Paul Simon returns with the blessing of the UN

pic: Wikimedia

TWENTY-FIVE years ago today, on January 11, 1992, Paul Simon returned to Johannesburg, after the lifting of United Nations sanctions.

‘Graceland’ – the result of the singer-songwriter’s 1985 controversial nine-day visit to South Africa – was a musical triumph worldwide, but anti-apartheid activists had not been too happy about it.

The visit was in violation of a United Nations cultural boycott, but a visit that dramatically increased worldwide awareness of black South Africa’s rich musical traditions.

Paul Simon entered the picture after being turned on to mbaqanga and mbube and conceiving the Graceland album, which would go on to be his most successful and important work as a solo artist. In the face of public criticism of his plans, Simon traveled to Johannesburg in February 1985, for recording sessions with South African artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, largely unknown at that time both to the outside world and to white South Africans. The result of these sessions was a landmark album that sold millions of copies, won multiple Grammys and earned a place in the United States National Recording Registry in 2006.

“In South Africa, we had no opportunity,” recalled saxophonist Barney Rachabane, “You could have dreams, but they never come true. It really destroys you. But Graceland opened my eyes and set a tone of hope in my life.”

Yet this uplifting revelation is countered by Dali Tambo, founder of Artists Against Apartheid, who felt that Simon put the showbiz ambitions of a handful of local musicians above the struggles of a nation. “We were fighting for our land, for our identity,” he told The New York Times. “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.” (rollingstone.com)

Seven years later, with the U.N. boycott lifted, Simon returned to South Africa to play a historic concert in Johannesburg on January 11, 1992.

It was only appropriate that Paul Simon should be the first major international star to perform in South Africa after the lifting of the UN boycott. With the full support of the ANC and its recently freed leader Nelson Mandela, Simon performed before 40 000 cheering fans in Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium on this day in 1992.

It was a powerfully symbolic event that also underscored the limits of symbolism in addressing entrenched inequality; as the New York Times noted, “Most black South Africans could not afford to pay up to $30 for a ticket, or, lacking cars, to travel to Johannesburg from the outlying black townships.” As a result, the audience for Simon’s historic South African concert was overwhelmingly young and white.

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