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

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:

Slavery, apartheid and morality

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
Peter Gabriel, ‘Biko’

There was a moment in a recent TV documentary about the Asante kingdom (located in present-day Ghana) when a Ghanaian academic, asked about the Asante proclivity for selling captives from neighbouring tribes into European slavery, said, ‘Well, we didn’t have any morality then’.  It didn’t sound right.

It was only later, watching a film about the international movement to boycott and isolate apartheid South Africa in sport, that I figured out what was wrong.

Of course the Asante of the 18th and early 19th century did have a moral code – it was just that, exactly like European morality at the time, it applied only to Asante and not to others.  Certainly there were those in the anti-slavery movement who argued that ethical standards on how we should treat human beings should apply not just to fellow-countrymen but also to those widely regarded at the time as belonging to inferior races – but they had a mighty struggle getting their views accepted.

One love 
One blood 
One life 
You got to do what you should 
One life 
With each other 
Sisters 
Brothers 
One life 
But we’re not the same 
We get to 
Carry each other
– U2, ‘One’

What gained traction in the 20th century (paradoxically, in a century of such great inhumanity) was the concept of moral universalism – that ethics apply universally, for ‘all similarly situated individuals’, regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality or sexuality.  For some, the source or justification of a universal ethic lay in Christian or other religious beliefs, in Enlightenment reason or socialist values.  Whatever the source, Noam Chomsky stated its meaning crisply:

One of the, maybe the most, elementary of moral principles is that of universality, that is, If something’s right for me, it’s right for you; if it’s wrong for you, it’s wrong for me. Any moral code that is even worth looking at has that at its core somehow.

Watching the current (brilliant) series of documentaries about the worldwide effort to destroy South African apartheid, Have You Heard From Johannesburg, I recognised a principle that drew countless numbers around the world, myself included, to protest on behalf of others we would never meet, but whose circumstances and treatment were judged intolerable.

Notwithstanding their European origins, . . .[i]n Asia, Africa, and South America, human rights now constitute the only language in which the opponents and victims of murderous regimes and civil wars can raise their voices against violence, repression, and persecution, against injuries to their human dignity.
– Jurgen Habermas

In South Africa, opposition to apartheid was led by the African National Congress, founded 100 years ago on 8 January 1912.  The ANC in its constitution and membership represented the ideal of universalism, being an organisation open to all, irrespective of race, colour and creed, its 1955 Freedom Charter stating that all should have equal rights, be equal before the law and enjoy equal human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948, asserted the same principles globally. By that time, the idea that different peoples were endowed with separate rights was challenged by those struggling against colonial oppression or trying to build new nations.  The barbarities of war and genocide fuelled the yearning to safeguard rights within the nation-state, as well as limiting external aggression and war.  ‘It was imperative that the peoples of the world should recognize the existence of a code of civilized behaviour which would apply not only in international relations but also in domestic affairs’, said Begum Shaista Ikramullah, a Pakistani  delegate on the UN drafting committee in 1948.

This was impressive, given the experience of the previous decades.  The Encyclopedia of Genocide records that:

In total, during the first eighty-eight years of [the twentieth] century, almost 170 million men, women, and children were shot, beaten, tortured, knifed, burned, starved,frozen, crushed, or worked to death; buried alive, drowned, hanged, bombed, or killed in any other of the myriad other ways governments have inflicted deaths on unarmed, helpless citizens and foreigners. Depending on whether one used high
or more conservative estimates, the dead could conceivably be more than 360 million people. It is as though our species has been devastated by a modern Black Plague.

