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SIMON: BARRIER BUSTER OR PAWN?

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Is Paul Simon a bold barrier buster or a dastardly cultural imperialist? A musical genius or a shrewd opportunist? A courageous individualist or an unwitting pawn of an oppressive regime?

These are the questions that have fueled the controversy surrounding Simon’s “Graceland,” the album that was partly recorded in South Africa with local black musicians.

According to a representative of the United Nations agency that has implemented a cultural boycott of South Africa, Simon’s recording sessions were in violation of that boycott. That Simon had worked with blacks, paid the musicians triple U.S. scale and shared some songwriting credits did nothing to soften the U.N. committee’s stance.

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Elaborated Amer Araim, senior political affairs officer of the U.N.’s Center Against Apartheid, “Mainly the boycott is to prevent (celebrities) from going to South Africa because the apartheid regime is utilizing them to show the people that everything is business as normal.”

Ultimately, Simon, who had refused offers to give concerts in South Africa in the past, sent a letter to the U.N. agency stating his intent “to maintain this position in the context of the U.N. cultural boycott.” Still, he continues to deny any impropriety in his prior journeys, and has expressed regret that he cannot take his current tour--which features many black South African musicians--into the heart of apartheid itself.

Nonetheless, Simon’s pledge has kept his name off the U.N. register.

“The matter is ended,” Araim said following receipt of Simon’s letter.

This is hardly the end of the Simon controversy outside of the U.N., though.

“The issue is not simply swept under the carpet because Paul has said he won’t do it again,” said Dennis Brutus, chairman of the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Black Community Education, Research and Development, and a South African exile who was jailed by the South African government along with Nelson Mandela in the ‘60s.

Some are even painting Simon as a cultural slave trader.

“I join all those politically conscious masses of southern Africa in gracefully boycotting (Simon’s concerts in Zimbabwe),” wrote Phineas Ndlovu in a guest column in Zimbabwe’s state-owned Herald newspaper. “There stands Paul Simon like some explorer or missionary in 19th-Century Africa surrounded by a group of singing, tribally dressed Africans. The European is the center of attraction . . . the master.”

Brutus, who initiated the campaign that led to South Africa’s ban from the Olympic Games, agrees that such attacks on Simon are unfair. “My own position is that association with South Africa is of two kinds,” he said. “There are those who are assisting in preserving the present system and there are those who are assisting in destroying it and I believe one must distinguish between the two and not treat them with the same blanket judgment.”

But even some who acknowledge Simon’s good intentions maintain that, in the case of South Africa, good intentions are not enough.

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One person who initially saw nothing wrong in Simon’s musical explorations is singer Harry Belafonte, a long-time supporter of cultural exchanges with South Africa--and a founder of Athletes and Artists Against Apartheid.

“He had developed this tremendous curiosity and sense of something important taking place and he wanted to see if there was any way to link up to it,” Belafonte said, recalling a phone call from Simon asking for musical contacts in South Africa. “I thought it was an excellent idea.”

But Belafonte claims that Simon ignored his suggestion that he also contact people directly involved in the politics of the issue, including a representative of South Africa’s outlawed African National Congress.

“I think had he done that in the first instance it might have put people on notice and put his presence (in South Africa) in proper focus,” Belafonte said. “I think his not having done that at the back end of this began to exacerbate feelings and put the whole question into conflict.”

Belafonte speculated that the controversy might never have materialized “if the album was clearly more political or if all the financial resources it generated were turned over to the cause.”

Certainly Simon’s pledge not to return to South Africa has done nothing to curb the tremendous popularity of “Graceland” or to stem the rising interest in South African music it has spawned.

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Though Simon’s name is not on the register, according to the U.N.’s Araim the cultural boycott still covers “Graceland” and such South African albums as “The Indestructible Beat of Soweto,” an anthology that has drawn much critical praise.

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