I’ve been home for a little over 48 hours as I write this. The long trip home was joyful, even though it was physically pretty rough–it was 48 hours between getting out of bed Tuesday morning for a final safari and the next time I laid down to sleep in a bed (my own) on Wednesday night, and during that 48 hours, I spent 19+ hours on planes and 9+ hours in busses/vans/my car, and traveled well over 10,000 miles. My body is still somewhere in between Africa and here; I’m at my mental best at about 6am, and I can’t stay awake past 8 or 9pm.
But my heart is still in South Africa. I’ve been working through all my photos (in the end, about 1200 are left after editing) and listening to South African music. One of my colleagues on the trip had recommended the new documentary called Under African Skies, which tells the story of Paul Simon’s Graceland album; I wasn’t aware of it before the trip, so I’ve watched it over the past two mornings (one of the advantages of jet lag in the westerly direction: I’m up early––this morning I gave up on sleep at 4am).
When Graceland came out in 1986, I was an early teen; I loved that album. I had no idea what it was or how it came about or what the political realities of its creation were. I just knew I loved the music––what I now understand to be an amazing mix of Paul Simon folk/pop, South African pop, and traditional South African male a cappella. I internalized that music so thoroughly that I can still sing along and notice the differences between video of live performances and the nuances of the album recordings.After watching the documentary, I have a new appreciation for the creativity and beauty of the music’s fusion of western and African cultures, as well as its boundary-crossing genius and the political arguments about Simon going to South Africa to work with South African musicians at the height of a total boycott of the Apartheid regime.
At the climax of the anti-Apartheid movement’s resistance of the South African government, the African National Congress (ANC) had finally been able to enlist most of the rest of the world in boycotting the South African state at every level: military, financial, sports, diplomatic, even cultural. The goal of the ANC was to starve those who ruled South Africa under the brutal fist of Apartheid ideology, so getting the rest of the world to agree to cut them off in every way was a key part of ensuring the death of the regime. Alongside courageous passive and active resistance by blacks inside South Africa, it was working; in the mid 1980s, things were beginning to fall apart for the government.
It was during this boycott/divestment campaign that Paul Simon was coming off of a dud of a solo album and looking for a way to restart creatively. One of the most famous musicians in the world, Simon had already had a long and incredibly successful career by the mid-80s, with Simon & Garfunkel and then as a solo artist, when a friend sent him a cassette of a black South African band doing their thing. Simon was enthralled and decided he wanted to try to collaborate with them. From that seed came the project that became the album Graceland, ahead of its time and unique in its day. Simon, admitting that he was not really aware of the artists’ boycott or the theory behind it, naively went to South Africa to record with several black South African musicians as equals––a move that was both unheard of to the South African musicians (white people did not treat them as equals in their context!) and controversial to the ANC and other anti-Apartheid activists.
I had never heard this story and was fascinated to consider both sides of the controversy. The anti-Apartheid movement was upset because they were trying to starve the racist South African government with a boycott, which relies on everyone to abide by the common commitment to refuse to engage in commerce or cooperation with South Africa in any way. Just like a hunger strike only works if everyone refuses to eat at all (one meal every once in a while defeats the purpose), one major profile American musician ignoring the boycott to make a record with South African musicians risks letting the air out of the tires of the whole thing. Paul Simon making joyful music with black musicians could be a tool for the regime to point to those happy black people and say, “See? They’re fine. What’s all the fuss about?” For the activists, it was arrogant and naive (or perhaps even colonialistic) of Simon to ignore the boycott and use the South African musicians to make a new product for Simon to sell.
