Meeting Nelson Mandela through inspired music

Bono, right, and former South African President Nelson Mandela pose after meeting at Mandela's residence at Houghton in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002. © AP photo by Juda Ngwenya.

Bono, right, and former South African President Nelson Mandela pose after meeting at Mandela’s residence at Houghton in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002. © AP photo by Juda Ngwenya.

Watching coverage of the death of Nelson Mandela I’ve been hearing quite a bit of U2′s music, which is appropriate.

It is often dicey to get into praising rock stars and other artists and entertainers for their roles in cultural issues. Their work, on the surface, can seem minuscule in the face of the actual struggle for human rights.

But I dare say I and many people of my generation would not have been as aware of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and figures like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu had it not been for the messages we received from artists like U2, The Specials, Peter Gabriel and others. The stage was sort of set in high school English classes reading Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. That opened us to the historical injustice of apartheid, and the music brought home the current reality.

Yes, South Africa and Mandela’s imprisonment were occasionally being covered on the evening news. But it was the drama of songs like Gabriel’s Biko (with the chilling lyric “It was business as usual, in police room 619″) and U2′s Silver and Gold (which Bono described as having been written about “a man who was sick of staring down the barrel of white South Africa”) that made it visceral, that made this injustice something we felt we had to speak out against.

In one way, the anger engendered by some of these works helped make the grace with which Mandela led after being released from prison all the more striking and inspiring.

And over time, we were introduced to artists such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Hugh Masekela,both through Paul Simon’s Graceland album, that made the injustice even more real.

Protest songs can often fall on the tinny, preachy side. But in many cases, as with music inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement, songs about Mandela and the struggle against apartheid ranked among their artists’ best work. While it was not the hit We Are the World and other group awareness songs of the 1980s were, Artists United Against Apartheid’s Sun City was arguably the best of its ilk.

Of course, it would be nice if we lived in a more just world where there were not atrocities like apartheid to protest, and people like Mandela did not have to dig deep for endurance and grace. But we don’t, and the work made in reaction to Mandela and his cause are yet another tribute to what an inspiration he was.

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