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In the early 1980s, Nelson Mandela’s name was virtually unknown in the United States. In fact, it was Steve Biko, who died in police custody in South Africa in 1977, who first put the struggles of black South Africans into public consciousness in the U.S.
Peter Gabriel’s song “Biko” was written in 1980, the same year the United Nations established a cultural boycott of the country, and was among the first of the songs that catapulted the plight of apartheid onto the musical airwaves.
It wasn’t until 1984 that The Specials, also known as The Special AKA, released its iconic “Free Nelson Mandela” that the protest genre really took off.
It was against that backdrop that Bruce Springsteen guitarist Steven Van Zandt teamed up with record producer Arthur Baker and then-ABC producer Danny Schechter to create Artists United Against Apartheid and produce “Sun City.”
The anti-apartheid songs on the album, including “Sun City” and “Revolutionary Situation,” inspired a generation of musicians to write their own anti-apartheid songs and albums. Among them were Bono, Stevie Wonder and Johnny Clegg.
Van Zandt and Schechter talk with Here & Now’s Robin Young about “Sun City” and its impact.
Steven Van Zandt on what inspired “Sun City”
“I had been doing research on American foreign policies since World War II, and left the E Street Band to do that for 10 years or so. And South Africa was on my list of engagements we were involved with, which I felt our government was on the wrong side of. By then, I had heard Peter Gabriel’s ‘Biko,’ which was just a terrific inspiration. I would later discover Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘Johannesburg.’”
Danny Schechter on the meaning of “Sun City”
“Sun City is a resort, a big hotel complex. But it was in a place called Bophuthatswana, which was a homeland of South Africa. South Africa created these fictional homelands that were really controlled by the people in Pretoria, but to the rest of the world, they appeared to be independent states. And, in a sense, this was part of the whole plan there, which was to separate people according to their nationalities, their ethnicities and their backgrounds. And so, opposing the homeland system was a central attack on apartheid. Nobody here was really talking about it until Steven came along with Sun City.”
Danny Schechter on gathering all the stars
“What we wanted to do was to break down the apartheid in music in our own country by having musicians – international artists, rap, rock, Motown, jazz – that were usually segregated in America. There would be a black station, a white station, a jazz station and the like and put all of these currents on one album as a united statement against apartheid. Fifty-eight stars agreed to be part of it, and the fact is, many more wanted to be part of it when they found about it. There were no more lines to sing.”
Steven Van Zandt on Paul Simon wanting art and politics to be separate
“First of all, I was trying to — even when I was down there — defend him, actually. I had met with some very serious people called the Azanian People’s Association, AZAPO. And he was on a hit list — you know they were going to kill him — and I insisted on him being taken off this list. I then spoke to the UN about having him taken off the UN list – the blacklist. You know, having said that, he gave me that line that ‘art transcends politics,’ and I said, ‘Paul, all due respect, but not only does art not transcend politics, but art is politics.’ We agreed to disagree at the time – by now, I would have thought he would have a little bit of a mea culpa, but not Paulie, no.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
And this week, we've heard a lot about the debate in Congress in 1986 over whether or not to impose sanctions against the brutal white regime in South Africa. But that debate was propelled by a cultural movement.
Let's back up. British artists were the first to boycott South Africa, after the 1960 massacre of blacks by whites in Sharpeville. But the name of Nelson Mandela wouldn't be well-known outside South Africa until the 1980s. It was activist Stephen Biko, who died in police custody in South Africa, who first inspired songs from Tom Paxton and in 1980, Peter Gabriel.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIKO")
PETER GABRIEL: (Singing) Oh, Biko, Biko, because Biko...
ROBIN ROBERTS, HOST:
Also in 1980, the U.N. established a cultural boycott against South Africa. Then in 1984 came The Special AKA's "Free Nelson Mandela."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREE NELSON MANDELA")
THE SPECIAL AKA: (Singing) Free Nelson Mandela.
YOUNG: Also in 1984, Bruce Springsteen band member Steven Van Zandt and then-ABC News producer Danny Schechter teamed up. The result? "Sun City."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUN CITY")
ARTISTS UNITED AGAINST APARTHEID: (Singing) You got to say I, I, I ain't gonna play Sun City...
