Nelson Mandela — anti-apartheid activist, South Africa’s first black president and a worldwide icon — died yesterday at age 95. In July, on his 95th birthday, I reflected a recent trip to South Africa in a post inspired by my rediscovery of a giant anti-apartheid Keith Haring poster from the mid-1980s.
The anti-apartheid college campus protests are some of my most vivid memories from that time. I clearly remember my awe when I first heard the protest song “Free Nelson Mandela” by the Special AKA in 1984.
That song educated me about South Africa the way Neil Young’s “Ohio” enlightened me about Vietnam. You can learn more about “Free Nelson Mandela” from this June BBC America post.
Another song that has always stuck with me is 1985’s “Sun City,” written by Steven Van Zandt (Little Steven of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band) and performed by a group of musicians under the name Artists United Against Apartheid. The song declared the musicians’ intent to avoid performing at South Africa’s Sun City resort, which was then located in an “independent state” that the apartheid government created for a forcible relocation of blacks. Rolling Stone has called the song “one of the most fervent and forceful political statements to emerge from Eighties pop music.”
I’m still blown away by the eclectic group of musicians who participated on the songs. A partial list includes: Springsteen, Miles Davis, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Bob Dylan, Pat Benatar, Herbie Hancock, Ringo Starr, Lou Reed, Run–D.M.C., Peter Gabriel, Bob Geldof and Bono (can’t keep those guys away from an ’80s cause song!), Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, The Fat Boys, Jackson Browne, George Clinton, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, Bonnie Raitt, Hall & Oates, Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys, Gil-Scott Heron, Nona Hendryx, and Joey Ramone. Incredible! You’ve got a Beatle, two Stones, a jazz giant, a folk hero, many of hip-hop’s legendary innovators, punks, a blues queen, the hottest female pop star (Pat!), and … well, I don’t know how to describe Hall & Oates.
Mandela inspired numerous other songs — you can hear some of those on Mother Jones — but these two had the most profound effect on me. Great music for a great man.