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.
Back in 1987, while Mandela was still imprisoned, South African singer/trumpeter Hugh Masekela introduced his song "Bring Him Back Home." It was soon adapted for the climax of the musical Sarafina!, which ran on Broadway in 1988-89, as the number preceded the moment in the show when the young heroine gives the speech she imagines Mandela might deliver if and when he is ever released from prison. (It wasn't that long after, in 1990.) "Bring back Nelson Mandela/Bring him back home to Soweto/I want to see him walking hand in hand with Winnie Mandela," go the lyrics. In the video below, you can see Masekela introducing the song to America on "The Late Show With David Letterman," along with Dave's mulleted band:
Many triumphs later, Josh Groban met Mandela in 2004, the year the leader retired from public life, and he was invited to take part in the charity project dubbed "46664," named after Mandela's prison number. He was prompted to write a song, "Weeping," citing Mandela as his "muse" for the tune. "He inspired me to write 'Weeping,' a song about the end of apartheid and looking back on our mistakes," said Groban. "It's relevant to the world we live in today. To have some of my South African heroes play on my album on my album was life-changing..." The studio version was recorded with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, although this rendition from a 2009 tribute at Radio City Music Hall features another South African performer, Vusi Mahlasela.
Johnny Clegg had an impact in his native South Africa with the song "Asimbonanga" ("We Haven't Seen Him"), which didn't make him popular with his homeland's regime in 1987. Here you can see a version that was obviously filmed much later, as Clegg is joined by the subject of the song about two and a half minutes in:
Little Steven — aka E Street Band stalwart Steven Van Zandt — was was one of the most visible anti-apartheid activists in America in the 1980s. At the show glimpsed below, the man who would be Silvio did his own version of the allstar anthem he co-penned, "Sun City," a call for artists not to play the whites-only South African resort...but before he did, he covered the Special A.K.A.'s "(Free) Nelson Mandela." The vocal acuity may show why Little Steven cut his solo career short, but the spirit is there:
The original "Sun City" video, credited to the collective Artists Against Apartheid, featured no less (and no less weird) a combination of talent than Bono, Miles Davis, Pat Benatar, Bob Dylan, the Fat Boys, Lou Reed, Daryl Hannah, and Joey Ramone. Although a cultural boycott was the song's subject and not Nelson Mandela, the 1984 anthem marked a critical turning point in rock's understanding of the South African crisis.