10 essential anti-apartheid songs

01:53, Dec 10 2013
Nelson Mandela's death
STREET SYMPATHY: Mourners react with song and dance on the street in Soweto where Mandela once lived.
Nelson Mandela's death
CANDLE LIGHT: South Africans have been laying tributes to Mandela since his death this month.
Desmond Tutu
MEMORIAL SERVICE: Former Archbishop of Cape Town and veteran anti-apartheid campaigner Desmond Tutu held a mass at Cape Town's Anglican St George's Cathedral for Mandela.
Nelson Mandela's death
BIG BANNER: In France, a huge banner featuring Mandela's face was hung from the foreign affairs ministry.
Nelson Mandela's death
PARLIAMENT SQUARE: In London, in the shadow of Big Ben, floral tributes were laid at the base of Mandela's statue.
Nelson Mandela's death
YOUNG TRIBUTES: A prayer ceremony was held at a school in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad.
Nelson Mandela memorial
CELEBRATION OF A LIFE: People start singing as they arrive for a mass memorial for Nelson Mandela at First National Bank Stadium in Johannesburg.
Nelson Mandela memorial
CELEBRATION OF A LIFE: The 95,000-seat stadium will host the main ceremony.
Nelson Mandela memorial
CELEBRATION OF A LIFE: People start singing as they arrive for a mass memorial for Nelson Mandela at First National Bank Stadium in Johannesburg.
Nelson Mandela memorial
CELEBRATION OF A LIFE: US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are escorted off the tarmac as they arrive in South Africa to attend a memorial service for Nelson Mandela.
Nelson Mandela memorial service
LIFE CELEBRATION: A woman in the crowd takes a moment for contemplation.
Nelson Mandela memorial service
LIFE CELEBRATION: Crowds have filled a stadium in Johannesburg to farewell former South African leader Nelson Mandela, who died last week at the age of 95.
Nelson Mandela memorial service
LIFE CELEBRATION: British Prime Minister David Cameron was among world leaders to attend.
Nelson Mandela memorial service
LIFE CELEBRATION: Young and old came to pay their respects.
Nelson Mandela memorial service
LIFE CELEBRATION: Unusual adornments were worn by some.
Nelson Mandela's death
FORMER LEADER: Ex-South African president FW de Klerk takes his seat in the stadium.
Nelson Mandela's death
EX-WIFE: Winnie Mandela, ex-wife of Mandela, is seen in this still image from the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation.
Nelson Mandela's death
MEMORIAL PRESENCE: Graca Machel, Mandela's widow, was present at the stadium.
Nelson Mandela's death
CURRENT LEADER: South African President Jacob Zuma waves as he arrives at the stadium. He was later booed by the crowd.
Nelson Mandela
A mourner pumps his fist during the Nelson Mandela memorial in Soweto.
Nelson Mandela
Mourners cover up with umbrellas as US President Barack Obama delivers his eulogy.
Jacob Zuma
Under-fire South African President Jacob Zuma was booed and jeered before his speech.
Barack Obama
An image of Nelson Mandela shows on the big screen as US President Barack Obama speaks.
Mourners at Mandela memorial
Attendees sing and dance at Nelson Mandela's memorial.
Barack Obama
US President Barack Obama delivers his eulogy.
Barack Obama
US President Barack Obama greets Nelson Mandela's widow Graca Machel.
Nelson Mandela memorial
The crowds gather at Soccer City stadium for Nelson Mandela's memorial.
Nelson Mandela memorial
J. Nico Scholten, from Amsterdam, holds up a photo of his meeting with Nelson Mandela.
Nelson Mandela memorial
A child draped in a South African flag at Soccer City stadium for Nelson Mandela's memorial.
Mourners at Mandela memorial
Elizabeth Alexander was on holiday from Sydney when Mandela died. She walked in the rain to get to the stadium.
Mourners at Mandela memorial
Aucklander Ray Vantrhaar was back home in South Africa for the funeral of his father.
Nelson Mandela's coffin in state
GLASS COFFIN: Nelson Mandela is lying in state for mourners to pay respects.
Nelson Mandela's death
SOMBRE ARRIVAL: Personnel carry the coffin on Nelson Mandela into Union Buildings, Pretoria.
Nelson Mandela memorial
South Africans wait in line to pay respects to Nelson Mandela's body in Pretoria.
Nelson Mandela memorial
South Africans wait in line to pay respects to Nelson Mandela's body in Pretoria.
Nelson Mandela memorial
South Africans wait in line to pay respects to Nelson Mandela's body in Pretoria.
Nelson Mandela memorial
Thousands of South Africans wait in line to pay respects to Nelson Mandela's body in Pretoria.
Nelson Mandela memorial
Thousands of South Africans wait in line to pay respects to Nelson Mandela's body in Pretoria.
FW de Klerk
Former South African president FW de Klerk walks away with wife Elita after paying respects to Nelson Mandela.
Nelson Mandela
A flame burns near a portrait of Nelson Mandela at the Nelson Mandela Museum in Qunu.

