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In the early 1980s, Nelson Mandela’s name was virtually unknown in the United States. In fact, it was Steve Biko, who died in police custody in South Africa in 1977, who first put the struggles of black South Africans into public consciousness in the U.S.
Peter Gabriel’s song “Biko” was written in 1980, the same year the United Nations established a cultural boycott of the country, and was among the first of the songs that catapulted the plight of apartheid onto the musical airwaves.
It wasn’t until 1984 that The Specials, also known as The Special AKA, released its iconic “Free Nelson Mandela” that the protest genre really took off.
It was against that backdrop that Bruce Springsteen guitarist Steven Van Zandt teamed up with record producer Arthur Baker and then-ABC producer Danny Schechter to create Artists United Against Apartheid and produce “Sun City.”
The anti-apartheid songs on the album, including “Sun City” and “Revolutionary Situation,” inspired a generation of musicians to write their own anti-apartheid songs and albums. Among them were Bono, Stevie Wonder and Johnny Clegg.
Van Zandt and Schechter talk with Here & Now’s Robin Young about “Sun City” and its impact.
Steven Van Zandt on what inspired “Sun City”
“I had been doing research on American foreign policies since World War II, and left the E Street Band to do that for 10 years or so. And South Africa was on my list of engagements we were involved with, which I felt our government was on the wrong side of. By then, I had heard Peter Gabriel’s ‘Biko,’ which was just a terrific inspiration. I would later discover Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘Johannesburg.’”
Danny Schechter on the meaning of “Sun City”
“Sun City is a resort, a big hotel complex. But it was in a place called Bophuthatswana, which was a homeland of South Africa. South Africa created these fictional homelands that were really controlled by the people in Pretoria, but to the rest of the world, they appeared to be independent states. And, in a sense, this was part of the whole plan there, which was to separate people according to their nationalities, their ethnicities and their backgrounds. And so, opposing the homeland system was a central attack on apartheid. Nobody here was really talking about it until Steven came along with Sun City.”
Danny Schechter on gathering all the stars
“What we wanted to do was to break down the apartheid in music in our own country by having musicians – international artists, rap, rock, Motown, jazz – that were usually segregated in America. There would be a black station, a white station, a jazz station and the like and put all of these currents on one album as a united statement against apartheid. Fifty-eight stars agreed to be part of it, and the fact is, many more wanted to be part of it when they found about it. There were no more lines to sing.”
Steven Van Zandt on Paul Simon wanting art and politics to be separate
“First of all, I was trying to — even when I was down there — defend him, actually. I had met with some very serious people called the Azanian People’s Association, AZAPO. And he was on a hit list — you know they were going to kill him — and I insisted on him being taken off this list. I then spoke to the UN about having him taken off the UN list – the blacklist. You know, having said that, he gave me that line that ‘art transcends politics,’ and I said, ‘Paul, all due respect, but not only does art not transcend politics, but art is politics.’ We agreed to disagree at the time – by now, I would have thought he would have a little bit of a mea culpa, but not Paulie, no.”