Michael Perry, in Toward a Theory of Human Rights by (Cambridge University Press) underlines the significance of the change that took place in the second half of the 20th century:

In the midst of the countless grotesque inhumanities of the twentieth century, however, there is a heartening story, amply recounted elsewhere: the emergence, in international law, of the morality of human rights. The morality of human rights is not new; in one or another version, the morality is very old.
But the emergence of the morality in international law, in the period since the end of World War II, is a profoundly important development.  Until World War II, most legal scholars and governments affirmed the
general proposition, albeit not in so many words, that international law did not impede the natural right of each equal sovereign to be monstrous to his or her subjects.  The twentieth century, therefore, was not only the dark and bloody time; the second half of the twentieth century was also the time in which a growing number of human beings the world over responded to the savage horrors of the twentieth century by affirming the morality of human rights. The emergence of the morality of human rights makes the moral landscape of the twentieth century a touch less bleak.

Coincidentally, in the same week that these thoughts were provoked by watching two TV documentaries, on Thinking Allowed Laurie Taylor spoke to Kate Nash, a sociologist from Goldsmiths College who was about to present a paper, Charity or Justice: What is the suffering of strangers to us? to a conference on Humanitarianism.  What is the suffering of strangers to us? What is it that makes us care for people we have never met and who have very different lives from our own?

Nash argues that such feelings can be prompted either from a sense of justice or an impulse for charity. Laurie Taylor asked her to explain the distinction.  She responded:

Charity is related to humanitarianism.  It’s the idea that we respond to the suffering of others because they are suffering – its basis is compassion.  Justice on the other hand is more a response in terms of common expectations: we respond to the suffering of others as we expect that they would respond to us, to help us out, because we share common conditions and because we share what’s sometimes called a ‘community of fate’.

Nash sees justice as rooted in the nation state – the ‘community of fate’ is firmly rooted in the nation, and our sense of commonality is based on the nation:

It’s a much thicker sense of commonality – that we belong together because of common language, common origins and common history. But generally, when we think about the suffering of those beyond our borders, with the exception of certain political movements, mostly what is being asked for is a charitable, a compassionate response.

That proviso – ‘with the exception of certain political movements’ – is important.  It reminds us of the crucial part played by campaigns from the anti-slavery movement to the anti-apartheid movement in advancing and solidifying a global vision of justice and human rights.  Nash argues that the media – including Internet and social media – will play a key role in strengthening support for international justice and human rights in cultural politics.  But to me it seems that the role of international solidarity campaigns will remain paramount.

The series Have You Heard From Johannesburg, currently being shown on BBC 4, is a superb, probably definitive, cinematic history of the worldwide struggle to isolate and destroy South African apartheid. Filmed by Connie Field throughout the world over ten years, it features interviews with many of the major players, and archive footage of the struggle, much of it never seen before on television.  An American series, it has been adapted for screening on British TV, with a different second episode.

That second episode looked at how athletes and activists around the world hit white South Africa where it hurt – on the playing field. Knowing that fellow blacks in South Africa were denied even the most basic human rights, let alone the right to participate in international sports competitions, African nations refused to compete with all-white South African teams, boycotting the Olympics and eventually forcing the International Olympic Committee to ban apartheid teams from future games. By the 1970s, only South Africa’s world champion rugby team remained, and citizens across the world took to the streets and sports fields to close the last door on apartheid sport.

In 1970, the struggle focussed on the Springbok tour of Britain, with protests such as the one outside Manchester’s White City ground.  A few months earlier, November 1969, Peter Hain had come to the Student Union at Liverpool University, where I was a student, to address a meeting and gather support for the demonstration (above).  Jon Snow, who was arrested on the demo, wrote about the impact of the movement in his account of his early years and his career in journalism, Shooting History:

It was Peter Hain, subsequently a Labour Cabinet Minister, who finally identified our cause. Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had spent the previous months preaching change through ‘economic engagement’ with the South African apartheid regime. Wilson and others had gone soft on economic sanctions, and the apartheid state was consolidating its hold amid calls from Nelson Mandela’s beleaguered African National Congress (ANC)  to black South Africans to burn their passbooks. British culpability and collusion with apartheid were clear, but what was Liverpool’s connection?  […]

In November 1969 Peter Hain, himself South African by birth, came north with his ‘Stop the Seventy Tour’ campaign. The South African Springbok rugby team were already in Britain, while a cricket tour was to take place in the summer. Hain’s ultimately hugely successful campaign recognised that sport was very close to the heart of the apartheid regime. It was the public, competitive and white face of South Africa. We might not be able to spring Mandela from Robben Island, but we could at least stop his jailers from playing sport in our green and pleasant land. Hain’s target was the Springbok match at Old Trafford in Manchester.

