Weekend Music, February 19-21, 2010: “(I Ain’t Gonna Play) Sun City,” Artists United Against Apartheid, 1985
Forget the new “We Are the World,” remade for Haitian relief.
The song practically pales against this one from 1985. “Sun City” has hipster cred. “We Are the World” looks so kumbaya next to it, though famine relief and Haiti relief can be a lot less political (on the surface) than freeing the citizens of an entire nation. The mid-Eighties was the time of the boycotts against gold Krugerrands, of the Sullivan Principles, and demonstrations and sit-ins against banks, colleges and corporations who invested in South Africa. A couple of friends of mine were arrested at that time. I also heard that Jessica Mitford, Alice Walker, and even Whoopi Goldberg sat and down and were arrested. (And now, after apartheid was technically defeated, that nation is still in the post-colonial stage where things have changed politically but not economically–like Haiti).
The musicians in the video and in the song were saying that they would not play in Sun City, a resort in Bophuthatswana, a bantustanset up by the then-minority Afrikaaner government, because to do so would be a tacit acceptance of apartheid. Sun City was to be a home away from home for whites, while their former citizens waited on them for a pittance. These bantustans were set up as a kind of final solution by the South African government at that time to “solve” the problem of a black majority. Thousands were herded into these so-called “countries” that did not have arable land, little water, other basic amenities or natural resources. The whites had taken it all. The U.N., of course, refused to recognize them. The blacks were forced to travel hundreds of miles to and from jobs in South Africa everyday. Some of them were practically living on the road. Some only spent perhaps five hours a day with their families. Some of this is still occurring.
Besides, the song lyrics questioned the Reagan Administration, which upset many still under the thrall of the so-called Great Communicator. As a result, it never made the gazillions “WATW” made, or even hit the top ten in the nation at that time. But a big check was cut to Nelson Mandela’s group, the African National Congress. And Canada and Britain loved it, according to Wikipedia. By January 1986, it ranked No. 10 in Canada without significant airplay on radio, and in Britain, it hit No. 21 on its national charts.
I recently bought a used VHS copy of Sun City on eBay when I got tired of hearing about how Michael Jackson’s voice from the grave, complemented by his sister Janet’s warbling, is gracing the remake. And I remember how good I felt hearing it on the radio and seeing it on MTV. I wanted to see it again because there was a difference to what was being said here as opposed to “WATW.” Then, the questions about “fundraiser fatigue” or questioning whether rescuing or giving people food was counterproductive because of the corruption and the politics in the region involved, if not the aid organizations did not keep people from contributing. Many of the participants espoused progressive causes and politics, although music was their main focus. They just wanted to make a statement about how they felt.
There is nothing homogenized or safe about the singers, some of whom are legendary, although after 25 years, they do look dated. And younger. They aren’t the rejects who never got to do “WATW,” although Springsteen and a few others appeared in both. You can find Old School and New School here. Some of the faces gained fleeting fame as performers (as did some of these founders of hip-hop like DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Afrika Bambaataa), some have died (David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Miles, Jam Master Jay) while others are still around, grayer, but still performing (Bono, Herbie Hancock, Nona Hendryx, Bonnie Raitt, George Clinton). A couple, after the spotlight moved away from them, became preachers, like Kurtis Blow; Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil is now a mainstream (for Australia) politician.
Above all, it is amazing to chart the metamorphosis of Little Steven, aka Miami Steve, Steven Van Zandt, former sideman in the E Street Band,whose last impression on the cultural map was as the consigliere of The Sopranos, Silvio Dante, who eventually got bumped off–or nearly so–after whacking so many suspected or actual FBI informants. I first came across Miami Steve while watching the video of “Glory Days.” Of course, I was trying to figure out what and who Springsteen was at the time, but my attention flowed elsewhere. That gypsy bandanna around his head, and those beads and leather, and an earring or two made Miami Steve stand out to me. Steve’s signifying, mugging and eye-rolling in front of the camera made me wonder, who is this cat?.
In his solo career, Steve made some critically acclaimed albums that were sleepers with the public, like Men Without Women. Art and politics doesn’t always mix well, and his other political music, which was more strident than Sun City, didn’t exactly connect with many American audiences as much as with European ones.
But Steve is a natural actor as well; he never had any acting experience and was rather reluctant to even accept the part. Despite his demurrers, don’t rule him out of any other appearances. I remember hearing that he was going to be a regular on The Sopranos, and I figured that this was going to be quite a performance, and it was. He seemed to be channeling DeNiro in The Untouchables with his downturned lips. But that rug he wore was a gasser. A moment in time, as this video certainly is. Check it out.