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Popping Off : Simon And South Africa: Why The Fuss?

January 18, 1987|WM. K. KNOEDELSEDER JR.

News item:

A controversy over Paul Simon's "Graceland" album turned into a full protest recently when black students at Howard University in Washington angrily attacked the singer for violating a U . N . -backed boycott against performing in South Africa. Simon had traveled there to record the album with some of South Africa's most popular black singers and musicians.

One Howard student accused Simon--who appeared voluntarily at the college to hear the student complaints--of "stealing" African music and attempting to "culturally diffuse" it.

"How can you justify taking over this music?" asked Mark C. Batson, a sophomore pianist and music major. "For too long artists have stolen African music. It happened with jazz. You're telling me the Gershwin story of Africa."

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Huh?

Did I miss something here? Maybe I haven't listened closely enough during the 50 or 60 times I've played the record, but this seems like one of the most misbegotten, wrong-headed and misdirected controversy/protests in recent memory.

Let me get this straight:

A major American pop artist releases a record that some critics are hailing as the crowning achievement of his 25-year career. It is a decidedly uncommercial work, recorded at great cost, that doesn't conform to any radio format.

The record is filled with the rhythms and words and voices of South African performers--Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Forere Motloheloa and Stimela--who are virtually unknown outside the borders of that troubled land. Several songs feature African tribal dialect.

And yet, against these odds, the album's joyfully infectious, impeccably produced sound catches on. The album climbs into the Top 10, with more than 3.5 million copies sold worldwide, according to Warner Bros. (1 million copies in England alone, where Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher remains adamantly opposed to economic sanctions against South Africa for its system of apartheid).

The album is nominated for four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. Videos are aired on TV. Ladysmith performs with Simon on "Saturday Night Live." A U.S. and European tour is announced, with Simon to be accompanied by Ladysmith, Stimela, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba--all black South Africans whose music probably will be heard by more people than ever before.

Everyone involved in the success of "Graceland" deserves a big hand--from the record company that financed it to the record buyers who proved that they recognize quality when it's offered.

So what exactly are these students upset about? The U.N.-backed cultural boycott, as I understand it, is meant to discourage performers from appearing at the lavish Sun City resort in the South African "homeland" of Bophuthatswana. In 1981, Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli reportedly accepted huge fees to play Sun City. Simon didn't do that. In fact, he claims he's turned down a number of offers to play the resort over the years.

Simon went to South Africa unannounced, paid the musicians triple American scale for their studio work, gave them generous co-writing credits that will yield considerable royalties, brought their music out of the country and exposed it to a world that eagerly embraced it. If that violates the letter of the boycott, it certainly doesn't violate its spirit.

The remarks of student Mark C. Batson not only are uninformed--jazz was not stolen from Africa by white musicians, it was created in America by American-born black musicians--but his words also are racist.

He appears to be saying that white musicians shouldn't perform music created by blacks. That sounds like something South African Prime Minister Pieter Willem Botha himself might have dreamed up--musical apartheid. It means that Eric Clapton shouldn't play the blues and, conversely, that Dionne Warwick shouldn't sing Burt Bacharach tunes.

Part of the "controversy" surrounding "Graceland" seems to be the fact that Simon et al. didn't turn the project into an angry political diatribe against the evils of the South African system--or fill the videos with scenes of blacks being beaten or blasted with rubber bullets.

But there is a message in the album--a universal message of cooperation and hope; a message that is far more powerful than those violent images. Simon's album transcends politics, the way the most enduring art always has. It's when I listen to the spirited words and music of Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo that the future seems the clearest: that oppressors can never trample the human spirit--and that the blacks in South Africa ultimately will win.

An occasional forum commenting on timely issues in the world of pop music. What do you think about Simon's actions? Write Popping Off, Calendar, Times Mirror Square, L.A. 90053.

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