YOUNG: "Sun City" was a scathing indictment of a luxurious, whites-only casino resort, a song written by Van Zandt and recorded by Artists United Against Apartheid. We wanted to hear more about the song and the history. Danny Schechter, known as the news dissector at rock station WBCN here in Boston, journalist and creator of the show "South Africa Now." He's new book about Mandela is "Madiba A to Z." He joins us. Danny, welcome.
DANNY SCHECHTER: Pleasure.
YOUNG: And with you, Steven Van Zandt, E Street Band guitarist, actor, of course, in "The Sopranos," and activist. Steven, welcome to you as well.
STEVEN VAN ZANDT: Hi. Good to be here.
YOUNG: Let's start with you. What inspired the song?
VAN ZANDT: Well, I had been doing research on American foreign policies since World War II, and left the E Street Band to do that for 10 years or so. And South Africa was on my list of engagements we were involved with, which I felt our government was on the wrong side of. And I heard - by then, I had heard Peter Gabriel's "Biko," which was just a terrific inspiration. I would later discover Gil Scott-Heron's "Johannesburg."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHANNESBURG")
GIL SCOTT-HERON: (Singing) Somebody tell me, what's the word? Tell me brother, have you heard from Johannesburg? Don't get over the top, you all now...
SCHECHTER: What's incredible - if I can jump in. Steven's perspective was not just the perspective apartheid is bad, this is a racial problem, like the American South. No. His perspective was really framed in the context of the relocation of native peoples in our country. And one of the central ideas of "Sun City" was forced relocation. And so the song went much deeper than simply opposing the government of the day. It really tried to explain what the system was.
YOUNG: Well, Danny, explain a little more about that - because Sun City was this resort in the middle of what the South African regime called free states, where they relocated blacks.
SCHECHTER: Well, Sun City is a resort, a big hotel complex, but it was in a place called Bophuthatswana, which was a homeland of South Africa. South Africa created these fictional homelands that were really controlled by the people in Pretoria. But to the rest of the world, they appeared to be independent states. And in a sense, this was part of the whole plan there, which was to separate people according to their nationalities, their ethnicities and their backgrounds. And so opposing the homeland system was a central attack on apartheid. Nobody here was really talking about it until Steven came along with "Sun City."
VAN ZANDT: The idea was to bring the native African black people out of South African proper into these phony homelands, and then declare them as independent countries, and then bring the black workers back as immigrant labor, at that point, declaring South Africa a democracy. I mean, it was as brilliant as it was evil. And as Danny suggests, it was based on our Indian reservation policy here.
YOUNG: Well - and I know, Danny, initially, you wanted Steven to include in the song artists who had played at Sun City to shame them, but that didn't happen. But you, Steven, invited all sorts of artists to sing with you on it.
VAN ZANDT: I spoke with some of them who had gone there and, you know, they had been fooled, you know. And so we gave everybody the benefit of the doubt because there was a lot of publicity and marketing to get people to go, pretending it was a separate country.
SCHECHTER: What we wanted to do was break down the apartheid in music in our own country by having musicians, international artists - rap, rock, Motown, jazz - that were usually segregated in America. You know, there would be a black station, a white station, a jazz station and the like, and put all of these currents on one album as a united statement against apartheid. Fifty-eight stars agree to be part of it. And the fact is, many more wanted to be part of it when they found out about it. There were no more lines for them to sing.
VAN ZANDT: Yeah. And it was a bit controversial at that time. You know, we crossed that line from social concerns, and everybody was fine with feeding people and all that. But for us, you know, we named Ronald Reagan by name at the time, at the height of his popularity, which, you know, was a very controversial thing at that time.
YOUNG: Some stations wouldn't play "Sun City" because of, I think, the line that Joey Ramone sang about Ronald Reagan. And to remind ourselves, this is when Ronald Reagan was fighting members of his own party. He was against any sanctions. Let's listen to that line that some stations said, you know, was a deal breaker, wouldn't play the song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUN CITY")
JOEY RAMONE: (Singing) Constructive engagement is Ronald Reagan's plan...