Some of the most dramatic moments in the film came with its account of how, in 1981, the epicentre of the resistance moved to New Zealand, where massive protests met the Springboks when they toured the country.  At Rugby Park, Hamilton, protesters pulled down fences before invading the pitch and ultimately forcing the cancellation of the game (above and top).

The third episode dealt with the international reaction to the brutal suppression of the Soweto Uprising on 16 June 1976 and the murder of student leader Steve Biko – events that turned South Africa into a worldwide emblem of injustice. As most western governments refused to heed Oliver Tambo’s calls for cultural and economic boycotts, a new generation of young people – in South Africa and across the world – continued the struggle for justice.  I had not been aware previously of the significant movement in the Netherlands, original homeland of the Afrikaners, where activists such as Conny Braam (below) turned the tide of Dutch conservatism.

Returning to the Asante and their part in the Atlantic slave trade: that account came in an episode from the second series of Lost Kingdoms of Africa, presented by art historian Gus Casely-Hayford. There is a scarcity of written records documenting Africa’s past, Casely-Hayford presents a vivid account by drawing on the culture, artefacts and traditions of the people. Across the two series, Dr Gus Casely-Hayford has explored the rich and vibrant histories of 8 complex and sophisticated civilisations: the kingdom of Asante, the Zulus, the Berber kingdom of Morocco and the kingdoms of Bunyoro and Buganda in the current season, and West Africa, Great Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, and Nubia in the previous one.

See also

Sharpeville repercussions

Today marks 50 years since the Sharpeville Massacre, when police in apartheid South Africa opened fire on thousands of unarmed protesters, killing 69 and injuring about 180.  The Pan Africanist Congress, having split from the African National Congress,called on black South Africans to demonstrate against the hated pass laws. Thousands gathered outside the local police station in Sharpeville, challenging the police to arrest them for being without the pass books, or dompas, they were meant to produce on demand.

The massacre was a watershed in the country’s liberation struggle, providing the spark for the armed struggle mounted by the PAC and the ANC, and outraging international opinion, leading to the worldwide boycott and  disinvestment movement.

Not coincidentally, this weekend I have been celebrating another anniversary – 40 years since the end of an 11-day occupation of the University of Liverpool’s Senate House administrative block in March 1970.  The focus for the protest? The demand that Lord Salisbury – renowned for his racist views, scornful rejection of African self-government and financial links with apartheid Rhodesia and South Africa – resign as Chancellor, and that the University divest itself of investments in South Africa. After the protest, the University handed down punishments that were unprecedented in their severity: 9 students suspended and one expelled.

Yesterday, 60 of the 300 students involved in the sit-in came together in a joyous reunion. For the past three months I have been delving into the University archives to research this event, and producing a blog – An Emotional Involvement – which tells the full story of the protest.

The Liverpool students’ protest was rooted in a critical questioning of the nature of a university, its relationship and responsibilities to the wider world. Did it matter? The solidarity protests and the boycott movement gave black South Africans a sense of hope that change could occur. In 1981, on Robben Island, hearing of the massive and successful protests against the Springboks tour of New Zealand, Nelson Mandela said “When I heard that news it felt like the sun coming out.”

The Liverpool protest asked big ethical questions about what it is to be human: what kind of lives we want to live, and want others to be able to enjoy in freedom and dignity, and what kind of world we want to pass on to our children.  Back in 1970, the University Treasurer, HB Chrimes, talking about disinvestment from apartheid, asserted: ‘You cannot involve the whole university in a personal emotion’. In 2010, the current Vice-Chancellor, Howard Newby,writing to the student expelled for the action, affirmed: “Your voice and actions serve as a legacy to the freedoms we enjoy, preserve and defend”.

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