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The Controversy Surrounding Paul Simon's Graceland

Updated on August 4, 2015

Paul Simon violated UN Resolution 35/206 when he worked with musicians in South Africa.

"The United Nations General Assembly request all states to prevent all cultural, academic, sporting and other exchanges with South Africa. Appeals to writers, artists, musicians and other personalities to boycott South Africa. Urges all academic and cultural institutions to terminate all links with South Africa."

On August 25, 1986 Paul Simon released his album Graceland. The album sold 14 million copies and earned two Grammy Awards. I was a child at the time, and even then a music addict. I was fascinated by this album. It's sound was so different to the pop, rock, folk and country music I was usually listening to because of the African influence. Simon had apparently become fascinated with South African music. He went to Johannesburg to work on the album with South African musicians.

While I was well aware of apartheid in South Africa at the time, I was unaware that Simon was controversial for breaking the UN cultural boycott that was in place. Anti-apartheid activists asked other countries to not send films or TV shows to South Africa, musicians refused to perform in South Africa's famed resort Sun City, and South African culture like plays were prohibited in many countries. The idea was to shun and isolate the country.

Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation is the taking of elements of a culture that you don't belong to. This has been a common practice historically but has become increasingly controversial. Part of the concern is that when majority cultures take from minority cultures, elements of the cultures can be "stolen" or no longer associated with the culture that gave birth to it.

However, in a diverse world, cultures are going to take from each other, share and interact. It's unrealistic to think it can be stopped and it's not always a bad thing. Cultural sharing contributed to the progress of past civilizations and got us to where we are today. Still it can be a situation of it's not what you do it's the way that you do it.

"Even those who admire Paul Simon’s artistic bravery and foresight acknowledge that there was something troubling about a wealthy American star appropriating African and Latin American pop...His critics have pointed out the disturbing similarities between the making of “Graceland” and the basic dynamics of colonialism: Get the good stuff from Africa, bring it back to the New World and polish it up for presentation in the global market."
--, Paul Simon's 'Graceland' boxed set revisits controversial and brilliant album

Could an African musician have released Graceland and enjoyed massive success with it? How many people would have bought Graceland if it was made by an African musician rather than a white American? And then there was Simon's methods.

"Was it ethical, for instance, for a famous foreigner to record South African musicians mid-jam, without them knowing that the tape is rolling, and then build songs of his own from those tracks? What if those musicians later insist they’re thrilled about what happened?...How could Simon approach them as equal partners when their own government demanded that they treat him as a superior?"

Under African Skies Blu-ray (Graceland 25th Anniversary Film)
Under African Skies Blu-ray (Graceland 25th Anniversary Film)

Under African Skies captures Paul Simon's return to South Africa in 2011 to explore the incredible journey of his historic Graceland album, including the political backlash he received for allegedly breaking the UN cultural boycott of South Africa designed to end the Apartheid regime.


Paul Simon's Response

Paul Simon responded to the controversy in a 2012 interview titled "Paul Simon has 'no regrets' over 'Graceland' controversy" in New Musical Express.

"[Ladysmith Black Mambazo] invited me to come. They wanted it, and they had good reason to want it because they wanted their music to get out into the world. I went over there in a way without a lot of that information."

He also felt that going to South Africa to work with black musicians was completely different than performing for all white audiences in Sun City. He did say that if he had known the project would be controversial he wouldn't have gone.

"Had somebody said to me 'look we really don’t want you to go there' I doubt that I would have gone."

He claims protests from the African National Congress (ANC), Ghanaian Ambassador to the United Nations James Victor Gbeho, Artists United Against Apartheid, and musicians like Billy Bragg and Paul Weller only happened after the album's release, so he wasn't aware of how controversial his decision was. However, Harry Belafonte suggested he seek permission from the African National Congress (ANC) first, something Simon chose not to do.

Paul Simon - The Story of Graceland

"...son of the late African National Congress (ANC) president Oliver Tambo...speaking honestly about what many saw as a white man violating and pillaging South African culture for his own gain. In Tambo's words: "At that moment in time, it was not helpful. We were fighting for our land, for our identity. We had a job to do, and it was a serious job. And we saw Paul Simon coming as a threat because it was not sanctioned by the liberation movement."
-- The Telegraph UK, Should Paul Simon have defied a UN boycott to make Graceland in South Africa under apartheid?

Was Simon right or wrong to do what he did? On the one hand, struggling South African musicians got to make money and build successful careers off the project. He introduced the music of these musicians to the rest of the world. And he did genuinely love and appreciate the music. On the other hand, his decision could be seen as selfish. Sure he loved the music of South African musicians. But he put his own desires to make a South African influenced album ahead of the anti-apartheid struggle. As musician Jerry Dammers put it:

"Who does he think he is? He's helping maybe 30 people and he's damaging solidarity over sanctions. He thinks he's helping the cause of freedom, but he's naïve. He's doing far more harm than good."

But then there's this from musician Hugh Masekela who came up with the idea of a tour featuring Simon and South African musicians:

"South African music has been in limbo because of apartheid. Exile and the laws have parted us and caused a lack of growth. If we'd been free and together all these years, who knows what we could have done?"

There's no doubt Graceland is a great album. But whether it should have existed at all is still up for debate with some arguing that Simon was arrogant to ignore the political situation at the time. Other's argue that he helped raise awareness of apartheid and promoted struggling musicians. And then there's Simon's own argument that art should transcend politics.

What do you think of Paul Simon's decision to violate the cultural boycott of South Africa?

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