Going to Graceland: Paul Simon and Protesting Apartheid

Author: Lachlan Forster

Sub-editor: Elina Pugacheva

In early 1984, American singer-songwriter Paul Simon found himself in a personal, professional and commercial slump. His friendship with Art Garfunkel had deteriorated, romance with Carrie Fisher ended, and his recent record Hearts & Bones was a critical failure. Encountered with a career downfall for the first time since the early 1960s, Simon searched for a muse upon which he could launch a comeback and found it on a bootleg cassette entitled Accordion Jive Hits Vol.II, recorded by the Boyoyo Boys. It was an exciting album of passionate tunes, full of melodies that inspired a desire within Simon to collaborate with the musicians responsible for the songs.  

There was just one issue. The music, the Boyoyo boys, the cassette, they all came from South Africa, which had committed to the segregationist societal structure of apartheid and had been subject to a cultural boycott.

Regardless of this, Simon travelled to South Africa, playing with a plethora of South African musicians to create Graceland. The eleven-track album would accumulate two Grammy awards, the number one position on eight worldwide album charts and be hailed by music critics, like Rolling Stone’s Rob Tannenbaum, as ‘lovely, daring and accomplished’. But the album did not come without controversy. Even though he and his band maintained an ardent stance against the governmental apartheid regime of the nation, Simon was criticised for breaking the cultural boycott, exploiting the musicians, and feeding into the government by travelling to South Africa. But were these criticisms reactionary or justified, and did Simon harm the cause for ending apartheid?

The call for a cultural boycott against South Africa came from the United Nations resolution 2396, ratified and passed on December 2nd, 1968. The document requested, within Article 12, that all states ‘suspend cultural, educational, sporting and other exchanges with the racist regime and with organisations or institutions in South Africa’. This specific request was part of a larger tapestry aimed at levelling ‘mandatory and comprehensive sanctions against South Africa’, intending to cripple the government on all levels, thus forcing them to co-operate with the international community and abandon the policy of apartheid. Actions in this spirit were encouraged by the African National Congress, whose President Oliver Tambo urged the international community to ‘boycott all South African consumer goods’, amongst other things.

As the language of the resolution made clear, the boycott was requested but unenforceable by the United Nations in any significant manner, as artists were only added to the organisations’ ‘blacklist’. There were, however, professional risks that came with electing to curtail the boycott. A serious taboo arose around performing in South Africa, particularly within the lucrative casino Sun City, which would pay famous musicians millions of dollars to sing for segregated audiences outside of their luxury resort. The group Artists United Against Apartheid was formed, acting as an alliance of sorts which would release protest songs intending to shame artists electing to perform within the nation. The Beach Boys, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Cher and Queen all performed at Sun City, whilst emphasising their stance against apartheid and donating significant amounts of money to local charities in an attempt to squash any negative publicity. But this would always fail as newspapers covered the immoral performances, and contemporaries levelled criticism, such as Daryl Hall of Hall & Oats, who maintained these artists were ‘jerks’ and knew ‘exactly what they were doing’ by accepting the money. In this, artists elected to protest the effects of apartheid by providing a ‘challenge to the Reagan administrations policy on South Africa’ and encourage ‘the audience to consider the world situation’ apartheid opposed, in other words attempting to change South Africa from the outside.

Paul Simon subverted these tactics, however, and decided to challenge South Africa from the inside. Rather than create an outspoken protest album like the AUAA or accept dirty money to perform at a segregated casino, Simon decided to follow his muse and collaborate with the Black South African musicians whose work he enjoyed. This would be an act against the conditions of the cultural boycott, but Simon maintained that the resolution was ridiculous, questioning why a document intending to help Black South Africans put a limit on how far their culture could travel, and who they were able to communicate and work with, particularly the musicians of the nation. Speaking to Harry Belafonte and Quincey Jones, the former of whom was himself South African, Simon asked whether they thought it was a good idea to go to South Africa, receiving answers in the affirmative but also being encouraged to inform the ANC of his intentions, so as to not alienate the rebellious political group. Furthermore, when Simon asked the Boyoyo boys if they would be willing to collaborate with him, Simon received a positive response, with the group inviting Simon to come to South Africa and record, and further receiving approval from the South African Musicians Union.

