Nelson Mandela and music: 10 essential anti-apartheid songs

In 1985, guitarist Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band (and future actor on “The Sopranos”) helped spearhead a musical boycott of South Africa’s big ticket resort town Sun City, which until then had paid handsome money for superstar concerts. Van Zandt banded together a lineup for 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.

The song, produced by early electronic dance music innovator Arthur Baker, bridged the worlds of rock and rap together in what was then one of the biggest genre converges to date.

Rap, which was ascending through hits from Run DMC and Kurtis Blow, was seen as a lesser art form by most baby boomer rock snobs, but “Sun City” featured lines by not only Bruce Springsteen but Grandmaster Flash, both Bob Dylan and Afrika Bambaata, helping to legitimize rap to a new audience. The video got heavy rotation on a then-soaring MTV.

While the funky “Sun City” rhythm played along, the video delivered shocking images of South African police violence, and images of Mandela and other activists. “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City” helped ignite campus demonstrations across America, whose goal was to urge universities to divest its holdings in companies doing business with the South African regime.  

Peter Gabriel, “Biko” (1980)

“Biko” is a song not about Nelson Mandela but his peer and founder of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement, Stephen Biko, who died in 1977 while in police custody. Gabriel’s devastating song was a few years after Biko’s murder, and helped focus international attention on the crimes being committed by the apartheid government. “You can blow out a candle but you can’t blow out a fire / Once the flames begin to catch the wind will blow it higher,” sings Gabriel, words that would prove prescient as protests grew and the government ultimately toppled.  

The Special A.K.A., “Free Nelson Mandela” (1984)

The Specials’ Jerry Dammers wrote a memorable and joyous protest song in “Free Nelson Mandela,” a work whose simple message, chanted over and over throughout the song, became a rallying cry around the world. Released under the band name Special A.K.A. due to various legal wrangling occurring within the band at the time, “Free Nelson Mandela” roars, and taps into South African rhythms with pure celebratory spirit. The polar opposite of a dirge such as Gabriel’s “Biko,” “Free Nelson Mandela” is one of the great protest songs of the era. Below is a version performed at Mandela's 90th birthday party in 2008, featuring Amy Winehouse. 

Youssou N’Dour, “Mandela” (1986)

Senegalese griot singer Youssou N’Dour was one of Africa’s rising stars when he recorded his album “Nelson Mandela” in Paris' Studio Montmartre in 1986. The album featured the title track, which conveyed in French the cause of Mandela and apartheid. (The album also features a great version of the Spinners’ “Rubberband Man.”) Senegal exported some of the best music on the continent during the '70s and '80s, and N’Dour’s dedication to Mandela was an early signal of the success to come.

The Malopoets, "The End is Near" (1988)

Featuring a fiery speech by Allan Boesak, the Malopoets' "The End is Near" fearlessly attacks the powers behind apartheid through a buttery, smooth but insistent beat. The black South African township group was one of the first to be allowed to perform a residency at Johannesburg's Market Theatre, and helped push boundaries during the final years of apartheid. Fun fact: NBA basketball player (for the Oklahoma City Thunder) Thabo Sefolosha's father Patrick was one of the co-founders of the Malopoets.

Sonny Okosun, "Fire in Soweto" (1978)

Nelson Mandela had a direct connection to reggae music, even if he wasn’t able to hear its ascent while he was imprisoned. He had, however, met with one of the spiritual fathers of reggae music, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassi, in Ethiopia in 1962, the same year that Mandela began his incarceration. Reggae, born in the streets of Jamaica less than a decade later, took up Mandela’s cause while he was holed up in Robben Island prison. In addition to Eddy Grant's "Gimme Hope, Jo'Anna," Nigerian high life singer Sonny Okosun delivered his incendiary reggae jam "Fire in Soweto" in honor of South Africa's plight. 

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