Nelson Mandela's legacy includes a lifetime of musical salutes

Chris Willman
Nelson Mandela, who was elected president of South Africa in 1994, raises Paul Simon’s hand in triumph. (Photo: Louise Gubb/Corbis via Getty Images)

Few political figures have ever been as revered by the musical community as much as Nelson Mandela, who would have turned 100 today, July 18. He was the subject of protest songs during his 27 years in a South African prison and anthems of adoration after his release and ascent to the presidency. It is understandable that he inspired so many artists. As Graceland legend Paul Simon wrote in 2013 at the time of Mandela’s death, “The qualities he embodied — dignity, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness — hark back to a morality we’ve come to idealize and long for in our leaders today.”

Political themes don’t always make for great pop songs, but one of the catchiest singles of the ’80s was “Nelson Mandela” (popularly known as “Free Nelson Mandela”) by the Special AKA, which hit the top 10 in Britain in 1984 and was widely heard in the United States as well. Not long before the song was recorded, the popular U.K. ska band called the Specials split apart, with three members going off to form the splinter group Fun Boy Three. Founder Jerry Dammers kept a new incarnation of the group alive under a slightly different name long enough to release one of the most danceable protest songs of the century. By the time the group performed the song on Top of the Pops, as seen below, lead singer Stan Campbell had already split from the band, but he was persuaded to return just for the TV appearance.

Little Steven — aka E Street Band stalwart Steven Van Zandt — was one of the most visible anti-apartheid activists in America in the 1980s. Also in 1984, he organized the “Sun City” protest single and video, credited to the collective Artists Against Apartheid. A call for artists not to play at the whites-only South African resort, “Sun City” featured no less a combination of talent than Bono (more from U2 in a moment), Miles Davis, Pat Benatar, Bob Dylan, the Fat Boys, Lou Reed, Daryl Hannah, and Joey Ramone. Although the song’s subject was a cultural boycott, not Nelson Mandela, the 1984 anthem marked a critical turning point in rock’s understanding of the South African crisis.

And at the show glimpsed below, the man who would be Silvio also covered the Special AKA’s “(Free) Nelson Mandela.” The shortage of vocal acuity may show why Little Steven cut his solo career short, but the spirit is there.

Three years after “Sun City” and “(Free) Nelson Mandela,” while Mandela was still imprisoned, South African singer/trumpeter Hugh Masekela introduced his song “Bring Him Back Home.” It was soon adapted for the climax of the musical Sarafina!, which ran on Broadway in 1988-89, as the number preceded the moment in the show when the young heroine gives the speech she imagines Mandela might deliver if were to be released from prison. (It wasn’t that long after, in 1990.) The lyrics are: “Bring back Nelson Mandela/Bring him back home to Soweto/I want to see him walking hand in hand with Winnie Mandela.”

Johnny Clegg had an impact in his native South Africa with the song “Asimbonanga” (“We Haven’t Seen Him”), which didn’t make him popular with his homeland’s regime in 1987. Below you can see a version that was obviously filmed much later, as Clegg is joined by the subject of the song about two and a half minutes in.

Years after Mandela’s release, artists continued to honor him in song. U2 performed an anthem alternately known as “Long Walk to Freedom” or “46664” (after Mandela’s prison number) at a Cape Town tribute in 2003. The tune is not available in a proper digital or CD version and has a curious history. In 2002, Dave Stewart and the Clash’s Joe Strummer were working on the song, but it was not completed when Strummer died at the end of the year, and Stewart completed it with Bono. They recorded a version that was released for sale via a charitable website and could be heard by dialing a premium phone number, but plans to include it on an album never materialized. Yet U2 did go on to perform it at the tribute concert.

Many triumphs later, Josh Groban met Mandela in 2004, the year the leader retired from public life, and he was invited to take part in the charity project dubbed “46664.” He was prompted to write “Weeping,” citing Mandela as his “muse” for the tune. “He inspired me to write ‘Weeping,’ a song about the end of apartheid and looking back on our mistakes,” said Groban. “It’s relevant to the world we live in today. To have some of my South African heroes play on my album was life-changing.” The studio version was recorded with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, although the rendition below, from a 2009 tribute at Radio City Music Hall, features another South African performer, Vusi Mahlasela.

Nelson Mandela’s uncrushable spirit lives on in song, 100 years after his birth. As Paul Simon wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Mandela was an optimist, and his optimism changed music and changed the world. After attending a concert by the great South African musician Johnny Clegg, Mr. Mandela said, ‘It is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world and at peace with myself.’”

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