Back to Graceland after all these years

BBC1’s Paul Simon doc offered absorbing insights into the row about Graceland and the anti-Apartheid campaign.

David Bowden

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For those in their mid-twenties, some of the most controversial records of our lifetime should be easy to pick out of a line-up.

You don’t need to know more than the title of Ice-T’s ‘Cop Killer’ or NWA’s ‘Fuck Tha Police’, for instance, to work out why they kicked up a fuss. A glance at the cover of Prince’s album Lovesexy would give you an indication of what was contained within; you would only need to see the video to understand why Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’ got people’s backs up. Only a few seconds would be required to locate the shock factor of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and you wouldn’t even need to know the subject of Eminem’s ‘Kim’ was a real person to be made a tad uneasy.

It would take a lifetime, however, to understand how Paul Simon’s Graceland provoked a controversy that would continue for nearly a quarter of a century. Gentle, hippyish MOR pop set to African music may not be to your personal taste, but you’d have to conclude that large sections of the British left had some kind of incomprehensible aversion to horn sections and vague, surreal lyrics to have protested Simon’s concerts. Then again if, like me, you’d grown up under New Labour, it probably wouldn’t surprise you. You’d probably assume Peter Hain didn’t like ‘You Can Call Me Al’ because it’s a favourite of pissed-up students, a demographic which his ban-happy government certainly didn’t approve of.

By the end of the documentary, ‘Under African Skies’, screened on BBC1 on Tuesday evening as part of the Imagine… strand, the cause of the controversy would have been somewhat clearer. Simon chose to record the album in Apartheid-era South Africa and, while he collaborated with black musicians rather than the government, he broke the United Nations-backed cultural boycott of the country, part of the international struggle against Apartheid. On the resulting album’s release, Simon faced a storm of protest from anti-Apartheid activists, most notably Artists Against Apartheid (run by the son of an ANC leader and declared enemy-of-the-state, Oliver Tambo), who had fiercely fought to prevent other leading performers from playing lucrative gigs in Sun City.

Simon was accused of being, at best, a naive liberal interfering in a political struggle he didn’t comprehend and, at worst, an arrogant white man making himself rich – like a thousand rock’n’roll stars before – approximating the work of oppressed black people. Simon, despite some disingenuous-sounding claims that he was oblivious to the cause of controversy, was unrepentant: he was an artist, rather than a politician, and besides paying the African musicians handsomely (three times the New York rate), he credited them fairly as collaborators, exposing them to a new audience while generating awareness for their cause.

Given that the album, which resurrected his then-ailing career, has long outlasted the form of government it was alleged inadvertently to have legitimised, you might say the argument was settled. Yet Joe Berlinger’s film, catching up with Simon on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his return to South Africa, clearly felt that it needed to heal some of the wounds caused, while unpicking some of the trickier intricacies of the story. ‘Under African Skies’ was a masterful and absorbing documentary on an old argument that still has profound relevance in an era where cultural boycotts are the first recourse for human-rights campaigners.

Simon is certainly no great diplomat and his arrogant assertion of his freedoms as an artist over the petty concerns of political leaders and those engaged in a brutal struggle for their democratic freedoms left a bad taste in the mouth. Watching his exchanges with Dali Tambo – nasal-voiced New Yorker glibly asserting he knew better than well-spoken and articulate African campaigner – was a scene that has launched a thousand international development theses. His core defence, that he asked his friend (and noted civil-rights campaigner) Harry Belafonte for advice, was rather undercut when Belafonte revealed Simon paid no attention to that advice. Even Bono would have shown more humility.

Yet it was also difficult not to admire Simon’s intransigence. He rather delightfully pointed out that he chose to work in South Africa having previously turned down $1million to perform in Sun City: an offer, he cattily observed, that few of the posturing Western artists making a name for themselves on their anti-Apartheid credentials were in a position to turn down. His dealings with the musicians themselves were certainly impeccable, on an artistic and professional level. Moreover, as the film highlighted, he had willingly subjected himself to open debate and fearsome criticism, both at the time and in the film itself.

He rather astutely countered accusations that he didn’t ask the ANC for permission on the basis that he viewed them at a time as a legitimate government and he didn’t like governments as they tended to clamp down on artistic freedom. The record of the ANC since the end of Apartheid, he bravely suggested, bore his instincts out. It was a neat reminder of how the world has changed since the mid-Eighties: those, like Tambo, who once fought their oppressed status are now answerable themselves as a political elite; others, thrown into disarray by the confusions of the current world, increasingly find themselves latching on to straightforward narratives of victimhood, oppression and so on.

Simon’s contemptuously anti-political attitudes would possibly have led him into more difficult territory had he grown up in today’s world. But, whether by luck or not, he was borne out in his insistence that cultural boycotts restricting artistic freedom were at best useless and at worst as unforgivable as clampdowns on more formal rights, even if their justification is understandable. You don’t have to think Graceland is a particularly great work of art – and it has certainly inspired some dreadful world music imitations since – to recognise that its gentle and hummable songs have a fearsome rock’n’roll spirit.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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