Ordinarily when I write about a featured album, it’ s only one post. In this case, I’m going to do two, not necessarily because Graceland is such a great album, but because the story around it is so big, so relevant and so damned interesting. Over time, Graceland has become a beloved album, more or less stripped of its controversy. But at the time of its release in 1986, it was almost nothing *but* controversy.
Part one of this series will deal with the controversy; part two with the music. I’ll break with tradition and do both posts in one day, Part One now, Part Two later today.
South African trombonist and anti-apartheid activist Jonas Gwangwa summed up the thoughts of countless black artists when confronted with Graceland’s success: “So, it has taken another white man to discover my people?”
“In South Africa, we had no opportunity,” recalled saxophonist Barney Rachabane in 2012, “You could have dreams, but they never come true. It really destroys you. But Graceland opened my eyes and set a tone of hope in my life.”
Graceland was released in 1986, some sixteen years after Simon and Garfunkel broke up, fourteen years after Simon’s second solo album, Paul Simon. (An album called The Paul Simon Songbook was released in the UK in 1965 but Paul Simon is considered to be the real beginning of his solo career.)
Up through his 1983 album Hearts and Bones, Simon had been playing what was for him fairly traditional fare. So, folk songs, pop songs, love songs. His solo recorded output tended to be less melancholy and often more fun and upbeat than traditional S&G fare. (E.g,. “Kodachrome,” “Love Me Like a Rock,” “Late In the Evening.”) One of his few ventures into what we might today call “world” music was S&G’s 1970 release, “El Cóndor Pasa.”
Hearts and Bones was – to quote AllMusic – a commercial disaster. Minus any real hit – and due somewhat to a listening audience who had perhaps tired of his sound – the album didn’t sell well. (Much of it was about his failed relationship with ex-wife Carrie Fisher.) Robert Christgau – always ready with a snarky, dismissive quote – said it was a “finely wrought dead end.” Simon clearly needed a hit. (It didn’t help that his last reunion tour with Art Garfunkel was contentious or that his marriage had fallen apart.)
As luck or fate would have it, in 1984, Simon heard a bootleg tape of South African township music which intrigued him.* He was especially fascinated by a group called the Boyoyo Boys.** And so in late 1985, he and long-time producer Roy Halee decided to make a trip to Johannesburg to work with local musicians. This whole thing was not necessarily an unalloyed pleasure for Simon, however. There were two controversies associated with this album.
One was the idea of what we now call cultural appropriation, which Wikipedia defines as “the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. Cultural appropriation is sometimes portrayed as harmful and is claimed to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating culture.”
Worse yet, Simon went to South Africa to record the album with local musicians, ignoring an international boycott set in place by the United Nations Anti-Apartheid Committee. He was friends with Harry Belafonte who advised him to let the African National Congress (ANC) know. Simon felt that he didn’t need permission from anyone to record with other musicians. He decided to go to South Africa, never telling Belafonte he was going. “The voice of the artist is supreme,” he said.
Just one year prior, Steve Van Zandt – having recently left the E Street Band – formed a group called Artists United Against Apartheid. There appears to have been another similarly-named organization, Artists Against Apartheid, founded by a South African media personality named Dali Tambo.
On hearing of Simon’s proposed trip, Tambo said it was “not helpful.” In his and many other people’s minds, Simon’s good intentions were not sufficient to overcome the revulsion against apartheid. Playing anywhere anytime with any South African musicians was, as far as they were concerned, tantamount to siding with the racist government.
And so into this quagmire stepped Paul Simon. Wittingly, BTW. He was well aware that he might be accused of ripping off the local black musicians. Per Rolling Stone, Simon insisted that all of his fellow musicians were there on their own free will and paid fairly. (In fact, well above scale.)
“I wasn’t going there to take money out of the country,” he explained to The Washington Post. “I wasn’t being paid for playing to a white audience. I was recording with black groups and paying them and sharing my royalties with them.”
The article continues: “To some, he represented a rebellious hero taking a stand against bureaucracy and totalitarian regimes; to other, he was a naïve fool who undermined the anti-apartheid cause. Still more felt he was a little more than a common thief. “The intensity of the criticism really did surprise me,” he reflected years later. “Part of the criticism was ‘Here’s this white guy from New York, and he ripped off these poor innocent guys.'”
“I knew I would be criticized if I went, even though I wasn’t going to record for the government … or to perform for segregated audiences,” he told The New York Times. “I was following my musical instincts in wanting to work with people whose music I greatly admired.”
“I’m with the artists,” he said in a different interview. “I didn’t ask the permission of the ANC. I didn’t ask permission of [Mangosuthu] Buthelezi, or Desmond Tutu, or the Pretoria government. And to tell you the truth, I have a feeling that when there are radical transfers of power on either the left or the right, the artists always get screwed.”
In late 1985 – right around the time Simon was traveling to Johannesburg – Steve Van Zandt spearheaded the recording of a song called “Sun City.” Sun City was a resort in South Africa in a township to which the local black populace had been forcibly relocated.
You got to say I, I, I
Ain’t gonna play Sun City
I, I, I ain’t gonna play Sun City
Everybody say I, I, I
Ain’t gonna play Sun City
I, I, I, I, I ain’t gonna play Sun City
Ironically, Van Zandt had initially invited Simon to perform on “Sun City.” But an early draft of the lyrics had negative things to say about Simon’s friend Linda Ronstadt who had played the resort. Like Simon, she had refused to be told what to do. (But her act feels different to me as she was violating the boycott to play for white audiences. Simon was doing it to play with black musicians. To the ANC it was all the same.)
Ronstadt also got paid the hefty sum of $500,000 to appear. (For the record, per a contemporaneous article in Rolling Stone, Simon twice turned down million-dollar offers to play Sun City.)
In defense of Ronstadt, Simon refused to perform on “Sun City,” and – more irony – Ronstadt sang on Graceland on the tune “Under African Skies.” Needless to say, her presence was considered to be a “slap in the face.” (Simon’s stance throughout this episode is fairly consistent. But here he appears to be putting friendship ahead of the cause.)
And now here’s where it gets really interesting. Van Zandt – despite his falling out with Simon – may well have saved his life. A Soweto militant group had a hit list on top of which was the name Paul Simon. After a lengthy discussion, Van Zandt convinced them to spare Simon’s life reasoning that killing him would only make things worse. (Van Zandt would happily whack guys left and right some years later on The Sopranos.)
Despite all this, in early 1985, Simon and producer Halee headed to South Africa to record an album that Simon could only hope would end his musical drought and restore him to relevancy. It was a total gamble on Simon’s part, one of those “go big or go home” moments artists sometimes face when their back is against the wall.
Next – Graceland: The music and the legacy.
Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, documentary Under African Skies.
*The tape was loaned to him by NYC singer-songwriter Heidi Berg on the advice of Saturday Night Live chief Lorne Michaels. She wound up getting a gold record for her inspiration but not much else. She was not happy with this and felt that she should have gotten some royalties.
**The song “Gumboots” from the album is a re-recording of one of the songs Simon first heard.