Protest song

In remembering Nelson Mandela, people are sharing links to their favourite memories of his life. One of these things is the video for the song “Free Nelson Mandela” by the Special AKA. I discovered that New Zealand was the only country where the song reached #1 in the pop chart. It was a top 10 hit in the UK, Ireland and a few European countries, but New Zealand was the only country that managed #1 – three weeks straight in the winter of ’84.

The song was the first time I became aware of Nelson Mandela. I was only nine at the time, and even though I lived in Hamilton and had been aware of the Springbok tour protests (and how it was making some of the local dads really angry), I still didn’t know what it was all about.

“Free Nelson Mandela” made me more aware of things. Amid the upbeat music, it painted a picture of someone who was in a bad state.

Twenty-one years in captivity
Shoes too small to fit his feet
His body abused but his mind is still free
Are you so blind that you cannot see?

Was I? I wasn’t sure. But then a year later another protest song came along. The American supergroup Artists United Against Apartheid kept the momentum going and filled in a few more gaps with “Sun City”. Like “Free Nelson Mandela”, the upbeat music contained angry lyrics, criticising the Sun City resort, the cruel fake “homelands” of South Africa and the American government’s response to South Africa. It also urged a boycott of entertainers playing at Sun City – another chink in the decaying armour of apartheid. (The song is also noteworthy as being the first mainstream hip hop and rock collaboration – predating “Walk this Way”.)

It’s easy to think about the 1960s as a golden age of political and protest songs, but the ’80s didn’t do a bad job where it counted, slowly chipping away at the badness.

Also – it says a lot about New Zealand that “Free Nelson Mandela” was followed at number one by “One Love” by Bob Marley.

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