulate a new urgency and a new direction. . The songs were now of people in a war situation . and those songs started beginning to take on those overtones. Just changing a word here, changing a word there. Putting an 'AK' here, taking out a 'bible' there.” - from Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony
One particularly powerful form of revolutionary music picked up abroad during military training (most likely coming from Zimbabwe) was the toyi-toyi. With its charging, uptempo rhythms and aggressive sound, toyi-toyi quickly became commonplace in massive street demonstrations.
“You can’t beat these people physically, but you can scare the shit out of them with the songs.” - Hugh Masekela, from the film Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony
And when the police replaced rubber bullets with machine guns, it helped instill fear in the enemy. A former police chief corroborates:
“You can’t go into a situation like this with batons, because people could get killed. You have to have heavy weapons. … And if you send them into a situation with 100,000 screaming, singing, dangerous, weapon-waving crowd approaching you, you’ve got to stand. You can’t fall back, you have to stand. You have to make a stand. Even for the older guy—most of them won’t admit it—but I can assure you that a lot of the older guys they were also frightened stiff." - from Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony
Below is a clip from the Lalela Cape Town Choir singing a selection of famous toyi-toyi songs:
And while the increased militarization of the movement and music in the 1970s was a necessary shift in the fight for freedom, many citizens and leaders had their doubts about whether they would be able to overcome the oppressive regime and violence:
“This country was going somewhere. You didn’t know where, but—damn—this country was going somewhere, and not all of us were convinced that it was toward liberation. We were like, the whites are going to wake up one day and shoot everyone dead because of what was happening. … it was like our young people were running straight into the sea at high speed.” - Duma Ka Ndlovu, from Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony
By the 1980s however, the combined internal resistance and international sanctions placed on South Africa by the international community—including exiled artists Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela—made it increasingly difficult for the government to maintain the regime. In particular, from 1984 to 1989 the country was in a near a state of emergency, with townships in an almost constant state of revolt. By 1990, then President, Frederik Willem de Klerk, began negotiations to end apartheid.
The end of Apartheid
With Mandela's release from prison in early 1990, the country began a long and arduous healing process, including major political reconfigurations and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Police watch an ANC rally while children taunt them by toyi-toying on the other side of the fence. Johannesburg. 1991. (Photo credit Graeme Williams, in his series The Struggle for Democracy – 1989 to 1994)
Similarly, artists and communities had to carry out their own processes of remembering and documenting the musical traditions of the revolution since nearly "every phase of our struggle had its own kind of songs, and all the songs were composed to fit in to a particular phase of the struggle . it’d be really, really difficult to know how many songs could have been composed."
Thankfully, in the nine-year process of creating the film Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony—which includes many songs that were banned by the apartheid government—the director and producer were able to compile hundreds of hours of songs that they subsequently donated to the South African national archives to preserve this part of the country’s cultural history.
South Africa History Online: the largest independent history education and research institute in South Africa. Its aim is to promote history and the arts and to address the bias in written history as represented in South African educational and cultural institutions.
Schumann, Anne. "The Beat that Beat Apartheid: The Role of Music in the Resistance against Apartheid in South Africa." Stichproben. Wiener Zeitschrift für kritische Afrikastudien Nr. 14/2008, 8. Jg., 17‐39
Jolaosho, Tayo. "Anti-Apartheid Freedom Songs Then and Now." Smithsonian Folkways Magazine.
Mcimeli Nkoala, Sisanda. "Songs that shaped the struggle: A rhetorical analysis of South African struggle songs." African Yearbook of Rhetoric 4, 1, 2013, Online, Afr. yearb. rhetor.: ISSN 2305-7785.
Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony - Interviews, archival footage, and filmed performances highlight the role of music in the South African struggle against apartheid.
Mama Africa - powerful biopic about the life and music of Miriam Makeba
Come Back, Africa - a film about the life of Zachariah, a black South African living under the rule of the harsh apartheid government in 1959 (with special appearance by a young Miriam Makeba).
Cry Freedom - a film about South African journalist Donald Woods, who is forced to flee the country after attempting to investigate the death in custody of his friend, activist Steve Biko.
