Throughout his life Mandela provided fertile inspiration for filmmakers, writers and, especially, musicians. To a generation of artists, this stern, patrician figure functioned as both icon and muse.
Songs have been written about him, huge concerts staged in his honour. Two years ago, he even made his debut as a recording artist, contributing a spoken word section to a piece celebrating his life and achievements by Irish musician John Hughes. In an era when music was growing increasingly apolitical, Mandela arguably represented the last true rallying point for progressive songwriters.
The politician’s relationship with pop culture has its origins in the late 1970s, as the fascist underpinnings of apartheid were becoming obvious to the outside world. The first musician to take up a cudgel on behalf of black South Africa was Peter Gabriel, though he focused not on Mandela but on student activist and Black Consciousness Movement founder Steve Biko, who died in police custody in Pretoria in 1977.
Among the earliest rock stars to be influenced by what would be condescendingly termed ‘world’ music, Gabriel recorded ‘Biko’ in 1980 and put it on his third solo record, Peter Gabriel. Poignantly, on the album it segues into ‘Senzeni Na’, the South African dirge perfumed at Biko’s funeral. Released as a single, ‘Biko’ reached number 38 in the UK charts. Gabriel performs it to this day.
Following Biko’s death, Mandela became a focus for the anti-apartheid movement. Soon musicians were taking inspiration from his politics and his plight. In 1983, Jerry Dammers, formerly of Coventry ska group The Specials, went to an anti apartheid concert in London.
He had not known much about Mandela but the benefit gig opened his eyes and prompted him to write ‘Nelson Mandela’ (sometimes referred to as ‘Free Nelson Mandela’).
Recorded with the assistance of Elvis Costello, ‘Nelson Mandela’ was an upbeat anthem, a celebration of Mandela’s life and achievements rather than broadside against apartheid. It did the seemingly impossible and found joy in a dark place.
“I never knew how much impact the song would have; it was a hit around the world,” reflected Dammers.
“It got back into South Africa and was played at sporting events and [Mandela’s African National Congress] rallies. It became an anthem.”
The song found its most receptive audience here in Ireland, where it peaked at number 6 in the charts in 1984.
There’s a bittersweet postscript to ‘Nelson Mandela’. At a 2008 concert celebrating Mandela’s 90th birthday, troubled chanteuse Amy Winehouse was invited to perform a version. However, she notoriously changed the chorus, singing ‘Free Blakey My Fella’ in reference to her then incarcerated husband Blake Fielder-Civil.
One of the most high profile songs inspired by Mandela doesn’t even mention him by name. A protest single by Bruce Springsteen collaborator Steve Van Zandt, ‘Sun City’ was named for the controversial South African resort where a number of high profile western artists — including Queen and Rod Stewart — had controversially performed.
Seeing parallels between the treatment of the black majority and of Native Americans in the 19th century, the lyrics advocated international action against South Africa and was critical of what Van Zandt perceived as President Ronald Regan’s softly softly policy.
“We’re rockers and rappers, united and strong,” Van Zandt sang, earnestly if somewhat clunky.
“We’re here to talk about South Africa, we don’t like what’s going on.”
Despite the presence on backing vocals of Springsteen, Grandmaster Flash, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and others, the track was not a hit, limping into the American Top 40 in Dec 1985. This was blamed on its confrontational tones, in particular the calling out of Reagan as an appeaser. At the height of the Cold War, American radio did not look kindly on ‘The Gipper’ being so rudely critiqued.
The high point of Mandela’s status as a rock icon was the 1988 70th birthday concert held in his honour at Wembley Stadium, London.
Conceived of as a celebration of his life, the show as sufficiently apolitically to receive a worldwide broadcast. It certainly had a heavyweight line-up including Sting, Whitney Houston, and Simple Minds, who wrote ‘Mandela Day’ especially for the event.
The evening wasn’t without its share of backstage drama, however. Stevie Wonder initially refused to play because of a technical mix-up, requiring Tracey Chapman to perform twice (her double rendition of ‘Fast Car’ would make her a star).
Wonder did finally go on, transfixing the international audience with ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’. Mandela was still in prison but the global attention focused on the concert confirmed that he was no longer just a politician. He was a symbol of resistance to oppression. Slowly, inexorably, the foundations stones of apartheid were being chipped away — and musicians, as much as any group, could claim to have played their part.
One of Mandela’s biggest supporters is Bono, who has penned several songs about the ANC figurehead. Written with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics and The Clash’s Joe Strummer shortly before the latter’s death in 2002, the ballad ‘46664’ refers to Mandela’s prisoner number on Robben Island and spearheaded an anti-Aids campaign in South Africa.
In 2008, Bono and U2’s The Edge recorded ‘Happy Birthday Mr Mandela’ at a concert in Philadelphia in honour of the politician’s 90th birthday. The original lyrics to the 2009 track ‘Breathe’, from No Line On The Horizon, were about Mandela, though U2 eventually rejected these in favour of a more abstract version.
Two years ago there was a sense of things coming full circle as John Hughes approached Mandela with a view to having him provide narration for ‘The Mandela Suite’.
The two had some history, having struck up an acquaintance in 2001 when Mandela attended a London concert by The Corrs, whom Hughes was then managing. The show was part of an event marking South African Freedom Day. Later, Mandela took to the podium to give an address. Hughes was struck by the force of his speech, its lyricism and intensity.
“I didn’t even write down what Mandela had said because I didn’t need to. Every word he said stuck in my head.
“There he was, a man who had spent 27 years as a prisoner of conscience, invoking music as having the power to bring freedom. I wanted the whole world to hear that.”