The ANC, however, remained reluctant and were offended that Simon refused to ask them for permission to travel. This rejection stemmed from Simon’s position that as an individual, no organisation could dictate whether he could travel and work in a nation, and his concern for consent was directed only towards those he desired to work with, not from political groups or institutions, even if he agreed with their stance. Furthermore, the ANC’s insistence on acquiring permission struck Simon as authoritative, maintaining the organisation was attempting to ‘fuck the artist like all kinds of governments’ in denying the desires of the Musicians Union to collaborate and work with Simon.

It’s clear that the concern for Simon’s travels to South Africa centred on what was best for the musicians concerned, and the broader South African population. The ANC and Oliver Tambo maintained that the boycott pressured the government to dissolve the apartheid system, which would obviously be beneficial for the South African people. Simon maintained that by being given a global stage, the musicians of South Africa could express the beauty of their culture, whilst also grabbing people’s attention that art of such magnificence was being stifled by ideas of race. In other words, the ANC attempted to demonstrate to the South African government what they were missing due to apartheid, whilst Simon attempted to demonstrate to the world what it was missing to due to apartheid.

Needless to say, despite the heavy criticism Simon made his pilgrimage and recorded throughout 1985 and early 1986. Graceland was released on August 25th, 1986, to worldwide acclaim, critically and commercially. The album was a well-paced marvel of Simon’s songwriting skills and the musical prowess of South African culture, masterfully exploring Simon’s, as professor Bennighof of Baylor University observed, ‘relationships to his cultures, to other people and to his God’, further asking listeners to think in ‘more fluid terms’ in relation to music. The album is eclectic in variety, genre and songwriting – spanning rock, folk, pop, zydeco and A Capella, no aspect of South African music was left unaddressed. Whether adding his own lyrics over traditional tribal melodies, such as with The Boy in the Bubble and Gumboots, fusing American pop with African musical conventions, within Crazy Love Vol.II, bringing together white artists with the Black band, such as the Everly Brothers on the title track or Linda Ronstadt on Under African Skies, or simply jamming to create a fun hit, resulting in the timeless You Can Call Me Al, Simon rose to the occasion on all fronts, as a songwriter, producer and arranger.

The album further promoted the careers and statuses of the South African musicians who played on the record. Hugh Masekahla, a South African musician who lived in London due to being an exile from his nation, featured on horns throughout the album and received increased attention for his work prior to 1986. Tao Ea Matsekha, a Lesotho based accordion player, presented his instrument and melodies in a digestible manner for a global audience. But the crowning achievement of the album was the featuring of vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, whose dulcet vocal harmonies immediately grabbed listeners on tracks Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes and Homeless. Lead by Joseph Shabalala, the group found worldwide success following the prominence Graceland and an appearance on Saturday Night Live with Simon on May 10, 1986, eventually winning two Grammy awards and collaborating with Michael Jackson, among others. The quality of the album was never in question – even Simon’s most ardent critics would admit that the album was of the highest possible quality for a record, including those within the ANC. Concern stemmed from the circumstances surrounding the album.

The biggest criticism levelled against Graceland was that it legitimised the South African government by placing the music of the country in such a high standing. The nation was prominent in public discourse for reasons other than apartheid, and that was seen as dangerous and distracting to the significant issues as hand. This criticism stems from the album’s lack of reference to the oppressive segregation in the nation.

Graceland is not, however, and never claimed to be, a protest album in the traditional sense. Simon considered writing lyrics that reflected his disapproval of the racist policies maintained by the government, but ultimately chose not to. This decision was brought about by a conversation with musician General MD Shirinda, who, in collaboration with his family, appeared on the song I Know What I Know. The number features a call response between Simon’s English and Shirinda’s Shangaa lyrics. When asked by Simon on what his lyrics translated to, Shirinda responded, ‘the sixties, when girls wore those really short skirts. Wasn’t that great?’. This response demonstrated to Simon that the South African musicians themselves felt no need to write lyrics protesting the conditions they lived in, and the album took up a ‘party tone’, celebrating the musicianship of the nation. The album does not protest the apartheid government by outspokenly demonstrating disdain for policy, but rather by projecting the talents of Black South African musicians, a race of people who had been oppressed for generations. This subverted the image of South Africa desired by the apartheid regime, and thus protested the global image of South Africa and all policy that contributed to this end. To the average listener, this intention may have passed without notice, but subconsciously a link was made between South African culture and oppression, further demonstrating the tragedy of apartheid.

