, JOHANNESBURG, Dec 7 – After the initial shock of Nelson Mandela’s death, many South Africans celebrated his life and legacy with song and dance – a fitting tribute to a man whom music helped set free.
Mandela is now a household name, hailed across the world for unifying his country with a message of reconciliation despite spending 27 years in an apartheid prison.
But it was not always so. In the 1980s, about two decades into his imprisonment, the white-minority government had largely succeeded in putting him out of the minds of most people outside South Africa.
When he was mentioned by international news media, he was often referred to as a “jailed black terrorist leader”.
The international music scene however ensured that Mandela’s struggle against racist rule did not go forgotten.
South African artists in exile, luminaries like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, aided by American Harry Belafonte, spent their lives educating fans about the harsh realities of life under the apartheid government.
Then in 1984, British ska band The Special AKA released “Free Nelson Mandela,” an upbeat but unapologetically political song that remains one of the best-known protest songs in the world.
The song turned the call for Mandela’s release from a mere protest into a message of hope and proved to be a tipping point that transformed him into a pop culture cause celebre.
The next year came “Sun City,” a “We are the world”–style track spearheaded by Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.
Springsteen, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Run DMC and many others joined the song vowing not to perform in the South African resort of Sun City, located two hours from Johannesburg in an apartheid-created “homeland” for blacks.
In the years that followed, artists around the world released tribute after tribute in every pop genre, from Youssou N’Dour and Santana to Public Enemy and Tracy Chapman.