Monday Music: Nelson Mandela

Given that Nelson Mandela celebrated his 95th birthday last week, and at the time of writing was alive – which no-one expected him to be a couple of weeks ago – I can’t think of a better topic for today’s post than the music inspired by his life and struggles.

I’m sure there have been many songs written for Mandela, but I will keep my list short, and mainly stick to the ones I remember from the 1980s: those that called for his freedom while he was imprisoned on Robben Island. 

I think it’s appropriate to start with another South African, as famous in the world of African music as Mandela is in the world of human rights and politics – the man with the golden trumpet: Hugh Masekela, with Bring him back home.

I was in my 20’s during the last years of the apartheid era and my social life was punctuated by regular attendance at African dances that were raising money for the various anti-apartheid organisations that were campaigning in Sydney. African bands were pretty new on the Sydney scene at that time, many of them full of Ghanaian musicians who had only recently migrated to Australia.

There were also plenty of Ghanaian men on the dancefloor, and that’s how I met AM’s dad: at an ANC (or PAC?) fundraiser at the Burland Community Hall in Newtown. The Specials’ Free Nelson Mandela was naturally very popular at these gigs and was probably played the night I met DadaK. I chose this version of it because it is sooooo 80s.

Special AKA (The Specials): Free Nelson Mandela

This recent BBC article (which has a much cooler video) describes the Specials song as ‘the most potent protest song ever recorded’. Would you agree with the writers assertion that ‘Had [songwriter Jerry Dammers] … come up with something more hectoring or angry, it’s possible the anti-apartheid movement would have had a very different level of support throughout the 1980s.’ Hmm? Well it certainly pointed people’s attention in the right direction.

Here’s a much later version, with Amy Winehouse. If you believe Wikipedia, she was really singing about her husband in rehab. Judge for yourself – does she indeed sing ‘Blakey my fella’ at the 4.31 mark? Conspiracy theorists take note, you never actually see her sing the words ‘Nelson Mandela’. That’s not why I’m sharing it, though. I just think it’s great.

But enough of Amy. There’s no such ambiguity about the message of Senegalese singer Youssou N’dour: ‘South Africa, try to be strong’, he sings. Nelson Mandela is the title track of his 1986 album of the same name. I’m pleased to have found this black and white vid. What a classic. N’dour, incidentally, is now also in politics.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I’m sure there are many more Nelson Mandela songs. Here’s a taste of another, more recent one, that I only discovered when researching this post – by Nomfusi & The Lucky Charms.

And finally, the haunting Asimbonanga by South African Johnny Clegg with his band Savuka (which includes a woman with a truly glorious voice – who is she?). I cried when I saw Mandela dancing to a song that was written to mourn his imprisonment. It’s a powerful image of his – and South Africa’s – hard-won freedom. I cried because we will soon be losing him, no matter how much people pray. He has, at most, only a small number of years left on the planet and his recent illness is helping us get used to that idea. I cried because I’m reminded of the loss of my own father at a similar great age after long illness. He was also a venerable, white haired man who loved music and lived well.

I liked how when given the mic, Mandela tells the audience: ‘it is music and dancing that make me at peace with the world …’. Then he gives the mic back to Johnny and keeps on dancing.

This shows why people love him. Simply and eloquently, he reminds us of our shared humanity, our shared vulnerability, and how music makes us human. So I’m thinking maybe that Specials article is right. And if music helped power the freedom of Nelson Mandela – what can’t it do for the world? Perhaps as a start, it can help us let him go … dancing on his final journey into the cosmos.


7 thoughts on “Monday Music: Nelson Mandela

  1. That song by the AKA Specials was always guaranteed to get bums off seats and onto the dance floor. I think the BBC article you discuss has overstated its influence, though. There was much about the anti-apartheid struggle that was neither angry nor hectoring. The 80s was a time when liberation struggles learned to be playful, seductive, artful and even humourous. (Remember the slogan “If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution”?) The Specials song exemplifies that light touch; but one song does not make a revolution.

    • Hi Wundercliffe, yes, what a good point you make about the 80s. You’ve reminded me, for example, of the feminist “All among the Bull girls”, and of the Gay Liberation Quire’s fabulous repertoire. But perhaps in the UK it was a bit different – they had Thatcher to content with – maybe there were more angry songs? I tend to agree they’ve probably overstated the influence of that one song, but still interesting to contemplate the interaction between music and politics more generally – definitely music provides an emotional, sensory dimension.

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