On “Graceland,” his 1986 Grammy Award-winning album, Paul Simon sang a secular lullaby that could’ve been addressed to the oppressed black multitudes of apartheid South Africa and their moral leader, Nelson Mandela.
“These are the days of lasers in the jungle,” Simon intoned on the album’s lead-off track, “The Boy in the Bubble.” “These are the days of miracle and wonder / And don’t cry baby, don’t cry.”
Although the ambiguous lyrics seem to refer to a broader human condition, they also evoke the aspirations that were roiling South Africa in the mid-1980s and that Mandela embodied, both within his country and to the outside world.
At that time, Mandela still was languishing in a Cape Town jail cell. But the passions he excited and the hopes that he raised had been reverberating across popular music for years, and would continue after he finally walked out of prison a free man in February 1990.
Some of those musical tributes were literal and unequivocal, expressed in a slew of powerful protest songs and homages by artists ranging from Johnny Clegg and Savuka (“Asimbonanga”) and Youssou N’Dour (“Mandela”) to Peter Gabriel (“Biko”) and Stevie Wonder (“It’s Wrong”). Others, like “Graceland,” were more implicit and metaphorical, expressed more through stylistic mergings than through fiery political messages.
The global musical reaction to Mandela’s cause, in fact, helped build bridges across cultural divides that endure today. One of the best-known songs, Artists United Against Apartheid’s “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City,” for the first time brought together on record superstars of rock and R&B with the kings of a rising young genre called hip-hop.
In 1985, guitarist Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band helped spearhead a musical boycott of South Africa’s big-ticket resort town, Sun City, which until then had paid handsomely for superstar concerts. Van Zandt banded together a lineup to record the song “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City” that nearly 30 years later remains not only impressive in its scope but marks a symbolic first.
At the time, hip-hop, which was ascending through hits from Run DMC and Kurtis Blow, was seen as a lesser art form by many baby boomer rock fans. But “Sun City” featured lines by not only Bruce Springsteen but also Grandmaster Flash, Bob Dylan and Afrika Bambaata, helping to legitimize rap to a new audience.
The video, which delivered shocking images of South African police violence and of Mandela, helped ignite college campus demonstrations across America, the goal of which was to urge universities to divest their holdings in companies doing business with the apartheid regime.
Bono, another of the record’s contributors, in a Time essay published online Thursday, expressed his debt as a politically minded artist to Mandela. “As an activist I have pretty much been doing what Nelson Mandela tells me since I was a teenager,” the singer wrote.
“Graceland” proposed a different kind of harbinger for South Africa’s future. By fusing African pop and traditional styles with American gospel, blues and rock, Simon’s album wove an elegant testimonial to the ideal of cross-cultural harmony.
Initially, Simon was criticized by fellow artists Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and others for recording much of the album in South Africa. But other musicians, including the South African Hugh Masekela, commended him for bringing greater exposure to South African music by incorporating African musical influences and including artists such as the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
"The Father of our nation, Nelson Mandela, has finished his journey," Ladysmith Black Mambazo said in a statement. "And although he has physically left us now, his journey continues within us all."
“Mandela was one of the great leaders and teachers of the twentieth century,” Simon said Thursday.
A teacher whose lessons yielded some wondrous, even miraculous, musical offspring.
Follow me on Twitter: @RJohnsonLATCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times