The Boy in the Bubble: Paul Simon, sanctions and Graceland

Sometimes a wrong action can have a positive outcome…

Sometime in 1984, seeking musical inspiration following the critical and commercial failure of Hearts and Bones, Paul Simon was entranced by the sounds he heard on a cassette he played repeatedly on his car stereo and labelled Accordion Jive Hits, II.  Using his record industry contacts, the source of the unidentified music was located in South Africa, and a recording date was set up for Simon in Johannesburg with three of the groups on the tape: Tao Ea Matsekha, General MB Shirinda and the Gaza Sisters, and the Boyoyo Boys.  In 1985 Simon flew to South Africa.

He could not have been unaware of the implications of what he was doing.  The brutal apartheid regime had entered its most vicious phase.  Economic sanctions had been extended in UN-approved cultural boycott which had been in effect since December 1980. The wording of Resolution 35/206 was explicit:

The United Nations General Assembly request all states to prevent all cultural, academic, sporting and other exchanges with South Africa. Appeals to writers, artists, musicians and other personalities to boycott South Africa. Urges all academic and cultural institutions to terminate all links with South Africa.

And it wasn’t just political activists who had been galvanised by the appalling situation in South Africa. Previous years had seen a batch of songs attacking the brutality of apartheid, from Peter Gabriels’ powerful ‘Biko’ and Jerry Dammers and the Special AKA’s classic, ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ to Stevie Wonder’s ‘It’s Wrong’.  Moreover, there were active campaigns to stop musicians performing in South Africa, and at exactly the moment that Simon flew into Johannesburg, musicians such as Dylan, Springsteen and Bono, joined Steve Van Zandt’s Artists United Against Apartheid to record Sun City, attacking those who performed in the South African entertainment complex in the so-called ‘homeland’ of Bophuthatswana:

Twenty-three million can’t vote ’cause they’re black
We’re stabbing our brothers and sisters in the back
I wanna say I, I, I ain’t gonna play Sun City

As he planned his trip, Paul Simon consulted his close friend, the veteran civil rights and anti-apartheid campaigner Harry Belafonte.  He told Simon to go and talk to the ANC.  Simon preferred to ignore his advice.

Simon made the musical odyssey that resulted in the classic album Graceland without having received permission from either the UN or the African National Congress to enter South Africa.  Many feared that his blatant disregard for the boycott might undermine the anti-apartheid movement.  Jerry Dammers, then heavily involved with Artists Against Apartheid, was among those outraged: ‘Who does he think he is? He’s helping maybe 30 people and he’s damaging solidarity over sanctions. He thinks he’s helping the cause of freedom, but he’s naive. He’s doing far more harm than good’.

These issues were brought back into sharp focus by a remarkable documentary broadcast last week in BBC TV’s Imagine strand, and available as a DVD extra with the remastered Graceland 25th Anniversary EditionUnder African Skies, directed by Joe Berlinger, starts out as a conventional rock documentary, celebrating an iconic album’s quarter-century by following Paul Simon as he returns to Johannesburg to renew acquaintances with the musicians who joined him on Graceland, and with them to perform an anniversary concert in a free South Africa.

But very soon the film shifts gear from pop-promo into a subtle debate about the individual freedom of the artist versus the realpolitik of a people’s struggle for liberation. At first, Simon comes across as something of a Boy in the Bubble – blithely out of touch with the political realities of apartheid, concerned only to track down the rhythms that have delighted him in order to re-record them as a stimulus to his songwriting. Testimony makes clear how he went ahead with his mission, ignoring the pleas of those more attuned to social and political realities.  Simon even admits candidly to encountering and briefly accepting the racism of white recording studio technicians towards the musicians they are recording. It’s a startling admission, and testament to the clear-eyed nature of a film that does not gloss over the shortcomings of the star and its centre.

Of course, Simon was no racist.  He was, in his own estimation, simply an artist doing what he had done on all his solo albums – pursuing the joyous sounds that he found in musical traditions beyond Anglo-American rock and pop. What saved Simon in the ensuing controversy, and what turned the terms of the political debate around, was the wholehearted commitment of musicians like guitarist Ray Phiri, the Kumalo brothers, and Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo to his project – and of the exiled South Africans Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba who joined him on stage the global tour Graceland tour of 1987.