Nelson Mandela was, quite famously, a fan of European classical music. His two favorite composers were George Frideric Handel and Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, but he grew up exposed to the country's rich tradition of vocal groups forging a unique form of sacred rhythm music.

That changed while the former South African president and longtime democratic activist was imprisoned by the pro-apartheid government from 1962 to 1990. He wasn't allowed access to music.

Artists, however, used Mandela's jailing to fuel global protest songs, and during his years in captivity, Mandela's messages were delivered on the wings of rhythm and melody.

The response to Mandela's cause, in fact, helped bridge cultural divides that continue to hold. One of the best known songs, Artists United Against Apartheid's I Ain't Gonna Play Sun City, for the first time brought together on record superstars of rock and R&B with the kings of a rising young genre called hip-hop.

On the African continent, anti-apartheid couriers such as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Youssou N'Dour and the Malopoets expressed outrage through song. As the anti-apartheid movement grew in the 1970s and '80s, marquee names such as U2, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt and Stevie Wonder spoke or sung out on behalf of Nelson Mandela's cause. 

What follows are 10 essential works that celebrate the late Nelson Mandela and his efforts. His spirit, perseverance and dignity fuelled not only the cause of liberty and equality, but drove music to great heights.

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Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse, Nelson Mandela (1994)

In 1994, singer Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse was commissioned by the African National Congress to write an election song in support of Nelson Mandela's campaign. The activist had been released from prison four years before, and Mabuse eagerly agreed; he'd been singing about Mandela's plight for years. The result was, simply, Nelson Mandela, which featured Mandela himself reading from a speech he gave during one of his trials in 1964.

Stevie Wonder, It's Wrong (1985)

In 1985, Stevie Wonder was at one of many career peaks, and used that power to expose the injustices occurring in South Africa. Employing exiled South African musicians, Wonder put the rhythmic breakdown that is It's Wrong on his In Square Circle album. That same year he was arrested during a Washington, D.C., anti-apartheid protest and dedicated the Oscar he won for the song I Just Called to Say I Love You to Nelson Mandela. The South African government responded by banning Wonder's songs -- evidence of their hopeless desperation.

Brenda Fassie, My Black Presiden" (1989)

A song banned in South Africa when it was released in 1989, My Black President was a tipping-point song, offered as it was a year before Mandela's exit from jail in 1990. It's a thrilling song, filled with the sound of black South Africa: a harmonious choral group, smooth as chrome, humming through the song while Fassie sings, imagining the moment that Nelson Mandela is released. 

Johnny Clegg and Savuka, Asimbonanga (1987)

One of the most popular anthems of the anti-apartheid movement was South African singer Johnny Clegg and his band Savuka's Asimbonanga, which, translated, means "We haven't seen him." A protest whose Zulu chant brings Mandela's absence to life, the clip below features a special guest midway through -- a dancing, smiling Mandela.