Sarafina - a film about a group of South African teenagers and their fight against apartheid during the Soweto Uprising
Searching for Sugar Man - a documentary about two white South Africans who set out to discover what happened to their unlikely musical hero, the mysterious 1970s rock 'n' roller, Rodriguez, who helped inspire revolutionary ideas among white youth under apartheid.
Paul Simon's Graceland: the acclaim and the outrage
I t was a plush affair for the mid-80s, an era when record sales had already begun to decline, and when music writers had already begun to reminisce about the good old glory days when lavish promotional parties and international flights were commonplace. On 27 August 1986, the Warner label hosted a major event at the Mayfair Theatre in London to mark the release of Paul Simon’s adventurous new album, Graceland. We were given lunch, listened to the new work, and presented with a package that included a cassette, an LP and a CD. And then we were invited to question Simon himself (a “small, vulnerable-looking and boyish” figure, as I noted at the time) about the project.
This is when the PRs must have become worried, for the questions gradually switched from the flattering to the political. The album was naturally well-received – after all, it was a brave new departure by a bestselling singer-songwriter who had already shown a fascination for global styles earlier in his career by recording in Jamaica (a rare move back in the Seventies) and working with South American musicians. This time, he had been even bolder, recording several of the tracks in South Africa with black musicians who were then little-known in the west. But as Simon knew all too well, this was a highly controversial move, because South Africa was still a white-run apartheid state, and many other western musicians were playing an active role in trying to bring the system to an end.
There had already been a batch of songs attacking the brutality of apartheid, from Stevie Wonder’s It’s Wrong to Peter Gabriels’ powerful Biko and Jerry Dammers and the Special AKA’s classic protest song, (Free) Nelson Mandela. And there were campaigns to stop musicians performing in South Africa, with the likes of Dylan, Springsteen and Bono joining Steve Van Zandt in the recording of Sun City, attacking those who performed in the South African entertainment complex in the so-called “homeland” of Bophuthatswana.
Those who did so were accused of breaking a UN-approved cultural boycott, which had been in effect since December 1980. After all, the wording of Resolution 35/206 was surely clear: “The United Nations General Assembly request all states to prevent all cultural, academic, sporting and other exchanges with South Africa. Appeals to writers, artists, musicians and other personalities to boycott South Africa. Urges all academic and cultural institutions to terminate all links with South Africa.”
The resolution was enthusiastically endorsed by the Artists Against Apartheid movement, and offending musicians including Rod Stewart and Queen, who had been attracted by generous fees to play at Sun City, all promised not to return. Simon’s reasons for working in the country were very different, but surely he had still broken the boycott?
That was the question he would inevitably be asked at the Mayfair launch, but he clearly wasn’t happy about it. He had no regrets, he told us, because he hadn’t gone there to perform – indeed, he had turned down a lucrative request to play Sun City. But after hearing Gumboots Accordion Jive Vol 2, a bootleg tape of South African musicians, he was eager that “such rich music” should be introduced to the rest of the world.
That, surely, didn’t answer the question, and so I then asked him whether he had taken any advice before making the decision to go. He replied that he had checked with the veteran civil rights campaigner Harry Belafonte, who “had mixed feelings . it was the first time that he had dealt with someone not going to perform but to bring back the music”. It later became clear that Belafonte had told Simon to “go and talk to the ANC”, advice he clearly didn’t take.
When I pressed him further, he suddenly came out with a quite remarkable outburst, explaining his view on music and politics.
“Personally, I feel I’m with the musicians,” he said. “I’m with the artists. I didn’t ask the permission of the ANC. I didn’t ask permission of Buthelezi, or Desmond Tutu, or the Pretoria government. And to tell you the truth, I have a feeling that when there are radical transfers of power on either the left or the right, the artists always get screwed. The guys with the guns say, ‘This is important’, and the guys with guitars don’t have a chance.” I remember him looking round the hall as he added: “I haven’t said that before.”