Graceland had threatened to blow a gigantic hole in the sanctions that had isolated the apartheid regime and endowed it with pariah status.  But the sheer brilliance of the music that sprang from the studio collaborations, the blending of traditions – and the way in which the album and the ensuing tour showcased South African culture and publicised the nature of apartheid – turned misguided action into triumph.  Moreover, the irony of a policy that seemed, in Ray Phiri’s words when he was advised by the ANC to leave a recording session in London and return to South Africa, to victimize the victim, was crisply illuminated.

In the film, Paul Simon continues to rest his case on the right of artists to express themselves, free from political pressure.  He sticks to a steely belief that artists shouldn’t be treated as if they work for politicians.  Back in 1986, in response to the ANC’s stance of, ‘You went to South Africa but you didn’t ask us, you need to ask the ANC’,  Simon retorted: ‘So that’s the kind of government you’re going to be? Check our lyrics? Fuck the artists like all kinds of governments have done in the past?’  The musicians who speak in the film all echo this sentiment of the power of artistic expression to transcend political oppression, and the ability of artists from widely differing circumstances and traditions to find a shared voice with which to communicate.

The core of the film’s political discussion takes place in a good-natured encounter on a Johannesburg sofa between Paul Simon and Dali Tambo, son of ANC leader Oliver Tambo who was the London-based exile who directed the cultural boycott. The pair agree to tell each other their side of the story. The film’s director, Joe Berlinger presents both sides of the story in a balanced way. Tambo crisply articulates the view of many black South Africans who saw a rich white man violating and pillaging South African culture for his own gain:

At that moment in time, it was not helpful. We were fighting for our land, for our identity. We had a job to do, and it was a serious job. And we saw Paul Simon coming as a threat because it was not sanctioned by the liberation movement.

Simon makes it clear where he stands to the end, saying ‘the power of art lasts. The political dispute has gone, but the music still lasts’, but in the last scene of the film Simon and Tambo apologise to each other, lean across, and hug.

The film leaves the viewer with the sense that are no easy answers here. Can art exist in a bubble, as Simon insists? This is not a historical question, relevant only to the issues of a quarter of a century ago.  Sanctions remain a crucial weapon in challenging injustice – think of Syria today, or those who argue for a cultural boycott to isolate Israel over its treatment of Palestine.  And, as the series Have You Heard From Johannesburg, shown on BBC 4 earlier this year, demonstrated, the worldwide struggle to isolate and destroy South African apartheid contributed hugely to the regime’s demise.

It is impressive is that Paul Simon allowed Berlinger to make such an unflinching film, containing as it does far more criticism than most celebrities would tolerate, and that he had the mettle to face the issues in an open and honest discussion with Dali Tambo.

But then I remember how I first heard ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’ on the car stereo, and having to pull over while the track played, so intoxicating was its sound.  Like millions of others I adored Graceland, and through the late 1980s it seemed to do more to promote world music in general and South African music in particular than anything else, bar the Andy Kershaw radio show.  It’s still an album that makes the hairs rise on the back of the neck – and that’s down to the combination of Simon’s clever, New York lyrics with the rippling rhythms of Ray Phiri’s guitar,  the infectious beat of the Khumalo brother’s rhythm section and the shimmering harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

In Under African Skies, Paul Simon tells how the release of Graceland was postponed for several months in 1986. But he, along with  Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Soweto Rhythm Section had already been booked to appear on Saturday Night Live. On that trip, Ladyship went into a studio and recorded ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’, going on to perform it with Simon on the TV show a few days later.  Watch a video clip of the performance here:

Paul Simon – Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes…

In 1987 the Graceland tour, with Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela reached Zimbabwe.  Here are some highlights:

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4 thoughts on “The Boy in the Bubble: Paul Simon, sanctions and Graceland

