Nelson Mandela and music: 10 essential anti-apartheid songs

Nelson Mandela was, quite famously, a fan of European classical music. His two favorite composers were George Frideric Handel and Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, but he grew up exposed to the country’s rich tradition of vocal groups forging a unique form of sacred rhythm music.

That changed while the former South African president and longtime democratic activist was imprisoned by the pro-apartheid government from 1962 to 1990. He wasn’t allowed access to music.

Artists, however, used Mandela's jailing to fuel global protest songs, and during his years in captivity Mandela’s messages were delivered on the wings of rhythm and melody.

PHOTOS: Actors who’ve portrayed Nelson Mandela on screen

The response to Mandela’s cause, in fact, helped bridge cultural divides that continue to hold. 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.

On the African continent, anti-apartheid couriers such as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Youssou N’Dour and the Malopoets expressed outrage through song. As the anti-apartheid movement grew in the 1970s and '80s, marquee names such as U2, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt and Stevie Wonder spoke or sung out on behalf of Nelson Mandela’s cause. 

What follows are 10 essential works that celebrate the late Nelson Mandela and his efforts. His spirit, perseverance and dignity fueled not only the cause of liberty and equality, but drove music to great heights.

Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse, “Nelson Mandela” (1994)

In 1994, singer Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse was commissioned by the African National Congress to write an election song in support of Nelson Mandela’s campaign. The activist had been released from prison four years before, and Mabuse eagerly agreed; he’d been singing about Mandela’s plight for years. The result was, simply, “Nelson Mandela,” which featured Mandela himself reading from a speech he gave during one of his trials in 1964.

Stevie Wonder, “It’s Wrong” (1985)

In 1985, Stevie Wonder was at one of many career peaks, and used that power to expose the injustices occurring in South Africa. Employing exiled South African musicians, Wonder put the rhythmic breakdown that is “It’s Wrong” on his “In Square Circle” album. That same year he was arrested during a Washington, D.C., anti-apartheid protest and dedicated the Oscar he won for the song “I Just Called to Say I Love You” to Nelson Mandela. The South African government responded by banning Wonder’s songs -- evidence of their hopeless desperation.

Brenda Fassie, "My Black President" (1989)

A song banned in South Africa when it was released in 1989, “My Black President” was one a tipping-point song, offered as it was a year before his exit from jail in 1990. It’s a thrilling song, filled with the sound of black South Africa: a harmonious choral group, smooth as chrome,  humming through the song while Fassie sings, imagining the moment that Nelson Mandela is released. 

Johnny Clegg and Savuka, “Asimbonanga” (1987)

One of the most popular anthems of the anti-apartheid movement was South African singer Johnny Clegg and his band Savuka’s “Asimbonanga,” which, translated, means “We haven’t seen him.” A protest whose Zulu chant brings Mandela’s absence to life, the clip below features a special guest midway through -- a dancing, smiling Mandela.

Artists United Against Apartheid, “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City” (1985)