The Sundance Festival in London is showing the film Under African Skies tonight to mark the
twenty-fifth anniversary of Paul Simon's album Graceland.
Graceland sparked opposition from the anti-apartheid movement when it was released because it included black South African musicians and was recorded in South Africa, thus breaking the cultural boycott against the racist regime. When Simon and some of the black South African musicians on the album played London's Albert Hall in 1987 to promote it, artists including Paul Weller and Billy Bragg were outside to picket the show.
Apparently Simon spoke to the singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte before travelling to South Africa to record the album. Belafonte shared Simon's enthusiasm that the world hear the music of black South Africa but advised him to seek clearance from the exiled leadership of the African National Congress before he went.
I don't think anyone would put Simon in the same category as acts like Elton John, Rod Stewart and Queen who played lucrative gigs at South Africa's Sun City entertainment complex in the 1980's but was he still wrong to record the album in the country?
It seems that Simon would still have fallen foul of the boycott and the ANC if he had recorded the album with black South African musicians outside South Africa. A couple of questions flow from this. Why should black South African musicians have been stopped from working with artists from other countries? And what gave the ANC the right to decide whether they could or not?
I supported the boycott against South Africa in the 1980's but never thought that it alone would bring down the apartheid regime. It was really a symbolic means of supporting the liberation movement - much wider than the ANC, and including the massive and at the time militant black South African labour movement - which would bring down a racist regime which was also seeking an end to its international movement. The boycott was also primarily aimed at - and should have been restricted to - the white only South African sports teams, orchestras etc. and places like Sun City which excluded black customers rather than those seeking to build links with black South Africans other than those approved by the ANC.
The misguided or malign attempt to equate Israel with apartheid South Africa has led recently to calls to stop the Israeli theatre group Habima performing at The Globe as part of celebrations to mark the four hundred and forty-eight annioversary of Shakespeare's birth. Those who advocate a boycott of Israel include well-meaning people who genuinely think it would help bring about a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and an independent Palestinian state as well as anti-Semites who want to drive the Jews into the sea and wipe Israel off the map. But none of them I think would oppose a British musician recording with Palestinian musicians in Israel or touring with them here.