  1. I was fortunate enough to see Paul Simon live, in 1987 I guess, on tour with the Graceland album having been released the year before. Birmingham NEC I think, I was just half a dozen rows back from the stage and to see Simon sing and play songs from that album, that close, one of the great songwriters of this or any era, was to be privileged.
    I think I bought the CD on the strength and impact that the opening track had on me, ‘The boy in the bubble’. What a stupendous song that is, lyrically and musically, the blend of Simons ‘all knowing, all encompassing’ visions of the personal turned universal, whipping images of a frenetic world in the 1980’s across the mind, the amazing advances of science and medicine, of ‘millionaires and billionaires’, ‘the days of miracle and wonder’, but mixed with brooding and actual apparently random violence and ending with an unsure comforting refrain on the chorus ‘don’t cry baby, don’t cry, don’t cry’, sung plaintively over mind-crunching drums and a bass that sounded like Jaco Pastorius fed through James Jamersons fast one-fingered funk hands, with an accordion providing an unlikely statement of introduction. Maybe some of the images, ‘slo-mo’, ‘the long distance call’, have become commonplace or have been usurped by technological wonders since, but to me it still retains its power and glory of a world to wonder at, yet a world to be wary of.
    I had never heard sounds like it, jangly warped bright guitars, wild runs over the frets, tight yet loose, and black African voices in harmony, plus the additional voices of the Everly brothers and on one track, ‘Under African Skies’, the absolutely exquisite vocals of, in my opinion, one of the greatest and most versatile and adaptable set of vocal cords ever, Linda Ronstadt, who around that time was recording with Nelson Riddle, and such was his opinion of her talents, they made three albums together, praise indeed.
    So, in view of all the vilification Paul Simon received, was it worth it?
    Well, rock and roll was always about rebellion…wasn’t it? Come to think of it, old Ludwig himself was a rebel, outspoken, self assured, arrogant, changing the course of music forever, dying and then leaving everyone to catch up with his visions and imaginations whilst he floated on a cloud above, chuckling to himself, knowing he was immortal before his own mortality, and his music too providing the soundscape for a unity of Man yet to come, if ever.
    ‘The best way to serve the age is to betray it.’
    I guess there must be hundreds of examples of those whose artistic ventures went against the grain of their own times and though there is more than enough justification in the cause as to why Simon perhaps should not have gone to South Africa, somehow the possibility that someone may just create something which will rise above the politics and pains of man, must surely be the over-riding principle in the mind of the artist and the waiting audience. Otherwise, it’s censorship and although censorship may be an equally important consideration in the face of revolting regimes, if censorship is to be considered, then whose? Yours, mine?
    I would not try to draw parallels, but upon reading an essay on Thoreau’s thoughts and actions on ‘Civil Disobedience’, I read that McCarthy had this slim volume removed from Public libraries and in this year when Ray Bradbury passed away, author of the novella ‘Fahrenheit 451’, a warning about the dangers of censorship, we should be wary about pressurizing artists into conforming to the ideals of others, no matter how noble their cause.
    Of course you cannot equate an album of great songs with the brutal deaths of innocent women and children and prisoners who mysteriously ‘died’ in prison, it’s not justifiable in those terms, but yet the opportunity of a nations music to be heard around the world by an artist whose name is writ large, must surely be considered. Of course if it was my family being murdered I too would not, unless of considerable conscience , compassion and foresight, understand that the artist must be allowed his say. Music is an elemental force, it gives voice to those whose own has been silenced.
    Nobody was forced to buy ‘Graceland’, no musician was forced to play on it, no white man replaced a black man in the band supporting Simon either in the recording or the tour (were they?), I assume Simon did not need the money at that stage in his career, he never struck me as one who needed his ego massaging, too much, though early on in his career I thought I detected in a film broadcast last year a competitive streak and an urge to have his music heard by as many people as possible, but what artist doesn’t, as long as he/she does not compromise his own moral and musical integrity in the process, that’s a normal human desire.
    How many people did this music reach and influence? Millions I imagine. 14 million and still going. I can only imagine the musicians who worked with him were aware of the conflict and they too choose to record rather than be silenced.
    Music has power and can overcome prejudice and hate and late last year I took a friend to see Janis Ian at Huntingdon Hall, Worcester. Honestly, in my ignorance, the only song I knew her for was the great ‘At Seventeen’, surely one of the great songs of teenage female angst and hurt. Janis is in her sixties now, touring quietly, playing 3 – 400 seat halls, but a master songstress and guitar player, and her longevity stretching back to her teens, was a childhood prodigy and also endured much prejudice herself. Tiny, from Jewish left wing parents and very intelligent, though badly let down by her school teachers, she applied her considerable perception and literary sense to the troubles of the time in the sixties. (notwithstanding her own terrible sexual, personal and financial traumas too)
    She told a story, very quietly, half way through the night, about a song she wrote aged just thirteen, called ‘Society’s Child’, about a white girl, black guy relationship. Amazing enough in itself, it was just the tenth song she ever wrote and few record companies in the USA would touch it, (including Atlantic, who returned the master copy to Janis, for which, years later, the head, one Jerry Wexler, publicly apologised) until Leonard Bernstein no less, raged against radio stations for not playing it. One did, in Atlanta and it was promptly burned down. Ian herself received death threats and hate mail.
    Janis got halfway through the song at a theatre one night, (in the Deep South, I think) when a group of people stood up and began stomping the floor, chanting, and (excuse the use of the word, but it’s important) ‘Nigger lover, nigger lover’ or words similar, in time with their feet. Scared, frightened and intimidated, she fled the stage back to her dressing room and broke down in tears. The theatre manager entered the room, but far from consoling her as you might have expected, said, ‘Look Janis, you wrote that song, didn’t you?’ ‘Yes’, she said. ‘Then you believe in what you wrote, don’t you?’ ‘Yes’, she said. ‘Then you can’t let them win, you have to get back out there and finish the song’.
    Janis wiped her tears away, picked up her guitar and walked back onto the stage where the aggression still hung in the hall. But now she was angry and she struck up the chords and began to sing the song again. Again folks got up and began stomping and chanting. But then an amazing thing happened. Ushers and others very quietly got up out of their seats, stood behind these chanting folks and placing their hands on their shoulders, gently but firmly pushed them back down into their seats where they remained quiet until Janis finished the song.
    So, let the artist paint, let the writer write and let the singer have a voice, no matter the crowd may bay for their blood.