Some also claimed that Simon exploited the musicians he collaborated with, but this has been debunked numerous times. All musicians were paid triple the rate of session players within New York, amounting to $200 per hour in the studio, on top of royalties paid upon the album’s release and in subsequent years. Simon maintained he wanted to be ‘as above the board as I could be’, and this was reflected in the frequent and continuing collaboration between Simon and the musicians of Graceland, who continued to play with Simon up until his retirement from concerts in 2018.

The effect of Graceland upon the apartheid system is difficult to quantify, but undoubtedly observable. Simon gave a concert of the album’s material in Zimbabwe during his 1987 tour, almost taunting the neighbouring South Africa by heavily featuring exiled musicians and concluding with a rousing chorus of N’Kosi Sikelel iAfrica, the proposed national anthem of a free South Africa, demonstrating a continental wide desire for independence and freedom from racism and subjugation. Simon would also tour throughout South Africa following the deterioration of apartheid, on personal invitation from Nelson Mandela. Observed by ethnomusicologist Louis Meintjes, the album further helped promote the ‘acceptance of Black musicians in South Africa’ as bands that would typically not gain any attention were overnight sensations within their own nation. The legacy of Graceland continues to this day, with the album reflecting on the benefits of cultural collaboration and highlighting the exposure of South African music to Western audiences. Simon subverted typical methods of protest by celebrating those who had been silenced, rather than attacking the ever-present government – addressing ‘the roots of rhythm’ – and thanks to his efforts ‘the roots of rhythm remain’.

Premiered on HBO August 15, 1991.

Image credit

Screen still from Paul Simon’s Concert in the Park produced by Janis Wenk, 1991, sourced from Rolling Stone magazine: 10 things you didn’t know about Graceland by Jordan Runtaugh.


Primary Sources

General Assembly of the United Nations. “Resolutions Adopted on the Reports of the Special Political Committee: 2369 (XXIII). The Policies of apartheid of the Government of South Africa.” New York City: General Assembly of the United Nations, 1968. https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/RESOLUTION/GEN/NR0/243/56/IMG/NR024356.pdf?OpenElement  

Paul Simon. Graceland. Warner Bros. Records, 1986, vinyl.

Tambo, Oliver. “The Crucial Need for United Action by the International Community.” Speech, U.N Headquarters, New York City, 12 January 1982.

Tannenbaum, Rob. “Album Review: Graceland.” Rolling Stone, 28 August 1986. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/graceland-2-197867/.

The Making of Sun City. Directed by Steve Lawrence. 1985; MTV.

Secondary Sources

Beaubien, Michael C. “The Cultural Boycott of South Africa.” Africa Today 29, no. 4 (4th qtr 1982): 5-16. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4186110.

Bennighof, James. “Fluidity in Paul Simon’s “Graceland”: On Text and Music in Popular Song’.” College Music Symposium 33, no. 1 (1993/1994): 212-236. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40374257.

Greer, Jonathan D. Paul Simon’s Graceland and its Social and Political Statements on Apartheid in South Africa. Texas: Baylor University, 2007. http://hdl.handle.net/2104/4854

Meintjes, Louise. “Paul Simon’s Graceland, South Africa and the Mediation of Musical Meaning.”  Ethnomusicology 34, no. 1 (Winter 1990): 37-73. https://www.jstor.org/stable/852356

Ullestad, Neil. “Rock and Rebellion: Subversive Effects of Live Aid and ‘Sun City.” Popular Music 6, no. 1 (Jan 1987): 67-76. https://www.jstor.org/stable/853166.

Under African Skies. Directed by Joe Berlinger. 2012; New York City, Radical Media, 1993. Streaming, YouTube Movies. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgW0kLJgbo0.

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