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From protest to collaboration: Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and lessons for xenophiles

A memetic virus gripped the world of popular music in late 1984 and 1985: the superstar benefit single. The phenomenon of superstar benefits can be traced back through George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 and The Secret Policeman’s Balls organized by Amnesty International throughout the 1970s. But the epidemic of benefit singles that paralyzed the music scene in 1985 can be traced directly to Bob Geldof and the 1984 Christmas hit “Do They Know It’s Christmas”. (Video here. God help us all.)

In 1984, Geldof’s band The Boomtown Rats was lurching towards irrelevance and dissolution. He was depressed: ““We did the drugs, did the girls… And then we didn’t. In late October 1984, I was sitting at home. Rock stars don’t sit at home – they tour, they record.” Sitting at home, Geldof watched a documentary by Michael Buerk on famine in Ethiopia. Geldof was stunned that in a decade characterized by excess and consumption in the UK, acute famine was killing hundreds of thousands in Ethiopia. Geldof organized friends in the UK and Irish music scene to record a benefit single, donating the proceeds to famine relief.

The song in question includes some of the most patronizing lines ever written about the African continent:

And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
(Oooh) Where nothing ever grows
No rain nor rivers flow
Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

But it was a great commercial success, topping the UK singles charts and raising $14 million and eventually earning Geldof a knighthood. It set the template for future benefit singles: recruit musicians based on their name recognition and fame, give each a single phrase to sing, and rely on their fanbases to purchase the single, the accompanying album and videocassettes. Geldof repeated the Band Aid model with Live Aid and recently, Live 8, a festival to raise “awareness” about Africa which, memorably, included so few Africans that Peter Gabriel felt compelled to hold a companion event called “Africa Calling”. (Geldof explained that he had invited U2, Elton John and Madonna because they’d attract large television audiences, while African artists presumably would not.)

In the wake of the Band Aid success, Michael Jackson organized a similar group called USA for Africa, which recorded “We Are the World” (Video – you’ve been warned.) Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp tried to bring the attention back to the US with a series of Farm Aid concerts. And Steven Van Zandt – Bruce Springstein’s guitar player and television mafioso Silvio Dante – weighed in with “Sun City”.

Van Zandt’s project, called Artists United Against Apartheid, was inspired by his trips to South Africa to research the similarities between Apartheid and Indian reservations in the US. He came away from his South African trips with a special distaste for Sun City, a resort casino created by South African hotelier Sol Kerzner in the bantustan of Boputhatswana, an easy drive from Johannesburg and Pretoria. Gambling was illegal in South Africa, but in the allegedly independent Tswana “homeland”, authorities voted to legalize gambling and pornographic movies, creating the opportunity for Kerzner to create an easily accessible and legal “Las Vegas” for the enjoyment of white South Africans. (Kerzer used a similar strategy to develop the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Connecticut, making gambling easily accessible to my fellow New Englanders through a partnership with the Mohegan Indian tribe.)

Sun City recruited musicians from around the world to perform at the casino. Musicians who accepted the invitation were defying a long-standing cultural boycott of the Apartheid regime. Started in 1961 by the British Musicians Union, the boycott was managed by the UN Center Against Apartheid, which maintained a blacklist of artists who defied the boycott and played at Sun City. The Artists United Against Apartheid project sought to call attention to the boycott and to pressure artists not to accept South African invitations – it wasn’t an attempt to raise funds like many other benefit records, though Danny Schechter, an ABC journalist who helped coordinate the project, reports that funds were given to ANC activst Oliver Tambo to support a school in Tanzania.

(Personally, I think “Sun City” stands up to the test of time significantly better than many of the other benefit songs, though that’s a pretty low bar to clear. I’m particularly fond of the juxtapositions in the video, like a bemused-looking Lou Reed mumbling a verse with Hall and Oates. If Reed just grew a mustache and recorded with those two, I think they could have been bigger than ZZTop.)