JIMMY CLIFF, DARYL HALL: (Singing) Meanwhile, people are dying and giving up hope...
DARLENE LOVE: (Singing) Well, this quiet diplomacy ain't nothing but a joke...
YOUNG: Jonathan Demme eventually made a video. You also had a hard time getting that on television stations, initially.
I want to pick up on, Steven, something you just said and let's just touch on this. One artist who did record in - famously recorded in South Africa during the boycott was Paul Simon. He made part of the "Graceland" album there. And he still defends it to this day. He says to the ANC, which, you know, many South Africans were unhappy that he came. He says, is this the kind of government you're going to be? You're going to tell me what I, you know, tell artists what they can do?
He believed, in essence, that art and politics be kept separate. And his defenders include Philip Glass, Paul McCartney, Oprah - they all appear in a documentary. And they say, you know, without him, Ladysmith Black Mambazo wouldn't be known. There would be no human face on apartheid. That was a huge debate at the time, and it still lingers.
VAN ZANDT: Yeah. Where to begin with this? Well, first of all, I was trying to - even when I was down there, I was trying to defend him, actually. I had met with some very serious people, called the Azanian People's Organization, AZAPO. And he was on a hit list, OK? You know, they're going to kill him, you know? And I insisted on him being taken off this list. I went - and I spoke to the U.N. about having him take him off the U.N. list, the blacklist.
You know, having said that, you know, he gave me that line, you know, that art transcends politics. And I said, Paul, all due respect, but not only does art not transcend politics, but art is politics. So we agreed to disagree at the time. By now I would've thought he would, you know, have a little bit of mea culpa. But not Paulie, no.
YOUNG: We'll leave it at that. Steven Van Zandt, Danny Schechter, on the '80 protest song "Sun City." You're listening to HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW. South African artists have long paid tribute to Nelson Mandela in song. Here's a mash-up.
(SOUNDBITES OF SONGS)
YOUNG: But as we've been hearing, in the early 1980s, artists outside of that country recorded music in protest of Mandela's imprisonment and the brutal system of apartheid he'd fought against. Bono wrote "Silver and Gold" in his hotel room in one day.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILVER AND GOLD")
BONO: (Singing) Chains no longer bind me. No shackles at my feet. Outside are the prisoners. Inside the free. Set them free.
YOUNG: "Silver and Gold" became one of the contributions to the album, which was an outgrowth of the song "Sun City," written by E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt, produced by Arthur Baker. It was recorded by dozens of artists, from Bob Dylan and Lou Reed to Pat Benatar and Bonnie Raitt.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUN CITY")
BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Relocation to phony homelands.
PAT BENATAR: (Singing) Separation of families I can't understand.
EDDIE KENDRICK: Twenty-three million can't vote because they're black.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: We're stabbing our brothers and sisters in the back.
ARTISTS UNITED AGAINST APARTHEID: (Singing) We're going to say I, I, I ain't going to play Sun City. We're going to say I, I, I ain't going to play Sun City.
YOUNG: Sun City came during a U.N. cultural embargo against artists traveling to South Africa and as the U.S. considered economic sanctions. In an extraordinary move, Republicans joined Democrats in Congress in overturning President Reagan's veto of sanctions. We've been hearing about the song's impact from Steven Van Zandt and journalist Danny Schechter, who had encouraged Steven to make the song a social movement.
And Steve, tell us more about that. You were in South Africa to do research when you realized you agreed with Danny.
VAN ZANDT: I sat down there in South Africa and thought about it. At first it was just going to be a song on my next album. And I remember the moment. I was doing research and I was still hoping to find these reforms that were supposedly being put in place. And I remember being in a taxi one day, and a black guy stepped off the curb, and the cab driver went out of his way and tried to hit him, you know? I was like in shock, like, did I just witness that, you know? And so at that moment I said, you know what, this has got to come down. This government's got to go.
And so I decided, you know, I just thought about it for a minute, and I realized the sports boycott was very, very effective. And I said, you know, how do we get to the home run? The home run, of course, is the economic boycott. Well, we need to get the cultural boycott in place in between. If we can get that to work, the economic boycott will then take hold, you know, and we will - then we can topple this government, you know?