For Paul Simon, though, it was simply about his respect and love for these African musical styles and musicians and their brilliance as artists. He had stumbled onto the potential for a beautiful collaboration, and he had no interest in bowing to political leaders’ agendas in either direction. He hated Apartheid along with all other thinking, compassionate human beings, but he thought the wall put up around South Africa was unnecessarily restrictive when it wouldn’t allow musicians like his collaborators to make their music and receive the opportunity for audience and applause that they were due. In defiance of the voices of protest (which included serious threats of violence when they toured after the release of the album), they went ahead and created together. The result was groundbreaking: white and black musicians, combining American folk/pop and African folk/pop, creating a new beauty, sharing rhythm and chord and voice and soul––together. In the end, this collaboration became a profound demonstration of the evil of Apartheid, because it introduced millions of people around the world to the beauty and humanity of these black South African musicians who were being treated like animals in their own country.Simon and his collaborators (Ladysmith Black Mombazo, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, and others) had managed to produce something that was truly integrated––a portrait of the way it should be: mutual respect and appreciation, coming together to share art across the divisions forced onto humanity by racism, creating beauty that communicates across language and cultural boundaries. In the face of the South African government claiming that separation was the way of God, this album became another important nail in the coffin of Apartheid. In recognition of that, Nelson Mandela invited Simon and his partners to perform at the concert celebrating his release from prison a few years later.
This story prompts me to reflect on the many different (and sometimes at odds with each other!) modes of resisting evil and oppression we saw at work through a few decades of struggle in South Africa. I resonate with both sides of the conflict over honoring the cultural boycott of the Apartheid state. A boycott is an important non-violent tool for resisting evil, and the broad, multi-tiered international boycott of South Africa was the best way the people of the world could speak with one voice in resistance of the South African government’s oppression of their own people. And Simon was right to join hands with his African brothers and sisters in making music together that crossed Apartheid’s boundary.
- Political. In challenging a political structure, there is, of course, the need for a political alternative, so in the South African context, the ANC was the organizing force of political resistance. Driven by the vision of the Freedom Charter, the political resistance was the essential alternative vision to the Apartheid ideology, at the same time that they spoke the same ‘language’ as those they were resisting. This has advantages and disadvantages.
- Church/Faith/Spiritual. On the trip we learned a good deal about the ways in which the spiritual communities of South Africa resisted the Apartheid government. There’s something incredibly powerful about diverse faith traditions coming together to resist injustice and oppression. It’s literally unbeatable. Desmond Tutu famously invited security police to “come over to the winning side” at a particularly dark moment for the anti-Apartheid movement, and it wasn’t just rhetoric. The long arc of history has proven over and over: injustice will be overcome by divine justice for all people.
- Artistic. Art can communicate in ways that regular speech can’t. Poetry, music, visual arts, and drama & other performance arts can capture the spirit in a way that political speech and religious speech can’t. Art connects directly with the soul, often bypassing the intellect in a way that frees our minds to perceive Truth that’s often buried under our idealisms and assumptions about the way the world is. That’s what Graceland tapped into: the profoundly beautiful common humanity of artists, black and white, African and American.
I find recognizing a variety of ways of resisting evil to be especially important in the face of the fact that military force––violence––is the default tool most of the time in our civic conversation. So often it is assumed that the only strategy available to stop oppression is send in troops. That rationale is used all the time and has become the accepted default (right now, it’s on the table as world leaders try to figure out how to respond to the brutally oppressive Syrian regime or to the threat of Iranian nuclear ambitions). After the unspeakable violence of 9/11, it was called ‘unpatriotic’ to suggest that there could be a non-violent way to respond and that more violence from our direction was only going to make the problem worse. And those are just a few examples of so many, at every level of society (e.g. the death penalty is a criminal justice version of the same theme on a national level, and humiliating punishments at school or spanking at home is the child-rearing version of the same theme).
I feel uplifted and filled with hope at the story of Graceland––it’s a reminder to me that there are many ways to resist evil and oppression, and the more humane and love-infused an approach, the more respect for the dignity of those who are oppressed is at the center of a strategy, the more a tactic brings people together to know and care about each other across oppressive boundaries, the more divine it is. And the more of God is in something, the more it leads to life abundant for all involved.