Van Zandt wasn’t the only American musician thinking about South Africa in 1985. The year before, a friend gave Paul Simon a tape of “township jive” music, probably “Gumboots” by the Boyoyo Boys, a sax, guitar, bass and drums combo, who played mbaquanga music in and around Soweto. Simon was fascinated by the music, which reminded him of 1950s R&B, and he asked his record company to get him in touch with the album’s producer, Hilton Rosenthal, to see whether it might be possible to record with the musicians on the album.

Rosenthal is a fascinating and important figure in South African music history. A middle class white South African, he found himself in charge of the “black music” division for the Gramophone Record Company, the local division of CBS. He wondered whether there was space for music in South Africa that wasn’t purely white or black, and began working with Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu, the two musicians who became the heart of Juluku, a racially-integrated band that electrified traditional Zulu music and brought it to a global audience. He recorded collections of township music and attempted to distribute them internationally, and is one of the key figures in developing “world music” as a genre, helping launch the career of Raï superstar Cheb Mami.

As someone who’d recorded an integrated, highly political band in apartheid South Africa, Rosenthal was aware of some of the difficulties Simon might face in recording with Sowetan musicians. He assured Simon that they’d find a way to work together and sent him a pile of other South African records, both mbaquanga acts and choral groups, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo. And then he set up a meeting with the black musicians union, to discuss whether members should record with Simon.

The musicians had reason to be skeptical of such a collaboration. Paul Simon wasn’t the first musician to have the clever idea of building pop music around the driving rhythyms of mbaquanga. That title goes to one of popular music’s great appropriators, Malcolm McLaren.

McLaren rose to notoriety in the 1970s as the impressario behind the Sex Pistols, a band he created by handpicking kids who hung out as his clothing boutique in the Kings Road. (The boutique sold “teddy boy” clothing, until McLaren moved to New York and discovered the punk scene. He briefly mismanaged the New York Dolls, then brought punk fashion from NYC to London, where the Sex Pistols were extremely successful at marketing his clothing.) After drug overdoses, murder and lots of sensational PR, the Sex Pistols dissolved. McLaren moved onto the next fashion trend – the new romantics – and put 14-year old Annabella Lwin in front of Adam and the Ants, minus Adam, christening the new band “Bow Wow Wow”. Always one to exploit controversy, McLaren had Twin pose nude on the album cover for See Jungle!, replicating the scene from Manet’s “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe” – Lwin’s mother alleged sexual exploitation, and the Scotland Yard investigation that resulted made it difficult for the band to tour, but likely helped album sales.

Bow Wow Wow’s music was heavily influenced both by Burundian rhythms, brought to Britain by musician Mike Steiphenson, and by South African mbaquanga music. But McLaren’s gift for appropriation reached its height with his first solo album, “Duck Rock”. Released in 1983, the album is an amazingly forward-looking collage of influences, incorporating American folk, early hiphop, Afro-caribbean and lots and lots of mbaquanga music. “Double Dutch” (video above), an ode to African-American jumprope culture, is built around an instrumental track, “Puleng”, by the Boyoyo Boys. McLaren didn’t credit the Boyoyo Boys for the track, claiming he’d authored it with Yes bass player Trevor Horn. The album borrowed heavily from other South African acts, including Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, who also worked unpaid and uncredited. (Ãœber-critic Robert Christgau takes McLaren to task for appropriation in his 1983 review.)

When Simon approached Rosenthal about recording with the Boyoyo Boys, he and the Boys were in the early stages of a lawsuit attempting to get royalties from McLaren. (They eventually succeeded in an out of court settlement.) But he supported the idea, and a majority of the black musicians’ union agreed to invite Simon to South Africa to record. They worried that the UN cultural boycott was preventing mbanquanga music from taking its place on the global stage, reaching the prominence of reggae, for instance. Realizing that Simon’s stature could bring a great deal of attention to the local musical scene, they voted to work with him.

Simon had his own set of obstacles to clear. Recording in South Africa with African musicians would be a violation of the boycott. He consulted with Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte, both of whom were close to South African musicians, and with their blessing, headed to Johannesburg for two and half weeks to record.