    • As always, Les, thoughtful and wise. It’s a great pleasure to read your comments and a privilege to see them here. You express, better than I did, the doubts, but also the certainties, we had (and have) about this question.

  2. Thanks Gerry, that’s very kind of you to say so and thank you for the space. I dug out an interview Simon did in April last year, he said, in response to this statement,
    “Graceland had its critics, not of the music, but because you went to South Africa to record it”.
    He said, “Yeah, and that reached a level I didn’t anticipate. But I think it only reached that level because the record was a big hit. If Graceland had been a flop, they wouldn’t have said any more to me than they’d said to Malcolm McLaren who went to South Africa the year before to record Duck Rock with South African musicians. And he didn’t even pay anybody, he didn’t give anybody any credit.
    Anyway, I think Graceland was remarkable in two different ways. One, it was a very interesting artistic leap that combined cultures in a way that was accessible and gave people great joy and insight into another country. It was very successful as a marriage of different cultures, which was not easy to do.
    The other thing is it provoked a really interesting political discussion, which really came down to how effective is a cultural boycott if the people that it’s affecting most are the people who are being oppressed? And that eventually turned people away from the cultural boycott as a tool of fighting that particular kind of oppression, because it wasn’t an efficient tool. It didn’t do the job. It did the opposite. Graceland was the catalyst that got people into that discussion. it was really Hugh Masekela who focused that discussion and said, “Hey, this is a good thing for South Africa. We want our music out there”.

    I guess it’s easy for us to see with hindsight, but to be in that moment was not an easy thing, though Simon, sensitive songwriter he may be, and no doubt has his doubts and demons, but he seems a, well perhaps not a iron fist in a velvet glove, but has more than enough New York ‘chutzpah’ to withstand the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ and has the courage of his convictions.

    I wonder if they will erect a statue for him when he passes, someone should, though the body of his work will no doubt be enough, ‘America’ is to me is one of the great anthemic songs of our time, yet its lyrics are and seem so matter of fact and personal, again he makes the personal somehow universal. American Tune seemed to sum up a nations heartbreak and pain, like he was holding up a mirror to the whole country, Springsteen does it too, often loud and clear, but with Simon its so subtle, his use of language is just so spot on. A master craftsman.
    American Tune has the line, ‘The Statue of Liberty, sailing away to sea’, and as a very tenuous link, Bob Hopes daughter was interviewed this morning on Radio 4, she’s here because there is an exhibition in Greenwich of Bob Hope memorabilia. Hopes sense of humour and where he got it from came up and it was suggested that he inherited it from his father who apparently quipped on their arrival in New York these words that Bob Hope remembered,

    ” I’ll never forget our first view of the Statue of Liberty carrying her flaming torch on high. Dad turned to me and said, ”This is what I’ve dreamed of, son. A country where women carry their own matches.”

    Priceless!

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