Welcome to WTF Wednesday! Normally, I wouldn’t count a charity supergroup as a “supergroup”, but today’s artist is unique. Artists United Against Apartheid was assembled not for some seemingly cozy charity as feeding the hungry. No, this group was formed as an act of protest, if not civil disobedience.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, South Africa practice a legal brand of racism called apartheid, where the basically minority whites ruled the country and branded the majority, and authentic South Africans, as outcasts. This lead to a couple of well-known prisoners in South Africa, Nelson Mandela and Steven Biko. Biko was killed while in custody, and Peter Gabriel immortalized Biko on Gabriel’s third self-titled album, the one with Gabriel’s “melting” face on the cover. On the other hand, we are more familiar with Mandela’s eventual release from prison and his election to lead South Africa upon the abolition of apartheid.
From 1976 through the release of Mandela, apartheid was the law of the country, so the United Nations banned musical artists from playing in South Africa, as well as banning South African athletes from participating in the Olympics. Now, in the mid-80s, three things occurred on the musical front that lead to the eventual destruction of apartheid in South Africa. First, Queen was paid a then ungodly sum of money to play at a resort called Sun City. This was the first time a Western rock artist ignored the ban, claiming they wanted to bring their music to the blacks in the country. Unfortunately, the group was naive, not knowing that this resort Sun City was only for whites. To Queen’s credit, they did go out to meet blacks and apologize. Surprisingly, the blacks welcomed Queen more than the Western media ever did.
Simultaneously, yet unbeknownst to the governments around the world, Paul Simon had heard a cassette tape of music played by South African blacks and fell in love with their musicianship. Simon in turn went to South Africa to find the musicians on this tape in order to record some music he had written. After the two groups overcame their suspicions of each other, the musicians created some of the greatest music of all time that was released on Paul Simon’s classic Graceland album in 1986. That album won Grammy awards and was considered a huge nail in the coffin of apartheid.
The final thing that happened was former Bruce Springsteen foil, the former Miami Steve, now called Little Steven Van Zandt and the hottest producer at the time Arthur Baker got together to write an anti-apartheid song. At first, no record company would touch the project. So, the activist side came out in Little Steven as he recruited his musician friends to help with this song. What happened is that Little Steven trumped every other charity supergroup by the obvious diversity of artists from the rock, reggae, pop, metal, jazz, soul, hip hop, Latin, punk and alternative worlds all joined together to create this song of unity against the lawful discrimination of people based upon their skin color. Among those of note who participated are Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Joey Ramone, Miles Davis, Gil Scott-Herron, Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil, Doug Wimbash of Living Colour, Pat Benatar, Bonnie Raitt, Nona Hendryx, Daryl Hall, John Oates, Ruben Blades, Darlene Love, George Clinton, Run-DMC, David Ruffin of The Temptations, Eddie Kendrick of The Temptations, Peter Wolf formerly of The J. Geils Band, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Kurtis Blow, Big Youth, Jimmy Cliff, Afrika Bambaataa, Bobby Womack, Pete Townshend, Ringo Starr, Zak Starkey, Herbie Hancock, Clarence Clemons and Bono. Finally, a charity group had been assembled from nearly every genre of music.
Unfortunately, neither the single nor the album was successful. I believe there were two reasons for this. This single and album dropped in the Fall of 1985. We had Christmas 1984 with Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, followed by the Spring of 1985 when USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” had been played all over the radio during the months of April and May. Then, on July 13, 1985, not only was my son Graham born, but the world came together for Live Aid. Finally, in September 1985, the first Farm Aid was hastily arranged and executed. So, by the time “Sun City” the song and Sun City the album were released, the public was exhausted with charity events.
My other reason was that the Reagan administration had been posturing that South Africa’s apartheid was not that big of deal. There was no direct declaration of such, but many of the policies and words that came forth from the White House and their surrogates had taken the air out of the “Free Mandela” movement here in the U.S. So, I feel the conservative climate here in the States was not conducive to a bunch of liberal musicians and their liberal opinions.
Unfortunately, the world missed out not just a great song, but a great album as well. Sure, some of the production work on the single sounds a little dated. But, one has to remember than all of this was assembled during the analog days of music production.
If you are interested, the single and album can still be found for a very cheap price. I know that I just bought the album a couple of months ago for $1. And, that song still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up in protest. Thank you Arthur Baker and Little Steven for bringing a little protest back into 80s music.