The sessions were unusual ones. Simon didn’t come into the project with songs – instead, he asked the bands Rosenthal brought into the studio to play different tunes, then asked them to combine a few bars of one with a section from another. Three tracks on Graceland, the album that emerged from these sessions, came directly from this process:

“The Boy in the Bubble” was recorded with Tao Ea Matsekha (drums, accordion and bass), from Lesotho. With the Shangaan group, General M. D. Shirinda and the Gaza Sisters (bass, drums, guitar and six female singers), he recorded the tracks for the song that later became “I Know What I Know.” And for another song, later titled “Gumboots,” he cut tracks with the Boyoyo Boys, the group that had first inspired him.

(The quote above is from Stephen Holden’s excellent New York Times article of August 24, 1986, titled “Paul Simon Brings Home the Music of Black South Africa“. It is, unfortunately, locked behind a paywall…)

On those three tracks, members of those bands share songwriting credits with Simon. On “Homeless” and “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes”, Simon recorded with ten-voice choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo in London and New York, and their founder Joseph Shabalala shares songwriting credits with Simon. For other tracks, including the title track and the hit “Call Me All”, he recorded with a trio – guitarist Ray Phiri and drummer Isaac Mthsli from the band Stimela, and bassist Baghiti Khumalo – Phiri was credited as the arranger of the album.

(Simon’s scrupulousness for sharing credit may not have extended equally to all musicians. The final track of the album, titled “The Myth of Fingerprints”, was recorded with Los Lobos, and while the band is credited as playing on the track, Simon claims authorship of the tune. Steven Berlin of Los Lobos claims that the song was written by the band, and that Simon simply added a vocal on top and stole the song. Simon disputes this, and Los Lobos haven’t taken Simon up on the invitation they allege he made to sue him.)

When Graceland was released, it met with two waves of criticism. Some critics accused Simon of exploiting poor, underpaid South African musicians. This seems a bit hard to swallow – in Johannesburg, Simon paid musicians $196.41 per hour, three times the US pay scale at that point for studio musicians. The musicians who shared songwriting credits with Simon continue to benefit from the royalties on the album, which were especially substantial in 1986, it won the Grammy for album of the year, eventually selling 16 million copies. Graceland also raised the profile of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, already a major international act – Simon produced LBM’s subsequent three albums, which sold well in the US and Europe. Bassist Khumalo went on to record with Gloria Estefan and a variety of other US and African acts; Ray Phiri recorded with everyone from Laurie Anderson to Willie Nelson; Isaac Mthsli went on to support Lucky Dube. My guess is that these musicians, all of whom subsequently recorded with Simon, don’t consider themselves to have been exploited by Graceland.

The second criticism is more subjective – some critics accused Simon of “musical colonialism“, cultural appropriation, musical tourism, and generally of using African influences to spice up his songwriting without thoroughly engaging with the material: “Paul Simon songs with African music attached“. While I can think of dozens of albums I’d consider to be based on cultural appropriation (my favorite offensive example is Deep Forest’s “Sweet Lullaby”, an album that pisses me off so much I gave a whole law school lecture on it) and hundreds of examples of musical tourism, I think Graceland is something different. (Okay, I think the first nine tracks of Graceland are something different – I think Simon’s guilty as charged of tourism on the final two songs, fun but unnecessary excursions into zydeco and Mexican bar-rock.)

At its best, Graceland sounds like Simon is encountering forces to large for him to understand or control. He’s riding on top of them, offering free-form reflections on a world that’s vastly more complicated and colorful than the narrow places he and Art Garfunkel explored in their close harmonies. In “Boy in the Bubble” (video above), the chorus, “These are the days of miracle and wonder, this is the long distance call” could serve as a tagline for anyone confronting our strange, connected world. Simon’s not cutting and pasting from a global palette of sounds the way McLaren is – he’s being swept forward by the brilliant musicians he’s playing with, trying frantically to tell us what he sees through the window as the train rushes forwards.

