One of my favorite albums is Paul Simon’s Graceland. I have always liked Paul Simon in general, but my particular love for this album is also largely rooted in the African music that is part of it. Paul Simon was attacked politically breaking the boycott of Apartheid South Africa and recording with South African musicians. Apparently there is a documentary that details this story called Under African Skies. I have not seen the documentary, although now I would like to. The above article tells the political story behind the album and the documentary. It is an interesting read.
I am personally glad that this album exists. This album has meant a great deal to me. It has also caused me to investigate further and purchase music by African artists. I have read before where some people have said that Simon was committing a kind of cultural imperialism, but I have no patience for such things. Anyone that understands music knows that artist are constantly borrowing, stealing, and learning from each other. It is how the form gets moved forward. Everything comes from somewhere. Even artists that create things that seem shockingly original are simply combining ideas in ways they haven’t been before. That and technical innovation are what creates new sounds.
On the political side of things I still think Simon comes out clean. As far as I know he treated the artists well and paid them well for their work. (There is some controversy over his collaboration with Los Lobos on the album, but none that I can find with the African Musicians that he worked with.) I think Simon’s own view on the political nature of what he did is correct:
What was unusual about Graceland is that it was on the surface apolitical, but what it represented was the essence of the antiapartheid in that it was a collaboration between blacks and whites to make music that people everywhere enjoyed. It was completely the opposite from what the apartheid regime said, which is that one group of people were inferior. Here, there were no inferiors or superiors, just an acknowledgement of everybody’s work as a musician. It was a powerful statement – National Geographic
I also find it interesting that for all of the clamor and noise over a work of art at the time of its creation, that time has a funny way of sometimes turning everything but the art itself into dust. That doesn’t mean that political arguments over a piece of work have no merit, especially as they relate to current political struggles. Also, overtly political works have a different amount of relevance to political struggle than works that are art for art’s sake, especially if those struggles are still going on in some fashion. However, as time progresses we humans and our struggles disappear and all we are left with is what we created. Graceland is till fairly new and yes there are still struggles going on in South Africa, but they are different ones than what was going on during Apartheid, even if they are related to that time period. Lately I have been reading parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante wrote this as a political exile. While knowing the politics behind it can make certain parts of the text more meaningful, Dante’s political struggle has no bearing on our present reality. Yet the text is still with us in all of its power. It is very possible that problems of race will long outlast Graceland, but the opposite may also be true. All one can do is to follow their own compass and try to speak their truth, time will sort everything else out, one way or another.