Sometime in the first half of the 1980s, diminutive white New York Jewish boy Paul Simon, already an iconic music figure rarely out of the charts or the limelight throughout the 1960s and 1970s, placed a wobbly tape featuring some can’t-keep-still South African popular music in his tape player. As he did, he was visited by The Muse and he can’t have even conceived the tsunami of tension into which it was to take him. A joyous creation rippling with genius at so many levels, not the least that of Simon himself, the Graceland album that resulted – released in 1986 – soon became something of a fire stick hovering over an explosive political tinderbox. The glittering art of the music was forced to do battle with the grinding politics of its realisation as Simon, who in going to apartheid era South Africa to record the album with local musicians, broke ranks with the various activist movements that had gathered around anti-apartheid as the era’s cause de j our.
Graceland was born into a context that was anything but eponymous.
The stunning documentary Under African Skies has been recently released to commemorate 25 years since Graceland‘s release. In prosaic terms, the film is about Simon’s fairly pig-headed breaking of that cultural boycott on South Africa in those days, which was pushed many from the UN down, the impact of that act and the subsequent story of the album and its music. But it’s really is about the divide between politics and art and the question as to whether Simon really had a right to take on the political correctness of the day even given the eventually positive creative and political outcomes.
The main anti-apartheid opposition movement, led by the African National Congress, institutionally opposed Simon’s visit to South Africa and his subsequent musical collaboration with a range of leading black and white musicians. Despite the fact that Simon himself raises examples of how ANC officials he claims to have spoken to were personally supportive of his views, the ANC high-ups wouldn’t hear of anything other than purity on the boycott.
In Under African Skies, the dulcet-toned input of black South African activist Dali Tambo runs as a subtext beneath the journey of the album, its tour and its passing into legend. It’s vehicle is a filmed discussion between Simon and Tambo, where both are given chance to air their views to the other (Simon is given a tad more room than Tambo, but it is relatively balanced), which reappears through the latter half of the film. Both hug at the end, but you get the impression that is a bit staged and awkward and that Tambo is still a little can-forgive-but-can’t-forget about it all.
Simon’s point – that it was politicians that got South Africa into the mess it was in so why should we go to them for solutions – is valid. Similarly his argument that artists should be given a voice over and above that of bureaucrats and politicians at such times, and that the creative intention can often generate some clear air in which solutions can be fostered is solid and retrospectively proven somewhat by the impact Graceland had. It is clear that Simon’s project changed the face of the anti-apartheid movement worldwide and gave it not only a sense of a human scale, it gave it a pop culture cred, something not to be underestimated as a rich world social change mechanism.
But, what also emerges is that this was really Simon’s project. He acts as a Svengali to the South African artists involved – albeit a generally avuncular and well-loved one. The record, the tour and the music that evolves is through his eyes and through his creative filter. It may be said that it had to be that way, as Simon’s name was needed to add celebrity heft to the output (it must be noted that Simon ensured the musicians were paid very well and shared royalties and tour billing). But, the reality is that this was a project driven by Simon’s artistic desire to create something he had a vision for no other reason other than it seemed right and – being a rich and famous entertainer – he was able to act on it without much reflection or contextualising.
Simon is clear he had no other real political agenda. Nor does he suggest he ever predicted the eventual results. It was an artistic project pure and simple and whether he was collaborating with beautiful, committed, brilliant black South Africans or with slobbering, pot-bellied, black-murdering National Party goons is neither here nor there to Simon. Its all about the art and the output, not about the context or the political reference points.
The question is: is this arrogant and ignorant or is it evidence of a purity of thought and a clarity of purpose in the face of utter chaos and daily tragedy?
Ultimately, it is clear that Simon’s Graceland was both right and wrong. It was wrong at the time because it fractured the global solidarity of the boycott – which was also supported loudly by many of Simon’s own celebrity peers – and played negatively into the anti-apartheid campaign. It made the work of those opposing the boorish apartheid culture at that time, in immediate terms, more difficult. It was against the strategies and intentions of those who were sacrificing all for the cause and who it would be fair to trust as experts in their own plight.
But it was right in the longer term because it provided a soundtrack for the movement. It gave the made the anti-apartheid cause depth and light, gave it that emotive, subterranean impact that great art can. It gave the movement a face, a black one at that, a sense of fun and joy and undermined the understandable gravitas of its political backdrops. Graceland gave the movement the narrative arc of its players, the tonal poetry of its music and the heartbeat of the basic human relationships that the entire outcome rested on.
So, wrong at the time but right in hindsight. What does this tell us about history and about the grand march of human transformation? Perhaps Paul Simon has unwittingly highlighted the fact that no-one really knows what to do or what is right or wrong and that being creative with integrity can transcend the wasting strains of power and can allow us to reach for higher goals. Perhaps we see with Graceland how humanity, if left to create freely, can find solutions to the problems our lesser beings seek to create.
There’s a picture of me sitting on the grass in 1988 at my Nan’s place, where I lived during university semesters in Brisbane, with a Graceland T-shirt on. I certainly bought into it. I was very politically active – if more at an intellectual level rather than as an activist – and was aware of the dangers of what Simon was doing for the anti-apartheid cause I felt strongly about. But, I was driven by the momentum of the music. The power and majesty of the musicians and the genius of Simon’s melding compositions and quirky poetry raised the issue above the earnest polemics the campaign seemed trapped in.
It was a response to faith, a faith in us. If nothing else Graceland vaulted the power of something we might call art, even if imbued with Paul Simon’s sometimes crochety single-mindedness and self-professed ignorance of the political fugues playing out beneath his pop tracks, to a level where the dry creaking of party and campaign machinery all but rusts up and dies. Sometimes, politics is not the answer. Sometimes beauty trumps brains. Sometimes, ignorance is indeed bliss. Sometimes, to paraphrase an earlier Simon song, we need to hear the sound of the train in the distance and to believe that it’s true.