I’m not writing about Graceland because I wanted to write music criticism – I’m thinking about Graceland as a way of explaining xenophilia and bridge figures. My friend David Miller and I were talking about these ideas and the challenge of explaining them, and David asked whether Simon’s work on the album helps explain either concept. In a sense, I think Graceland offers examples of both.

Simon’s encounter with a cassette by the Boyoyo Boys is a classic proto-xenophile moment. What makes Simon a xenophile was the decision not just to interact with the cultural artifact, but to find a way to make a connection with the people who’d made the music. There are lots of fans of African music – the xenophiles are the ones whose interest transcends collecting records and turns into learning, playing, recording and exploring the music and the people who make it.

It’s not a surprise, I think, that Simon’s encounter was brokered by a bridge figure. Hilton Rosenthal had roots both in the record industry that Simon knew and understood and in the black South African music scene, and was able to help Simon and local musicians connect in a way that would have been virtually impossible without his assistance. (Simon reports that he was profoundly aware of the racial tension during the sessions, and on the demands the Apartheid regime made on the musicians – at 4:30 every day, musicians began panicking about the danger of being in Johannesburg without travel permits. It’s likely that many of those musicians would have been afraid to take the risks associated with playing with Simon had Rosenthal, who had recorded and promoted many of their albums, not been able to explain tensions to both sides and create a space for the recording to take place.)

Ultimately, Simon was transformed by his experience connecting with South African musicians. He spent the next year touring the world with musicians he’d played with, and several he hadn’t. The tour featured Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela, two celebrated South African exiles who were deeply and visibly opposed to the Apartheid government.

You can read this as Simon’s attempt to gain political air cover for a project that seems to have garnered critiques from every possible corner. While Paul Simon had twice refused to play at Sun City, Linda Rondstadt, featured on “African Skies”, did, which led to critiques from the AUAA crowd. The UN blacklisted Simon for three weeks, finally relenting when Simon wrote a letter agreeing not to play in South Africa, and pointing out that he’d given his South African collaborators writing credit on the songs. To answer criticism that the tour was about exploiting African talent for his own financial gain, Simon donated all proceeds of the US tour, a third to an anti-apartheid charity, a third to the United Negro college fund, and a third to local charities in the cities he played in. When Simon was finally able to perform in post-Apartheid South Africa, he got criticized on two fronts, one from organizations more radical than the ANC who wanted to see more attention paid to local artists and not to foreign, white artists, and from people who felt the $30 price tag for tickets necessarily excluded black audiences from his performances.

Whatever the validity of the different criticisms, they’re a reminder of how difficult it is to build projects that cross cultures. Simon found himself navigating cultural concerns in his home country (cultural appropriation and tourism, violation of a boycott), in South Africa (exploitation of local musicians, sharing of songwriting credit) and in the countries where the group played. In the process, I suspect he and everyone else involved ended up creating a miniculture around their collective, joint project. Whether the goal is to put on a concert, to translate anime from Japanese to English or to build an international newswire, projects tend to grow their own cultures, heavily influenced by the native cultures of participants, but with their own rules, uniquely derived to allow collaboration to take place.

Ultimately, Simon emerged from Graceland as a bridge figure. Producing Ladysmith Black Mambazo albums, he found himself literally attempting to share what he saw as beautiful and transformative in Zulu choral music with an American audience. It’s hard to imagine Laurie Anderson and Ray Phiri collaborating on “Strange Angels” without introductions brokered by Simon. At a certain point, Simon took over Rosethal’s role as a point of entry into the Soweto music community for musicians who wanted to build new collaborations.

I see Graceland as a balancing act, an example of the nuance required to navigate the disconnection between the US and apartheid-era South Africa. There’s a fine line between McLaren’s sampling of mbaquanga and Simon’s collaborations with mbaquanga musicians. There is, I think, a line… but critical disagreements about which side of the line Simon falls on suggest that the deliniation is far from clean and simple. Steven Van Zandt’s position, a principled stance against engaging with South Africa under apartheid, is a cleaner, neater position than the complex compromise Simon chose, but I doubt it was as effective. Van Zandt helped call attention to a nasty situation in the waning days of the Botha regime – Simon introduced the wider world to a soundtrack for both a revolution and for a new South Africa.

