Many of my stories of music discovery start with my job as a shelver at my county library in high school. What began in my eyes as a random CD that I remembered my mom mentioning offhand once, quickly became one of my favorite records of all time. Once I found Graceland, my worldview changed, sparking an interest in world music and the native songs of other cultures. But there are many questions about the production of this record that have been raised for me since then.
The very reason I question it now is also the reason this album was ground-breaking and well-received among most everyone I know: its saturation in South African and other African nations’ cultures. In 1986, during the height of apartheid, this was problematic.
The UN spent two decades trying to convince countries around the world, especially in the west, that maintaining economic ties with South Africa implicates them in their crimes against humanity. In 1984, decades after charitable organizations and celebrities began to lobby DC, the US finally took it seriously. One of those celebrities back in the ‘70s to have protested the status quo acceptance of apartheid was Paul Simon himself, but by ‘84 he had gotten lost in a record by the Boyoyo Boys and couldn’t resist a trip to South Africa.
By traveling to South Africa, businesses and organizations that were against an end to apartheid benefitted from Paul Simon. There is no fathomable situation where Paul Simon did not speak, spend any money, or interact in any way with those folks, and that is a cause for concern. Arguably, he hindered the entire movement that he had fought for years earlier.
Graceland was released in 1986, still years before realistic negotiations to end the forced segregation had begun. The US hadn’t even reached its peak of divestment from the country. But to reverse my earlier statement, the reason that I love this album is in a way, Simon’s own protest of the South African government- exposing western audiences to these new sounds of cultures we’d never heard before.
The Boyoyo Boys were eventually featured on Graceland, as they wrote the original “Gumboots” that inspired Simon to write the record in the first place. The whole album was actually quite the group effort. Simon thanks Johnny Clegg in the liner notes, a musician (who we should note is white) who has been joined onstage by Nelson Mandela to sing about the Black South African experience. Also featured on Graceland are Adrian Belew, The Everly Brothers, and Los Lobos, all names that I never knew were involved in the production of this record until I had my hands on this wax copy.
But, in light of perhaps the unfortunate circumstances that Paul Simon found himself in, and in an effort to pay respects to the native people of that torn nation and other neighboring African countries, I’d like to honor each African collaborator on Graceland. The artists are in alphabetical order as they appear in the liner notes.
Demola Adepoju | Nigerian | No Condition is Permanent review of Olufe-Mi | Afropop talked about how great of a steel guitar player Adepoju is
Forere Motloheloa | Lesotho | this Wikipedia article mentions him as a pioneer of famo | AllMusic | this automatically generated Facebook page has 1 like | he led the band Tau Ea Lesotho and this was the origin of “The Boy in the Bubble”