Nelson Mandela’s Legacy Includes a Lifetime of Musical Salutes
photo: Alexander Joe/AFP
The Dec. 5 death of Nelson Mandela will surely bring forth a host of salutes in song, but he won't be getting any such homages in death that he didn't also receive in life. Few political figures have ever been as revered by the musical community as Mandela, who was the subject of protest songs during his 27 years in a South African prison and anthems of adoration after his release and ascent to the presidency.
Political themes rarely make for great pop songs, but one of the catchiest singles of the '80s was "Nelson Mandela" (popularly known as "Free Nelson Mandela") by the Special A.K.A., which hit the top 10 in Britain in 1984 and was widely heard in America as well. Not long before the song was recorded, the popular U.K. ska band the Specials split apart, with three members going off to form the splinter group Fun Boy Three. Founder Jerry Dammers kept a new incarnation of the group alive under a slightly different name long enough to release one of the most danceable protest songs of the century. By the time the group performed the song on "Top of the Pops," as seen below, lead singer Stan Campbell had already split from the band, but he was convinced to return just for the TV appearance.
Almost a quarter-century later, in 2008, Amy Winehouse was asked to cover the tune at a gala concert celebrating Mandela's 90th birthday. Although it sounded like a great match in theory, Winehouse was spotty enough as a live performer that it wasn't necessarily one of the show's highlights. She changed the lyrics at one point to "Free Blakey, my fella," to protest the incarceration of her then-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil. The London newspaper the Daily Mail wrote that she "chose to hijack" the tribute and showed "a flagrant lack of respect for the guest of honor."
U2 performed a song alternately known as "Long Walk to Freedom" or "46664" (after Mandela's prison number) at a Cape Town tribute in 2003. The tune is not available in a proper digital or CD version and has a curious history. In 2002, Dave Stewart and the Clash's Joe Strummer were working on the song, but it was not completed when Strummer died at the end of the year, and Stewart completed it with Bono. They recorded a version that was released for sale via a charitable website and could be heard by dialing a premium phone number, but plans to include it on an album never materialized. Yet U2 did go on to perform it at the 2003 tribute concert.