Friday, December 6, 2013

Artists United Against Apartheid "Sun City"

There is wall-to-wall coverage of the passing of Nelson Mandela, and many wise and informed folks are offering their thoughts.  So I'll leave the job of remembering Mandela to them.

Instead, I wanted to write about how I even knew who Nelson Mandela was in the first place.

I could literally count, on my fingers, the number of non-white people I knew that lived in my town, growing up. 

I understood the concepts of racism and prejudice and oppression, but in the very, very white suburbs north of Boston, they were abstract concepts, not daily struggles that took place before my eyes.

By 1985, a number of charity songs had hit the airwaves and MTV, led by "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and "We Are The World."  But I was intrigued by the video and song for "Sun City."

First, it was really the first instance I'd seen of rock artists working with artists from the relatively new, strange and curious world of rap music (the song pre-dates Aerosmith/Run-DMC's "Walk This Way" by a year).  "We're Rockers And Rapper united and strong . . ." was something completely unprecedented.

Second, I was struck by the kind of artist who appeared in the video.  While bonafide superstars like Bruce Springsteen and Bono did appear, there was a lot of focus on some real esoteric and/or underground names like Lou Reed, Ruben Blades and Gil-Scott Heron.

But mostly, I was fascinated by the politics of it all.  I mean, I'd never really heard an artist call out the President in a popular song like Joey Ramone does.

I'd never heard of Sun City, the place.  I'd not seen images of violence, protest and strife as shown in the video.  The song inspired me to learn what exactly Apartheid was, what "constructive engagement" meant, why they were showing images of Martin Luther King Jr. in a video about South Africans, and why all these artists weren't going to play "Sun City."

Baby Boomers can go on and on about how images like these, and songs on these subjects were nothing new---they lived through the Vietnam era.  But the fact is that despite whatever accomplishments they might have made in the late 60s and early 70s, now that they were the adults, they were not doing a damn thing to teach social justice, or even contemporary history, to the next generation.

I learned it from a song.

Nelson Mandela will be remembered in a number of ways.

One person can make a difference.

Education makes a difference.

Speaking truthfully and never turning a blind eye makes a difference.

Encouraging people to reject violence, but demand change, will make a difference.

Nelson Mandela's struggles were half a world away from where I lived.

But thank God there were people like Steven Van Zandt who could take his message, and make it mean something to a little White kid living in a little White world.

Hear the original song on Youtube.

Hear the live version on Youtube.


This post was about Nelson Mandela and the power of song, and I didn't want to fill it with silly and snarky comments and observations.  But HOLY SHIT does the video need to be watched with live commentary.

Just a few observations . . . It is VERY worth your while to read about the background of the song on Wikipedia . . . Miles Davis was only supposed to do a few seconds, he played for 7 minutes so they made a full jazz version of the song . . . (:58) DJ Kool Herc wants you to know his sunglasses flip up . . . (1:08) Steven Van Zandt looks like he should have been a vampire on "True Blood" . . . (1:16) blink and you miss it---Pete Townshend was involved in this project . . . (1:48) it makes some sense to put Springsteen with 2 former Temptations (I'm sure Bruce was psyched), but Pat Benatar as the fourth in the foursome is weird, right? . . . (2:13) scratch that, weirder quintet---George Clinton, Joey Ramone, Jimmy Cliff, Daryl Hall and Darlene Love . . . (2:55) Bonnie Raitt's mainstream success was still a few years away, in the context of this video she was another "esoteric" artist . . . (3:10) I think the world is a sadder place not having heard a full album from "Reed N Oates" . . . (3:28) What's happening on the wall behind Bobby Womack?!?!? . . . (3:39) Does Ruben Blades give a slow motion "fuck off"?  . . . (4:02) DJ Kool Herc really wants you to know his sunglasses flip up . . . (4:14) Daryl Hannah??? . . . (4:28) Peter Wolf hand dance! . . . (4:30) Does Jackson Browne have his shirt buttoned only at the top?  How very LA-in-the-80s . . . (4:42) Bono, auditioning for the role of The Devil . . . (5:00) Ringo! And your first peek at future drummer-in-high-demand Zak Starkey . . . (6:19) Bono kisses a Fat Boy! . . . (6:22) Weird, context-less, and inexplicably-slow-motion shot of Michael Monroe of Hanoi Rocks . . . (7:17) The most powerful singing yet . . .

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