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How apartheid South Africa inspired Paul Simon's greatest work


The cultural boycott of South Africa by musicians during the 1980s was a cause that Paul Simon was firmly behind. However, he broke the unwritten rule in 1984, but it wasn’t for a lucrative payday at Sun City and instead was to uncover the secret scene that the country boasted.

The boycott began in 1968 following a ban on the England cricket team touring the African nation because their team contained the mixed-race Basil D’Oliveira. The sportsman had moved from South Africa to England in 1960 because the apartheid stopped him from fulfilling his sporting ambitions, and he could only represent the non-white team in his homeland.

This controversy sparked international outrage and opened peoples eyes to what was going on under their regime. The revolt spread to other aspects of culture, and it was frowned upon to play concerts in South Africa.

Artists such as Queen, Dolly Parton, and Elton John accepted significant fees to play at the Sun City resort. In response, the E-Street Band’s Steve Van Zandt recruited names such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Ringo Starr, and Keith Richards to participate in his Artists United Against Apartheid charity single, ‘Sun City’.

Simon refused to appear on the track because, in an early demo, they called out the musicians who had chosen to appear in the apartheid state. He claimed, “You’ve got to give people a chance to say, ‘I shouldn’t have done that'”.

“There were people who said I shouldn’t go,” he told The New York Times in 1986. “South Africa is a supercharged subject surrounded with a tremendous emotional velocity. I knew I would be criticised if I went, even though I wasn’t going to record for the government of Pretoria or to perform for segregated audiences — in fact, I had turned down Sun City [Resort, where concerts are played] twice”.

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He continued, “I was following my musical instincts in wanting to work with people whose music I greatly admired. Before going, I consulted with Quincy Jones and with Harry Belafonte, who has close ties with the South African musical community. They both encouraged me to make the trip.”

The reason Simon decided to test his consciousness by visiting South Africa came after a friend handed him a tape in 1984 of “the street music” of Soweto, which instantly connected with him, and he needed to find out more. Suddenly, Simon had the urge to work with the artists that he heard on the tape, and he duly tracked them down. The South African black musicians union voted to allow him to visit the country in order to record, permitting their scene to be shown on the international stage.

Simon treated the local musicians with immense care and paid them $200 an hour for session work when the going rate in Johannesberg was just $15 a day. Additionally, Simon flew them across to London and New York City, rolling out the red carpet during the recording process. These sessions would form the basis for 1986’s Graceland, which is the magnum opus of his solo career, and also won the ‘Album of the Year’ at the Grammy’s the following year.

While the cultural boycott was in place for a worthy reason, Simon’s decision to break it was justified. He didn’t go out to South Africa to cash in and accept money from a racist government. Instead, he visited the country to shine a light on the people reprimanded by the regime, and the trip made people discuss the unearthed talent that the apartheid was oppressing.

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