Everyone thought Paul Simon went to South Africa to make a political statement. He says that isn’t so. He just wanted to make music.
But that was a political statement in itself. In the documentary Under African Skies, Simon expresses his belief that art and music rise above politics and that collaborating as equals with South African musicians on a project made a more palpable political statement than any other.
Because of its absurdist lyrics, many sought to find political strings in songs like “You Can Call Me Al,” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” But they weren’t about Africa at all. “You Can Call Me Al” was inspired by being called the wrong name at a party.
Upon its release, Graceland the album was revolutionary. It blended pop with the true rhythms of African music. It was, as Simon describes, a sort of tribute to the evolution of modern music, which has borrowed much from the sounds of Africa. It made cultural music a viable commercial vehicle.
And of course, it came about during a period of tremendous unrest.
After universal praise, the tide of political opinion changed several days after the release. Artists Against Apartheid and the ANC slammed Simon for ignoring the United Nations cultural boycott of South Africa. Instead of accolades, accusations of being tone-deaf to the subjugation of the African people were launched. And that was the story that went around the world.
The new documentary is revelatory in the story it tells from behind the music and behind the controversy. I think more insight into the dramatic change in opinion about the album and more about how the media played a role in swaying public opinion against Simon and his collaborators would have been interesting, but the film boils down the debate between two stubborn leaders: Simon and Dali Tambo, the co-founder of Artists Against Apartheid.
Recently, at a screening for the Sundance Festival in London, Simon said something that I do not recall being mentioned in the film. He said that he felt that recording in South Africa and performing in the country were different, and that the former did not violate the boycott. Tambo and Artists Against Apartheid believed otherwise.
The film focuses on a celebratory concert for the 25th anniversary of the album, as well as a meeting of Simon and Tambo. Through the film, Simon’s uplifting music resonates as a bridge that can transport humanity over any water, troubled or not.
Twenty-five years after the release of Graceland, it’s difficult to wrap your mind around the fact that apartheid was ever in place.
On June 5 Legacy Recordings will release the official Graceland 25th Anniversary Edition CD/DVD — an exclusive two-disc set featuring the remastered original album with five bonus tracks and audio documentary, and Under African Skies film with bonus features, three original music videos and the Saturday Night Live performance of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”