So I came back, and I met with Danny. And I told him the basic idea. I said, you know, first we're just going to have one person from every genre, have six or seven people. But as Danny said, people just started coming in, you know.
SCHECHTER: I mean this inspired so much passion. You know, the people in the studios wanted Miles Davis, but they were afraid to ask him because he had, you know, a reputation for, you know, tremendous temper and difficult to deal with, et cetera. So I was the one who had to call him up. So I called him up. And he said, when do you want me? I said, I don't know. When will you be available? He says, how about now? Twenty minutes later, he was in the studio recording with us. Everybody was shocked, but he was great.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUN CITY")
VAN ZANDT: In the end, we measured our success by - really simple - by having Reagan's first veto overturned. That was the key to us - for us, OK? We get these sanctions through, and of course Reagan vetoed it. And for the first time, I believe, in his administration the veto was overturned. And at that point we said, you know what, that's success.
SCHECHTER: And how did that happen? Not just lobbying; pressure from below - you know, "Sun City" was the soundtrack of this whole anti-apartheid movement, and it galvanized student activism, it galvanized community pressure.
VAN ZANDT: Many congressmen told me that their kids, you know, their sons and daughters were coming to them, seeing the video on MTV and on BET and saying, Dad, you know, what is this? What is the South Africa thing, you know? So it was the actual children of these congressmen and senators, you know, that was getting to them right in their homes.
YOUNG: Well, it also helped open floodgates that were beginning to open with other music. You had Stevie Wonder. His song "It's Wrong (Apartheid)."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S WRONG (APARTHEID)")
STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) You know apartheid's wrong, wrong. Like slavery was wrong, wrong. Like the holocaust was wrong, wrong. Apartheid is wrong.
YOUNG: And then in South Africa, Johnny Clegg and Savuka - he also started a similar movement in South Africa.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASIMBONANGA")
YOUNG: But, Steven, I just - before I let you go, I have to ask one question. What did Nelson Mandela tell you, if anything, he thought of this song?
VAN ZANDT: Well, he didn't specifically talk about the song as much as just talking about the importance of music. And, you know, he talked about just how music was universal. And it was a universal way to communicate, and he really did appreciate what we had done.
You know, this was a remarkable human being. I know you've heard this a million times by now from everybody you talked to. But, you know, he really - it was meeting like a - like more of a religious figure than a politician. I mean, he had an aura that - I've met everybody in the world, and I never met anybody like him. I mean, honestly. It was like, you know, in the old days, running into the Buddha or, you know, John the Baptist. You know, he had that kind of vibe about him, you know? Just like...
SCHECHTER: And also, when he was invited by Artists United Against Apartheid and the companion organization, Filmmakers Against Apartheid, to come to a dinner at the Tribeca Grill here in lower Manhattan, he said yes immediately. He showed up, so did many athletes, so did many other artists. It was an incredible event. It raised a lot of money for the ANC when they needed money to build a war chest for the election that was still to come.
So, you know, I think he showed his appreciation by being with us. He was extremely complimentary to Steven and to all the other artists who where there.
YOUNG: I just - well, I can't help but note too that - it was music and one song in particular, "Sun City," the one we've been talking about, that really helped spearhead a movement, Danny, as you've been saying, from the ground up. But it was also a - for a man who so obviously loved music, whenever you see him - saw him, he was never standing still if there was music.
SCHECHTER: Yeah. I mean I think you can see it now. And the way people are reacting in South Africa, I mean we would all be in mourning in America. You know, we would be, you know, with black veils and, you know, everybody...
You know, the press crying. And they're dancing and, you know, celebrating that spirit of his life rather than the passing, you know? So it's one - it's a wonderful cultural difference that he carried with him, you know?
YOUNG: Steven Van Zandt and Danny Schechter, I want to thank you both so much.
SCHECHTER: Our pleasure.
VAN ZANDT: Thank you, Robin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
YOUNG: And we'll leave you with some of the sounds of that celebration at today's memorial for Nelson Mandela. For more on the song "Sun City," go to hereandnow.org. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.