Xenophilia involves this sort of complex negotiation, finding a path that’s about collaboration, not appropriation. It finds ways to engage as well as to protest, to build joint projects that, in turn, build relationships and bridges. In rare cases, you might get something truly special, a record that’s very much worth a listen more than twenty years later.

31 thoughts on “From protest to collaboration: Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and lessons for xenophiles”

  1. Thanks for that trip down memory lane and for filling in a lot of contextual gaps I wasn’t aware of. I was at Paul Simon’s concert in Jo’burg at Ellis Park Stadium in 1992. It was weird because I had only moved to South Africa 6 months before and was still digesting the tense air of expectation, fear, optimism, and anger in the country. I was conflicted about going for the very reasons you mention above and also because I was as busy as any of my friends punching the air in support of Little Steven.

    I think the concert was important in its own way because it gave (some) South Africans a taste of what they had been excluded from and highlighted how isolated they had been and as such was a small catalyst for change. There were many such moments in that period from Mandela’s release to the elections in 1994 that ended up in odd ways being a spur to the political process.

    What I remember most of the concert was that it was pretty much all white and eerily un-South African in its resemblance to a concert in North America or Europe. I also remember that the number of police at the event roughly equalled the number of concert goers.

    As a curious aside, I mentioned “Ain’t going to play Sun City” and “Free Nelson Mandela” by the Special AKA to my colleagues here in Cape Town this morning and was met with blank looks. Divergent parallel histories.

    Your piece also made me think about the Bono-bashing that is going on at the moment as a result of Dambisa Moyo’s book Dead Aid. Setting yourself up as a contrarian to conventional wisdom is a good way to sell books. Ms. Moyo is evidently the Andrew Keen of development assistance. Conventional wisdom ought to be challenged on a regular basis but it seems to me that it could be done in a way that sparks less vitriol and more constructive thought.

    Finally, I am reminded of Jonathan Lethem’s essay The Ecstasy of Influence which digs deep into the issue of musical and creative influences in general. I agree that Simon did about as well as could be imagined in ensuring a fair deal to all under the circumstances. However, it also makes me think how broken the current musical copyright regime is.

    Thought provoking as usual. And thanks especially for the imagery in “he’s being swept forward by the brilliant musicians he’s playing with, trying frantically to tell us what he sees through the window as the train rushes forwards.” Am going to keep that one.

  2. One of the best posts you’ve ever written, Ethan. Thanks for it. Let us all continue to try to tell others what we see through those windows as the train rushes forward.

  3. “…he’s being swept forward by the brilliant musicians he’s playing with, trying frantically to tell us what he sees through the window as the train rushes forward.” Thank you for a wonderful piece. So much I didn’t know about one of my three all-time favorite albums. And the video brought tears to my eyes. Paul appears not so much to be performing as channeling. My other two favorite albums are Strange Angels and Randy Newman’s Land of Dreams. Maybe you can write about those as well!

  4. p.s. I would only take exception to your jump from Simon & Garfunkel to Graceland. Paul did a great deal of brilliant work in between. Who could forget Hearts and Bones to name just one.

  5. Fantastic post. Thank you. Its an ongoing question here in Australia, with artists using Indigenous themes/tunes to ostensibly boost discussion of the issues involved — some with more success than others , and some with less cynicism than others. Check Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu and his white mentors for one side of the argument.


  6. interesting, thank you. I always felt the last two songs didn’t belong on Graceland, neither did most of the lyrics. However I was just happy to see the musicians getting some exposure and nice money..

    I was in Johannesburg at the Wits Free People’s Concert in 1985. Rumor had it that PS was backstage and the organizers were trying to persuade him to play.

