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How Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder got banned in South Africa

‘Ebony and Ivory’ might not be considered within the rarefied realms of Maya Angelou’s poems promoting racial equality, and in terms of songwriting both Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder have far surpassed the track on all fronts, but its heart is certainly in the right place. Paul McCartney wrote the song to spread the message “that people of all types could live together.” And that is a message worth celebrating.

The track was a huge hit, particularly in the US where it remained number one for seven weeks. Since then, the song has been earmarked as a little bit of a kitsch number amidst the usually poignant songwriters back catalogue. 

McCartney regaled NME Magazine with a pleasant memory regarding the recording of the track for his Tug of War record, “I wanted Stevie… I was just reaching. It was just, you know, if you could have anyone. We had a good time. We were all out on Montserrat, and we had a good time.”

However, the song was sadly banned in South Africa in the 1980s. The track was released in 1982 but did not get banned until three years later because of a remark Stevie Wonder made while accepting an Academy Award for best original song, having contributed ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’ to the movie The Woman in Red.

During Wonders acceptance speech he dedicated his award to Nelson Mandela who was incarcerated at the time while South Africa was still an apartheid state. Thus, Wonders show of support caused the South African Broadcasting Corporation to ban the single ‘Ebony and Ivory’, owing to its racial message. 

It is a sign of the troubled times that such a benign and benevolent song was banned. And sadly, the message of the track still remains relevant today. Its kitsch message may be simple and, on the nose, but that leaves little room for any fault in its message, a message that is as morally obvious as the monochrome colours of piano keys. 

You watch the iconic video for the track below.