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Five songs inspired by Nelson Mandela

The name Nelson Mandela has become so synonymous with the global struggle for freedom, equality and revolution that his legacy has almost been removed from its roots in South Africa. Nelson Mandela became one of the most important icons in Black history due to his defiance under the South African conditions of apartheid which saw systematic segregation of the non-white majority from the white minority. 

The socio-economic legislation was such that the white minority were favoured in almost every respect. For example, land ownership acts allowed Black people less land to own for a means of raising crops or building houses; segregated education saw inequality in educational funding that put Black children at a disadvantage; job reservation legislation saw an unfair allocation of labour based on racial background. All of these legislative moves by the white-controlled government served to unfairly subdue and control the apartheid population under conditions of racial discrimination.

The bulk of this discriminatory legislation was put in place following the election of the National Party government in 1948. It was around this time that a young Mandela would become one of South Africa’s first Black lawyers and shortly became involved in the African National Congress (ANC) liberation movement. As a prominent and outspoken member of the movement, he was elected the leader of the youth wing of the ANC in the early 1950s. In the late 1950s, the government prohibited the ANC from operating and Mandela reacted by organising a secret military movement since his prior, more peaceful, protests had been met with violent force from the government oppressors. 

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By 1962, Mandela found himself imprisoned on Robben Island for treason and conspiracy against the government for which he received a life sentence. He remained in prison for 27 years until his eventual release on this day (February 11th) in 1990; by this time, laws had finally changed and the ANC became a legal movement again. During his time in prison, Mandela had become a powerful symbol for the uprising that would finally put an end to the apartheid in the early ‘90s. In 1993, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for peacefully destroying the Apartheid regime and just a year later, he became the first Black president of South Africa. 

His lifetime achievements were such an important symbol not just for South Africa, but the entire world. Throughout his time in prison, he became a global icon and protests for his freedom were rife, especially in the UK under the leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Musicians seemed to become especially involved in the protests and began to use their platforms to fight for the cause. One of the biggest highlights of the fight for Mandela’s freedom was the Nelson Mandela: Freedom at 70 campaign concert at Wembley Stadium in 1988. Rock stars played to thousands of protesters and the concert was broadcast by the BBC to over 60 countries. It seems Mandela’s struggle for freedom touched the hearts of so many, and among these were some of our most admired musicians. 

Below we reveal five of the most iconic songs inspired by Nelson Mandela.

Five songs inspired by Nelson Mandela

The Specials – Free Nelson Mandela

Perhaps one of the most memorable songs relating to Nelson Mandela was ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ which was written by Jerry Dammers and performed by The Specials.

With Mandela still imprisoned at this point, the song served as part of the global outcry for Mandela’s release from prison and a call for the end of apartheid. The song is upbeat and cheerful despite the serious subject matter addressed by the lyrics. This served to help the song catch on as a sing-along anthem that would become synonymous with the movement after its airing on Top of the Pops in 1984.

U2 – Ordinary Love

After being commissioned to contribute to the soundtrack for the 2013 biopic Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, Bono and the band were inspired to write ‘Ordinary Love’, one of the most moving and poignant songs about the late Father of South Africa.

The song’s considered and poetic lyrics wholeheartedly encompass what Mandela stood for: “We cannot reach any higher/ If we can’t feel ordinary love”.

Public Enemy – Prophets of Rage 

Public Enemy are one of the most memorable and influential hip-hop collectives in history. Much of the group’s output over the years has addressed societal issues, especially those relating to racial discrimination.

In ‘Prophets of Rage’, the group give a nod to a number of historical icons of the global anti-segregation movement including, of course, Mandela. The lyrics read: “To debate the hate/ That’s why we’re born to die/ Mandela, cell dweller/ Thatcher, you can tell her/ ‘Clear the way for the Prophets of Rage’”.

Simple Minds – Mandela Day

The Scottish answer to Ireland’s U2 appeared to get there first with their Mandela inspired hit ‘Mandela Day’ released in 1989. The band debuted the song live at the 1988 celebration for Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday at Wembley Stadium.

The ballad became a freedom anthem, especially when he was finally released from prison some two years later. The lyrics give an uplifting feeling of hope with lyrics like: “The tears are flowing wipe them from your face/ I can feel his heartbeat moving deep inside”.

Tracy Chapman – Freedom Now 

Tracy Chapman released her eponymous self titled debut album in 1988, not long after, she found herself on stage at Wembley playing live for Mandela’s 70th birthday celebrations. During her set, she performed ‘Freedom Now’, a brand new song she had written for Mandela.

The song, like many of her others, speaks out against the crimes of institutional discrimination in society and calls for Mandela’s freedom. The most poignant lyrics read: “Soon must come the day/ When the righteous have their way/ Unjustly tried are free/And people live in peace I say/ Give the man release/ Go on and set your conscience free/ Right the wrongs you made/ Even a fool can have his day”.