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Graceland (And Its Controversies) At 25

Graceland (And Its Controversies) At 25

Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Source: Rob Verhorst/Redferns (Getty Images)


Twenty-five years ago Paul Simon released his album Graceland, an album that not only became a worldwide hit, but massively expanded the audience of his collaborators, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and simultaneously provided exposure to South African music to millions around the globe. A new documentary (which I have as of yet been unable to see) explores not only the making of the album, but also some of the controversy surrounding it.

It might seem nearly impossible to imagine now, but while Graceland emerged as something of a feel-good album, for many it was anything but. In order to utilize Ladysmith Black Mambazo Simon essentially violated the cultural boycott that the South African government and other organizations in South Africa and across the globe advocated in an attempt further to isolate the Apartheid government, which in 1986 was perhaps at its most draconian.

At minimum, Simon displayed a great deal of naivete and consequently not a bit of arrogance in dealing with the maelstrom that surrounded Graceland. Some thought he was using Ladysmith Black Mambazo for his own purposes while others simply found his unwillingness to recognize why the cultural boycott was in place to be galling.

Graceland pretty perfectly embodies a grey area surrounding the cultural boycott. The most obvious violators engaged in egregious behaviors — for example willfully ignoring the boycott to play “Sin City” and then self-servingly claiming that their music was beyond politics when it was anything but, especially for the white regime that had enforced segregation in entertainment and sport as in every other element of South African life under apartheids both petty and grand. And perhaps the boycott was cast in too broad strokes, was too blunt an instrument that did not allow for fine differentiation or case-by-case assessments. And to be sure, Ladysmith Black Mambazo deserved to have its own agency in choosing how to address the injustices of its own country, and that getting its own music out was in itself utterly worthwhile.

Reasonable people can certainly disagree about these questions, especially as they have become historical questions. But at a minimum one hopes that Simon (and perhaps other artists who skirted the line) has become more thoughtful and more reflective about those times and what his work meant and did not mean in a time when the opposition to apartheid used blunt instruments because blunt instruments were what they had at their disposal.



Derek Catsam

Derek Catsam is a Professor of history and Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He is also Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University. Derek writes about race and politics in the United States and Africa, sports, and terrorism. He is currently working on books on bus boycotts in the United States and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and on the 1981 South African Springbok rugby team's tour to the US. He is the author of three books, dozens of scholarly articles and reviews, and has published widely on current affairs in African, American, and European publications. He has lived, worked, and travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. He writes about politics, sports, travel, pop culture, and just about anything else that comes to mind.

Areas of Focus:
Africa; Zimbabwe; South Africa; Apartheid