  7. Thank you for that. A really balanced well written article.
    I am still not fond of ‘Graceland’ but I suppose it has to be now for different reasons than was the originally the case.
    In much the same way that I will not listen to Eric Clapton records as he was the direct cause of ‘Rock Against Racism’ being formed in the UK back in 76 for his disgraceful anti-black and pro-Enoch Powell comments. Rich from someone who had/has mined (ripped off) black music all his life.



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  9. Great post Ethan. I had been coincidentally thinking a lot about a thing I saw on TV at the time of Graceland, where teenagers were asking Paul Simon questions, and one asked him how he could justify “ripping off Black people” with that album. It’s always stuck in my memory as good example of the mismatch between current social perspectives and artistic perspectives.

    Sometimes artists make choices that are “wrong” by wider social standards–and that may be proven, in historical terms to be really wrong. But, the value of the art isn’t necessarily constrained by the social terms of those choices. (And, similarly, some artists who make the “right” choices for social reasons fail to produce art of long lived value.)

    Also, I’m glad you highlight “Sun City”–always felt that was the only useful example of that kind of collective music video thing that was happening back then. One little note–you say “bemused-looking Lou Reed mumbling a verse with Hall and Oates,” but it’s actually Rueben Blades and John Oates (of Hall and Oates). Still, right on about the growing beards = better than ZZ Top potential.

  10. Jay, if you’ve got the skills to identify Rueben Blades in that ancient video, you really ought to do us all a favor and subtitle the whole thing identifying the artists. I can’t tell Melle Mel from Kurtis Blow. (Those are the breaks.)

  11. Man, what a great post. The sort of thing I wish I had written.

    Have you followed Bela Fleck’s trip to Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia, and Mali and the recordings he did? It’s not at all the same thing, but beyond being a fantastic album, I’ve been impressed (and relieved) with the care with which he’s tried to address the whole issue of cultural appropriation (the album and documentary are called “Throw Down Your Heart”). One of the most interesting things about the entire project, in act, is that a lot of the songs really don’t sound at all fleckish, or rather, he’s really good at essentially recording other musicians and trying to blend into their aesthetic. At least from a musical perspective, it’s one of the most sensitive collaborations of this kind I’ve ever heard: he manages to sound like them, while making it clear that his banjo isn’t to be the center of attention. In some cases, it’s almost a bit laughable; his recording of Ah N’diya with Oumou Sangare just sounds like her recording only with a banjo overdubbed.

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  14. Brilliant article, really puts some perspective on things. I’m not a big Paul Simon fan but do appreciate his artistry.

    If I remember right Paul Simon is of Romanian or Hungarian Jewish immigrant parents and grew up in New Jersey and NYC listening to radio and street corner Doo-wop.

    Put in that light, and looking at history — Simon as a Doo-wop cosmopolitan turned folkie with a family who likely had escaped the Nazi ghetto or worse — (other socio-economic foibles and American recording industry mutations aside) — was there anyway Simon could of more squarely hit the nail on the head than what he did with Graceland?

  15. Fantastic piece, thank you. I used to listen to Graceland over and over again in the 1990s, but had no idea. I recently rediscovered it, and all its history – and the clips from the Zimbabwe concert. What beautiful music, and what fantastic talent.

    And I love the album even more for how Paul Simon did what he did best, music, and engaged with his peers from Africa. Contrast that with Bono and Geldof who invite African musicians to LiveAid as an afterthought and then make them play in an artificial rain forest. When they start playing tours in Africa, I might be faintly interested in them again.

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  20. very impressed by this blog post and love the links you include (and since, by virtue of my job, i read about 7 zillion blog posts a day, i’m not easily impressed). found my way here because i just saw paul simon in nyc the other night and was googling some of the accusations about graceland. you do a wonderful job of discussing the nuances and putting everything in context–now i can continue to listen to the album without feeling guilty about it. (or almost. having also read the whole los lobos controversy, find myself giving that story some credence. guess i’ll have to stop listening before that track.) anyhow, thanks for taking the time to give your thoughts on all this.

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  29. I was there at Simon’s first concert. Didn’t know all of this stuff at the time. Just enjoyed the music. Still do when I put it on.

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