The result, predictably enough, was that the row rapidly escalated. Dammers, then heavily involved with Artists Against Apartheid, was among those to react furiously, asking: “Who does he think he is? He’s helping maybe 30 people and he’s damaging solidarity over sanctions. He thinks he’s helping the cause of freedom, but he’s naive. He’s doing far more harm than good.”
Further twists followed in the months after Graceland was released. In early 1987, Simon announced that he had been cleared by the ANC, but Dali Tambo, the founder of Artists Against Apartheid and son of ANC president Oliver Tambo, replied by saying that no such clearance had been given.
Then the PR battle swung the other way, thanks not to the ANC, but to leading black South African musicians who had been closely associated with the anti-apartheid struggle. Hugh Masekela, exiled from South Africa because of his attacks on the apartheid regime, had known Simon since the 60s he had appeared alongside Simon and Garfunkel at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. He suggested that they tour together, in a show that would include an array of black South African musicians, including the country’s finest female singer Miriam Makeba, and that songs from Graceland should be performed alongside black South African music.
It was an inspired idea, and when I went along to the rehearsals in a former warehouse near London’s Pentonville prison, it became instantly clear that this was going to be something special. In one room, Masekela was rehearsing a female chorus that included Makeba, his former wife, while in another studio, the 10-man vocal team Ladysmith Black Mambazo were practising their spine-chilling harmonies and dance steps, backed by members of another South African band, Stimela, while Simon watched and made suggestions.
Masekela, always an outspoken rebel, explained why he was co-operating with Simon and not condemning him. He was delighted that the Graceland tour was bringing black South African musicians together and giving their music global exposure. “South African music has been in limbo because of apartheid,” he told me. “Exile and the laws have parted us and caused a lack of growth. If we’d been free and together all these years, who knows what we could have done?”
All the same, when the show reached the Royal Albert Hall, the protesters outside included Dammers, Paul Weller and Billy Bragg. The latter has since told me: “It pained me to be part of that because I’m a Paul Simon fan, but he was on the wrong side of the argument despite his good intentions.”
It was a fascinating and heated debate, and now it’s being revived, thanks to Simon’s decision to return to London for a 25th anniversary Graceland concert, and because of Joe Berlinger’s new documentary Under African Skies, which will be shown here in the runup to the Graceland show, which follows the singer on a return journey he made to South Africa in 2011.
There’s great music in the film, of course, and emotional scenes as Simon is reunited with those who performed with him on their world tour, 25 years ago. There are excellent interviews with the thoughtful Ray Phiri, leader of Stimela, discussing his life under apartheid, and what the Graceland experience meant to him. And there’s praise for Simon from other South African musicians who found global success because of their involvement with the album or the tour. Joseph Shabalala, leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, was clearly delighted to see him – and understandably so, because his group haven’t stopped touring in the west since Graceland was released.
Nonetheless, it should be remembered that not all black South African musicians felt the same way. Last month, I was sent an email by David Defries, who used to play with the late Jonas Gwangwa, the celebrated South African trombonist who led the ANC’s cultural group Amandla, managed by Tambo. Defries told me how Gwangwa reacted when it was suggested to him that Simon should be praised for bringing black South African music to the world stage: “So, it has taken another white man to discover my people?”
The most remarkable sequence in the film sees Simon meet Tambo, who now lives back in South Africa, for the first time. Both argue their positions in a genial but forceful fashion Tambo explains the boycott as being “all or nothing – we couldn’t allow Simon, any more than a tank coming in”, while Simon repeats his arguments about being on the side of the artists, as opposed to the politicians. At the end they make their peace, and there is a handshake that should put an end at last to the controversy.
What do I think, having watched this lengthy saga unfold? Of course it would have been better if there had been no row, if Simon had taken Belafonte’s advice and argued his case and his motives with Tambo and the ANC, and they then jointly found a solution. Recording the South African musicians outside the country (as was the case with Ladysmith’s recording of Homeless) might have been a way out, even if this could arguably have also broken the boycott.
What is most impressive is that Simon allowed Berlinger to make such an intriguing film, including far more criticism than most celebrities would tolerate, and that he had the guts to argue face to face with Tambo. I’m looking forward to the Graceland revival show.
