SOUTH AFRICA, 1985. Nelson Mandela was in prison, and apartheid had a tumultuous, violent foothold on the country. But it was also the same year that Paul Simon entered into the picture and decided to make a controversial move: Defying a U.N. cultural boycott, Simon flew out to the racially divided nation and began recording with local musicians—simply out of love for South African music.
“When I went to hear him perform in a concert in Chicago, I was infected by the music.” – Oprah on hearing Simon perform ‘Graceland’ live
What ensued was a percussive clash between the free-flowing transcendent ideals of the artist and the harsh divisiveness of politics…but for Simon and his South African musician friends, it was a time of camraderie and the creation of ingenious, cross-cultural music.
“Paul, as I recall, declared that the power of art and the voice of the artist was supreme, and…to beg for the right to passage, was against his instinct.” – Harry Belafonte on Simon’s refusal to ask for permission to enter South Africa through political means
In 1987 Simon released his most seminal and commercially successful album of his career to date: Graceland. Listening to the whimsical lyricism and spirited musicality of the tracks, it’s difficult to guess that the birth of the album was created amid such adversity.
I think [Paul’s] always been a musical tourist. He was a musical tourist in the 60’s learning Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, learning Scarborough Fair from the British folk collectors. He was the tourist on his first solo album, where he goes to Jamaica, he goes to Paris. He’s always had this ear, this collector’s ear for sounds and ideas. So South Africa was really another step in his musical tourism. It wasn’t that much of a change in strategy. – Jon Pareles, Chief Pop Music Critic, NY Times
Twenty-five years later, director Joe Berlinger explores both sides of the controversy in the documentary Under African Skies, along with the cultural impact Simon’s amalgamated music has made on artists and humanitarians today.
Watch a clip of ‘Under African Skies’: