The news that Paul Simon is to headline this summer’s Hard Rock Calling festival in London with a live performance of his Graceland album revives an old and spiky debate. While the album was rightly acclaimed on its release in 1986, it was also dogged by political controversy. In his collaboration with South African musicians, Simon was accused of having broken the cultural boycott against the nation’s apartheid government. It was a mess of an argument and it continues to be so today.
No one was in any doubt as to Simon’s intentions, which were entirely benign. The album brought a relatively obscure musical tradition to the ears of the world (it sold 14m copies). The South African musicians on the album went into the project with eyes wide open. “We used Paul as much as Paul used us,” said guitarist Ray Phiri, one of Simon’s collaborators. This was not an obvious case of cultural exploitation.
And yet Simon was criticised for breaking the stranglehold that had united cultural figures from all over the world, as they fought to play their part in the downfall of apartheid. His opponents are unabashed today. Jerry Dammers, who wrote the anthem “Free Nelson Mandela”, told The Guardian that he still believed Simon was wrong to go to South Africa in the 1980s. “But that’s in the past. It’s the time not to forgive and forget but to remember and forgive.”
“He was on the wrong side of the argument despite his good intentions,” added Billy Bragg, the left-leaning singer-songwriter. “The cultural boycott was part of the economic boycott that brought South Africa to heel.”
But there were plenty who supported Simon too. One of the most eloquent was Hugh Masekela, who played on the Graceland tour. When I brought up the issue of the cultural boycott during lunch in London some years ago, I thought the trumpeter was going to take off through the roof.
“Some of the most vocal journalists [who criticised Simon] were white South Africans who were living the most privileged lives,” he said. “I had a lot of run-ins with them. I told them to shut the f*** up. You know, one of the first people Nelson Mandela invited to South Africa was Paul Simon. I purposely joined [Simon] because I knew he wasn’t a crook and he wasn’t out to rip off anybody.”
That the argument continues to bite tells us that the issue of cultural boycotts is infernally complicated. Culture is not like oil or bananas. Artistic exchange works differently from the trade of goods. It has more subtle effects and can work in unpredictable ways. Absence of culture is a deprivation; but cultural dialogue opens minds and hearts in ways that governments do not always approve of. What gave impetus to the boycott of South Africa was the likes of Frank Sinatra zipping into Sun City and collecting nearly $2m for giving nine performances to white audiences. It was such spectacles that persuaded the regime’s supporters that South Africa could hold its head high and play its valid part in the world’s cultural life. If Sinatra could do it his way, then so could South Africa.
But Simon’s musical experiments were of an entirely different order. He had been in search of inspiration, after a lull in his otherwise stellar musical career. He had a vision of fusing two musical styles and made it happen. He travelled to South Africa and found an artistic community that was tired of being ostracised and “hungry for the outside world”.
When he accepted 1986’s Best Album Grammy for Graceland he paid tribute to his collaborators. “They live under one of the most oppressive regimes on Earth today and still they are able to produce music of great power, nuance and joy, and they have my respect for that.”
The emphasis on the album’s positive tone was deliberate. There is not a note of anger on Graceland. Not because he didn’t find any there but because he believed, in that time and place, in art’s power to transcend politics.
Saxophonist Barney Rachabane said Graceland “made a very powerful point gently” and made its listeners ask themselves a pointed question: “How can people be treated so inhumanely when they have so much to give to the world?” Of course inhumane treatment should never be excused. But sometimes the human imagination needs an outside force to help fire up its indignation. Graceland’s uplifting beats signalled the way towards the end of apartheid in a manner that their punitive extinguishing could never have done.
The arguments over Graceland are largely redundant now. Technology enables artistic expression and free opinion to seep out as never before. And culture plays games of realpolitik with all manner of dubious regimes, in the hope that an intelligent mix of inspirational artwork and curious spectator can have an explosive effect on the material world. Simon understood that better and earlier than most and deserves his moment in the London sunshine.
Hard Rock Calling, July 13-15 www.hardrockcalling.co.uk
More columns at www.ft.com/aspden