Under African Skies is showing on the opening day of the London Sundance Festival on 26 April, and then at selected cinemas. Paul Simon performs Graceland at London’s Hyde Park on 15 July.
Is BDS anti-semitic?
BDS leaders and supporters have vehemently denied that the movement is anti-semitic, saying that they “target the Israeli state” for “serious violations of international law” and do not go after “any individual or group simply because they are Israeli.” When Pompeo conflated BDS with anti-Semitism, Palestinians, as well as national and international civil rights advocates, objected.
&ldquoAs we have made clear, anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism,&rdquo Pompeo said in a Nov. 19 statement. (Zionism refers to the desire to establish a Jewish state&mdashIsrael&mdashand the belief that Jews collectively make up a nationality and not only a religion.)
The Palestinian BDS national committee responded in a statement, saying that &ldquothe fanatic Trump-Netanyahu alliance is intentionally conflating opposition to Israel&rsquos regime of occupation, colonization and apartheid against Palestinians and calls for nonviolent pressure to end this regime on the one hand with anti-Jewish racism on the other, in order to suppress advocacy of Palestinian rights under international law.&rdquo The committee stressed its opposition to &ldquoall forms of racism, including anti-Jewish racism.
&ldquoIf you say anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism then you&rsquore basically condemning all Palestinians as anti-Semites because they decide to exist,&rdquo Erakat says. The reason that BDS has been met with fierce opposition is because it &ldquomorally challenges Zionism as a political project,&rdquo she adds.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU all decried the implications for free speech and dangers of conflating BDS with antisemitism. &ldquoAdvocating for boycotts, divestment and sanctions is a form of non-violent advocacy and of free expression that must be protected,&rdquo said Bob Goodfellow, the Interim Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, in a statement. &ldquoThe US administration is following Israeli government&rsquos approach in using false and politically motivated accusations of antisemitism to harm peaceful activists.&rdquo Human Rights Watch accused Pompeo of &ldquofalsely equat(ing) peaceful support for boycotts of Israel with antisemitism.&rdquo The ACLU stressed that &ldquothreatening to block government funds to groups that criticize Israel is blatantly unconstitutional.&rdquo
Jews and Jewish groups are not united on the issue about whether BDS is anti-semitic. While many conservative Jewish groups criticize BDS for unfairly singling out Israel and worry that it’s ultimate aim is to delegitimize any notion of a Jewish state, dozens of progressive Jewish groups have taken issue with the characterization of BDS as anti-Semitic, fearing that doing so overshadows &ldquolegitimate critiques of Israeli policies.&rdquo
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)&mdash a powerful pro-Israel lobbying group in the U.S.&mdashcharacterizes BDS as “anti-Israel discrimination because it “targets Israel’s right to exist,” “singles out the Jewish state” and “aims to cut off Israel from the rest of the world.”
Rabbi David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, says he does not doubt there are BDS supporters who have “perfectly good intentions” but worries that the degree of condemnation faced by Israel is “wildly disproportionate to any presumed sins that Israel has committed.” He believes that “many expressions of the BDS movement are anti-Semitic” and takes issue with anti-Zionism, too. “To say you&rsquore anti-Zionist is to say we oppose the only Jewish country ever in history (…) and to say it has nothing to do with anti-semitism is strange credulity,” Wolpe says.
However, some Jewish groups consider themselves to be “proudly” anti-Zionist and in support of BDS. Stifling BDS is “not about Jewish safety,&rdquo says Stefanie Fox, executive director of Jewish Voice For Peace. &ldquoAn opposition to Zionism is about an opposition to a specific government that has nothing to do with Judaism,&rdquo Fox says. As for Pompeo’s characterization, she says, “We won&rsquot let white supremacists dictate what is and not anti-semitism.”
Almost one quarter of American Jews under 40 support the boycott of products made in Israel, according to a National Jewish Survey of 8000 Jewish voters in the 2020 election from J Street, a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group that identifies as progressive&mdashthey oppose Israeli occupation but are also against the global BDS movement.