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A still from the documentary Under African Skies, showing Paul Simon on stage with African performers during his Graceland tour.
A still from the documentary Under African Skies, showing Paul Simon on stage with African performers during his Graceland tour.

Paul Simon's Graceland: the clash of politics and art, 25 years on

Paul Simon's Graceland was one of the highlights of his career so far, but this enormously successful and popular album has been dogged by controversy since its release.

Paul Simon never properly understood the political situation in apartheid-era South Africa when he travelled there in pursuit of new music in the mid-1980s, a point he is quick to acknowledge in Joe Berlinger's documentary Under African Skies.

This profoundly honest admission, captured while Simon was en route to rehearsals in Johannesburg for a 25th anniversary performance of Graceland, his ground-breaking album, demonstrates not only his ignorance of history, but also his apparent unwillingness to have engaged with the polarising legacy of the conflict at the centre of his career.

From its first bass note, the layered yet simple music on Graceland remains unmistakably upbeat, even all these years later. It is thick with competing melodies that come together under Simon's classic vocals.

Under African Skies charts the musical roots of the album from the townships of Johannesburg to the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho using intimate interviews with the original band members and exceptional archival footage of the recording process.

Simon travelled to South Africa in the mid-1980s seemingly infused with the desire to explore the American dream in one of the places it was most abjectly absent.

Under African Skies revolves around the 25th anniversary performance and follows Simon as he collects the original album musicians. Notable rhythms, such as the haunting accordion riff that opens The Boy in the Bubble are dissected, unravelling the traditional African beats that were the building blocks of Simon's unforgettable album.

Berlinger's film also reframes the complex political narrative that clouded Graceland's release.

Simon's friends, among them Paul McCartney and the composer Philip Glass, reflect on just how revolutionary the album was in the late 1980s. Oprah Winfrey describes the profound effect that Graceland had on her life: "I was overcome by the music. It opened up a space inside of you my deep and now abiding interest in South Africa was stirred by first listening to Graceland."

Escaping the publicity of the poorly received 1983 album Hearts and Bones, Simon ventured abroad in search of inspiration. Amid the thick racial tension and brutality of South Africa's white regime, he found a vibrant, if disjointed, music scene emanating from the country's black community.

He threw himself into the centre of this landscape, a storyline expertly developed in the film, playing with a variety of South African bands, including the Zulu-inspired a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the guitar-heavy resistance band Stimela.

But it is Simon's continued animosity to the controversy surrounding his visit to apartheid-era South Africa that highlights the film's relevance to the contemporary landscape, including the persistent calls for a cultural boycott of Israel.

The United Nations-supported boycott of South Africa dictated that cultural partnerships with South Africans should cease as a means of isolating the white regime over its apartheid policy.

As Dali Tambo, the founder of Artists Against Apartheid and son of the African National Congress leader Oliver Tambo, notes in the film: "We were saying to artists across the world that at this point in the history of South Africa [1985], the expression of your support must be non-participatory. You can't go there. The way in which you interact with other people is on a free basis between free people."

Since 2005, Palestinians representing large segments of civil society have appealed to musicians throughout the world not to play in Israel as a means of isolating the country over its oppressive policies and ongoing military occupation of the West Bank.

Advocates of the boycott argue, often vociferously, that they are informed by those actions in South Africa. Their goal is to dismantle Israel's unequal governing structure and deliver rights to beleaguered Palestinians.

The Palestinian boycott, while effective in grabbing headlines and forcing a hysterical response from the Israeli government, is still in its infancy. Prominent musicians, such as Roger Waters and Elvis Costello, have agreed not to play in Israel and untold numbers of musicians quietly decline invitations to perform. But others, like Simon himself, have ignored the call, proclaiming that art is above politics.

Back in the 1980s, Paul Simon consulted with colleagues about how to deal with the South African boycott as quietly as possible.

Harry Belafonte, for one, recounts his adamant insistence that Simon "clear" the making of Graceland with the African National Congress before proceeding with the record.

Simon's response was complete; the independence of the artist reigns supreme, even in the most lopsided of political conflicts. Furthermore, Simon argues in the film that the musicians he collaborated with didn't believe that the boycott should be so inflexible.

With the release of Graceland and the explosion of attacks on its violation of the boycott, Simon attempted to insulate himself from criticism through his musical partnership with Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, two of South African's most famous musicians.

Graceland provided an international stage for South African music and the global success of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, he argues, would not have occurred without its influence. This argument didn't distract from the criticism, a complex debate at the heart of the film.

What Simon was doing with Graceland was interacting on an intellectual level with black South African society, creating a mixed-race international community of artists that symbolised what the regime was trying to repress even though he wasn't fully aware of it. By and large, artists that face pressure not to play in Israel don't aspire to such standards.

For example, the Red Hot Chili Peppers recently ignored boycott pressure and performed in Tel Aviv, a move that prompted the up-and-coming Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila to cancel their opening performance for the American rock band in Beirut in protest.

While the merits of Simon's arguments that artists should be above political constraints are backed up by his universalist interaction with black South Africans, the Red Hot Chili Peppers approached Tel Aviv as if it was just another stop on a world tour.

Under African Skies ends on a positive note, one that carefully avoids the fact that Simon himself recently played in Tel Aviv despite eerily familiar calls for him to boycott Israel.

Emotional footage of Simon on stage in Zimbabwe in 1987 performing the banned South African national anthem with his Graceland musicians reminds the viewer of the dramatic role the album played in raising awareness of the plight of apartheid victims.

Footage of Simon with Nelson Mandela, shortly after the ANC leader was released from jail, underscores the fact that, while he was swept up in the tide of a movement that was bigger than the individual, the leaders of the resistance didn't harbour sour feelings about the making of Graceland.

Based on an album whose story is inextricably intertwined with the music's meaning, Under African Skies showcases a revolutionary blend of traditional African rhythms with American pop music. The album is widely considered to be one of Simon's greatest works and, more than a quarter of a century after its release, Graceland's musical genius is undeniable: it transcends political boundaries while squarely defining what they mean.

Joseph Dana is a journalist based in Ramallah.

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