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Robert Hilburn : Van Zandt Takes Aim At Apartheid

August 31, 1985

The leaders behind the Live Aid and USA for Africa campaigns have carefully avoided politics in their drive to raise funds for famine victims in Africa. But pop's latest African crusade makes no secret of its political objectives.

Under the guidance of Steve Van Zandt, more than two dozen rock, soul, jazz and reggae artists have recorded a song, "Sun City," that attacks apartheid in South Africa. Among the participants: Miles Davis, U2's Bono Hewson, Jackson Browne, Bobby Womack, Lou Reed, Bonnie Raitt, George Clinton and Ruben Blades.

That lineup should guarantee considerable airplay--if the pop public hasn't grown weary of all the recent activism. The single is scheduled to reach the stores about a week after Willie Nelson's Sept. 22 Farm Aid concert, which will rally support for financially troubled American farmers.

Is social/political burnout in the air?

Van Zandt, former lead guitarist with Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, scoffs at the idea.

"It's ridiculous to suggest there are too many benefits or political raps," he said by phone from New York. "I hope it is something that hangs around forever. I think this type of social involvement is a necessary part of the pop experience. The real shock is that it wasn't there for all those years, not that there is too much of it now."

The irony in Van Zandt's "Sun City" involvement is that the two solo albums he made for EMI-America Records after leaving Springsteen's band were largely ignored by radio programmers. A major factor: the heavy political tone of the LPs, both of which indicted what Van Zandt sees as corrupt aspects of American foreign policy.

When Van Zandt left EMI last year, he met with executives of a couple of other labels, but they seemed nervous about his political involvement, so he is now without a record deal, he said. The success of USA for Africa and Live Aid, however, suggests that companies may be more open now to politically minded artists.

About the recent reintroduction of social issues in pop, Van Zandt said: "I think the country and this generation have been so straight, so unquestioning of authority and of themselves that the time was right for a shift. The new generation--just out of a natural rebellion to the parents--is starting to exhibit new attitudes.

"You are seeing this year demonstrations on college campuses and they just didn't exist last year. That alone is a very big difference. The younger generation is starting to look around and come out of this slumber we've all been in."

The attitudes expressed in "Sun City"--which was co-produced by Arthur Baker--grew out of two trips Van Zandt took last year to South Africa while researching material for his next album. The song title refers to the lavish--and controversial--resort complex in Bophuthatswana, an integrated "homeland" set aside for blacks.

"I had been following the situation down there and it fascinated me how apartheid had gone on so long and still managed to pretty much stay out of our consciousness (in America)," he explained. "I got talking to somebody from South Africa and he said, 'Come on down.' So I did."

Van Zandt wrote several songs during a total of nearly a month in South Africa. One of the tunes was "Sun City," which includes the verse: "We're rockers and rappers united and strong / We're here to talk about South Africa and we don't like what's going on."

About his visits there, he said: "It was just unbelievable . . . an assault on your senses. It takes a lot of discipline to control that anger so you can talk to people without flying into a rage. I went through lots of meetings to try to get insights into peoples' attitudes. Probably had four or five meetings a day with whites and blacks."

After Van Zandt returned to New York, friends suggested the best way to draw attention to the situation would be to put together an all-star recording project similar to USA for Africa. The idea was to just invite six or seven friends into the studio, but the project mushroomed as other artists volunteered their services.

While the target of the record is South Africa, Van Zandt hopes it carries a wider message.

"What I try to do now in my work is combine elements from different parts of the world, and find the common ground in a way that people can see themselves a little better," he said. "By focusing on South Africa, I hope people eventually realize what they are seeing is an exaggeration of themselves--what is going on in their own backyard. We all know our racial problems aren't resolved either.

"There are a lot of tragic similarities. They've got (segregated) black neighborhoods by law. We've got them, too, though it may not be by law. They have a great lack of education with their poor--and so do we. They are relocating blacks forcibly from their land. We are relocating American Indians."

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