Nelson Mandela and the power of music

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason


• Of all the towering figures in history, none is celebrated in music as is Nelson Mandela. His spirit, perseverance and dignity fuelled the cause of liberty and equality, but also drove protest music to great global heights. The subject of timeless songs during his 27 years in prison, stirring anthems after his release and his triumphant ascent to the presidency, through Truth and Reconciliation, the Noble Peace Prize and his campaign against HIV/AIDS, he inspired artists of all genres who took him, his struggles and vision to heart and the world stage. His Google play-list tops 100 tracks. That’s just those that exist in digital formats. And upon his death, scores of symphonies, operas and other works are being composed.

Central to South African life, particularly Mandela’s, “Music,” he said, “is a great blessing. It has the power to elevate us and liberate us. It sets people free to dream. It can unite us to sing with one voice. Such is the value of music.”

Working as a lawyer from 1956 to 1961, he was repeatedly arrested for seditious activities. Although initially committed to non-violent protest, he led a sabotage campaign against the apartheid government and was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to life imprisonment. Confined in a damp concrete cell, eight feet (2.4 m) by seven feet (2.1 m), he slept on a straw mat and was harassed by white wardens. He worked at breaking rocks in a lime quarry and was forbidden to wear sunglasses, which permanently damaged his eyesight. Locked in solitary for possessing smuggled news clippings, he was permitted only one visit and one heavily censored letter every six months. Indeed, music was a great blessing, but singing to his fellow prisoners from his cell each evening, he was still unaware of its true power.


Release Nelson MandelaAfter the brutal, bloody Sharpeville massacre in 1960, the Musicians’ Union in the UK had declared a boycott and the Beatles and Rolling Stones would be among those who refused to perform in South Africa. Exiled for decades, singer Miriam Makeba and trumpeter Hugh Masekela toured tirelessly to fight apartheid in their homeland and to raise awareness, aided by Harry Belafonte. In 1963, Vanessa Redgrave wrote and performed Hanging on a Tree during a rally, well aware that Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for life, also faced the death penalty.

Nonetheless, American civil rights, Vietnam, students’ rights, various assassinations and political shenanigans were the stuff of protest. Apartheid only getting a nod in songs such as Gil Scott-Heron’s 1976 Johannesburg: “They may not get the news, but they need to know we’re on their side.”

And it was Steve Biko, not Mandela who became the first anti-apartheid icon. The young founder of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement – who died in 1977 after being severely beaten in police custody – was immortalized in 1980 in Peter Gabriel’s Biko: “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.”

That same year, the UN finally approved a cultural boycott of South Africa, naming Mandela in a resolution around the world. Petitions were signed, tributes paid, but awareness waned. Two years later – on the 20th anniversary of Mandela’s arrest – ANC leader-in-exile Oliver Tambo relaunched the campaign focused on Mandela, making this incarcerated, invisible celebrity an international cause célèbre.


“I am told that when ‘Free Mandela’ posters went up in London, most young people thought my Christian name was ‘Free,’” he recalled in his autobiography.

Jerry Dammers, a member of The Specials, a British multiracial ska band, had never heard of the famous prisoner when he attended a tribute concert in 1983. With an armful of leaflets and a melody in his head, he wrote Free Nelson Mandela. The simple message, chanted over and over, became an international rallying cry. Released under the band name The Special A.K.A, the following year it tapped into South African rhythms, celebratory spirit and joyous solidarity, the polar opposite of Gabriel’s dirge. Produced by Elvis Costello, the optimistic chorus was so catchy that anyone could sing, remember and move to it, the most danceable protest song of all time.

With Mandela’s face on the front of the record sleeve, filled with information gleaned from anti-apartheid campaigners, Tambo couldn’t have asked for more. The song was embraced by the UN, ANC and black South Africans who sang it at demonstrations and played it over loudspeakers even though the record was banned by the forces of apartheid.

At the same time, Steven Van Zandt – Little Steven of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and the future Silvio on The Sopranos – became enraged at artists who performed at the white, big-ticket luxury resort in the middle of the dirt-poor, black Bantustan (homeland) of Bophuthatswana near Johannesburg. He brought 49 artists together to form Artists United Against Apartheid and to record Sun City. Produced by early electronic dance music innovator Arthur Baker, it bridged the worlds of rock and rap, featuring the famous line “I ain’t gonna play Sun City” and lyrics sung by the likes of Springsteen and Grandmaster Flash, Bob Dylan and Afrika Bambaataa, Miles Davis and Run-D.M.C.

A chart-maker in Canada and Australia, it would be played by only half of the radio stations in the US and never achieved the success of We Are the World, also released in 1985.

But the video earned heavy rotation on a then-soaring MTV, delivering shocking images of South African police violence as well as footage of Mandela and other activists. It ignited campus demonstrations, urging universities to divest their holdings in companies doing business with the South African regime, a critical turning point in global awareness and the implementation of sanctions. While Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan still labelled him a terrorist and a communist, the floodgates were opened and the floodlights turned on. A survey found that three-quarters of 16-24 year-olds in the Western world knew who Mandela was and wanted him released.

In 1988, Dammers conceived of a 70th birthday concert at Wembley Arena for the still-imprisoned Mandela. African musicians and dedicated campaigners shared the stage with sympathetic superstars on a night witnessed by 600 million people in 67 countries, peaking with the iconic trio of songs Biko, Sun City and Free Nelson Mandela.

Two years later, the freed, gentle man, who had purged himself of bitterness and hatred, would walk on the same stage and receive a 10-minute standing ovation. “Thank you that you chose to care,” Mandela told the ecstatic crowd. Backstage, before leaving for the airport and the next remarkable stage of his life, he was introduced to Dammers. “Ah, yes, very good, but the line about my captors forcing me to wear painfully ill-fitting shoes was inaccurate,” said Mandela, a testament to his integrity and search for truth and reconciliation, requiring no embellishment to inspire the planet.

Mandela acknowledged a debt to musicians, who rallied again in 2003 to launch charity concerts under the banner of 46664 (four, double six, six four), taken from his prison number in jail on hellish Robben Island. It was the strategy of the apartheid regime to reduce people fighting for freedom to nameless numbers. Simply and poignantly through personal example, he demonstrated and communicated to the world once again that we are human beings, all equal, including those infected with HIV/AIDS.

Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker Jason Bourque is working on an upcoming documentary entitled Music for Mandela. It should be quite a show. Perhaps it will be more telling, poignant and insightful than December’s funeral celebrations, cheapened by “selfie” photos, schizophrenic signers and so-called leaders whose bloated, gaudy and hypocritical rhetoric loudly blared in the blurred faces of those still imprisoned by a growing inequality.

Somewhere, a beloved figure dances to the heartbeat of humanity, the work and the music, still unfinished.

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic.

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