Artists United Against Apartheid, I Ain't Gonna Play Sun City (1985)

In 1985, guitarist Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band (and future actor on "The Sopranos") helped spearhead a musical boycott of South Africa's big ticket resort town Sun City, which until then had paid handsome money for superstar concerts. Van Zandt banded together a lineup for the song I Ain't Gonna Play Sun City that nearly 30 years later remains not only impressive in its scope, but marks a symbolic first.

The song, produced by early electronic dance music innovator Arthur Baker, bridged the worlds of rock and rap together in what was then one of the biggest genre converges to date.

Rap, which was ascending through hits from Run DMC and Kurtis Blow, was seen as a lesser art form by most baby boomer rock snobs, but Sun City featured lines by not only Bruce Springsteen but Grandmaster Flash, both Bob Dylan and Afrika Bambaata, helping to legitimise rap to a new audience. The video got heavy rotation on a then-soaring MTV.

While the funky Sun City rhythm played along, the video delivered shocking images of South African police violence, and images of Mandela and other activists. I Ain't Gonna Play Sun City helped ignite campus demonstrations across America whose goal was to urge universities to divest their holdings in companies doing business with the South African regime.  

Peter Gabriel, Biko (1980)

Biko is a song not about Nelson Mandela but his peer and founder of South Africa's Black Consciousness Movement, Stephen Biko, who died in 1977 while in police custody. Gabriel's devastating song was a few years after Biko's murder, and helped focus international attention on the crimes being committed by the apartheid government. "You can blow out a candle but you can't blow out a fire / Once the flames begin to catch the wind will blow it higher," sings Gabriel, words that would prove prescient as protests grew and the government ultimately toppled.  

The Special A.K.A., Free Nelson Mandela (1984)

The Specials' Jerry Dammers wrote a memorable and joyous protest song in Free Nelson Mandela, a work whose simple message, chanted over and over throughout the song, became a rallying cry around the world. Released under the band name Special A.K.A. due to various legal wrangling occurring within the band at the time, Free Nelson Mandela roars, and taps into South African rhythms with pure celebratory spirit. The polar opposite of a dirge such as Gabriel's Biko, Free Nelson Mandela is one of the great protest songs of the era. Below is a version performed at Mandela's 90th birthday party in 2008, featuring Amy Winehouse. 

Youssou N'Dour, Mandela (1986)

Senegalese griot singer Youssou N'Dour was one of Africa's rising stars when he recorded his album "Nelson Mandela" in Paris' Studio Montmartre in 1986. The album featured the title track, which conveyed in French the cause of Mandela and apartheid. (The album also features a great version of the Spinners' Rubberband Man.) Senegal exported some of the best music on the continent during the '70s and '80s, and N'Dour's dedication to Mandela was an early signal of the success to come.

The Malopoets, "The End is Near" (1988)

Featuring a fiery speech by Allan Boesak, the Malopoets' The End is Near fearlessly attacks the powers behind apartheid through a buttery, smooth but insistent beat. The black South African township group was one of the first to be allowed to perform a residency at Johannesburg's Market Theatre, and helped push boundaries during the final years of apartheid. Fun fact: NBA basketball player (for the Oklahoma City Thunder) Thabo Sefolosha's father Patrick was one of the co-founders of the Malopoets.

Sonny Okosun, Fire in Soweto (1978)

Nelson Mandela had a direct connection to reggae music, even if he wasn't able to hear its ascent while he was imprisoned. He had, however, met with one of the spiritual fathers of reggae music, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassi, in Ethiopia in 1962, the same year that Mandela began his incarceration. Reggae, born in the streets of Jamaica less than a decade later, took up Mandela's cause while he was holed up in Robben Island prison. In addition to Eddy Grant's Gimme Hope, Jo'Anna, Nigerian high life singer Sonny Okosun delivered his incendiary reggae jam Fire in Soweto in honour of South Africa's plight.

-MCT