On June 5, the 25th-anniversary edition of the landmark Paul Simon album Graceland will be released. It has a few demo or alternate tracks, plus something described as “The Story of ‘Graceland’ as told by Paul Simon,” which could be interesting. But what is really intriguing is the DVD that comes with it, Under African Skies, directed by Joe Berlinger, which I saw on A&E a few days ago. It not only discusses the making of the album, and shows the reunion of many of the artists; it also addresses the huge controversy over the album and the subsequent tour.
There was a United Nations cultural (and other) boycott of South Africa at the time of the recording of Graceland, because of the oppressive apartheid policies of the government. Paul Simon’s record label guy Lenny Waronker said that the African music Simon had been listening to could have been produced by studio musicians; Warnoker says that Simon looked at him as though he were crazy.
“I was very aware of what was going on politically,” Mr. Simon says in the film, though later he admits he really wasn’t. Harry Belafonte had urged him to get the blessing of the African National Congress before going, which he didn’t do. Mr. Simon bristled at such constraints and decided that the welcome and cooperation he got from black musicians was all the approval he needed.
The album gets made, but the release date is pushed back. Simon is already scheduled to appear on Saturday Night Live, and does so, with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, performing “Diamonds on the Soles of Their Shoes”, to thunderous applause.
When the record comes out in the fall of 1986, there are a lot of positive reviews, though there is some discussion of cultural imperialism, talk Simon occasionally faced directly, as shown in the film. Then he decided to go on tour:
From HERE (And check out the videos):
Nearly 25 years ago Paul Simon staged one of the most controversial pop shows in history. When he performed in April 1987 his Graceland concert was seen by some as an affront to a United Nations and African National Congress (ANC) cultural boycott on the apartheid-era in South Africa.
Others saw it as a celebration of the country’s rich musical diversity. At the time Simon was joined by South African musicians Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. But outside leading musicians joined protestors which included Billy Bragg, Paul Weller, and Jerry Dammers, famous for writing the anti-apartheid anthem, Nelson Mandela. Together they demanded an apology from Simon.
Graceland ends up winning the Grammy for best album. Moreover, Simon eventually gets invited by the Mandela government to perform in South Africa after the boycott was over.
At the end of the film, Simon reflects on the controversy with Dali Tambo, founder of Artists Against Apartheid and son of the late African National Congress (ANC) president Oliver Tambo. He is still convinced Simon was wrong to break the cultural boycott, and Simon remains firm in his belief that art and music are a force for good that should never be repressed.
They end their debate with a hug, but you can see that this debate may never be resolved.
Lots of good insights in this film from Belafonte, Masakela, Paul McCartney, and Oprah Winfrey, who initially supportive of the boycott of the album until she heard the music, which transformed her life. I also had a bit of ambivalence over the album at the time, and I was really happy to see Simon’s rationale at the time.
I’m always loath to get an album that I’ve gotten before, in this case, on both LP and CD. But if you haven’t gotten the CD, or your LP is starting to skip, the documentary Under African Shies makes the purchase worthwhile. the film is also available separately, on Blu-Ray, for a price twice that of the CD/DVD combo.