How Nelson Mandela Became a Pop-Cultural Icon Through Music
Jonny Steinberg on Jerry Dammers and How a Famous Concert in the 1980s Brought Mandela New Fame
One way to tell the story is to begin in July 1983, at Alexandra Palace in north London, where a modestly attended concert was held. The very clumsiness of its title—“African Sounds Festival in Celebration of Nelson Mandela’s Birthday”—speaks to its awkward provenance.
Buoyed by the success of the sixtieth-birthday campaign, the British Anti-apartheid Movement had resolved to celebrate Nelson’s sixty-fifth birthday, too. Its key personnel had for more than two decades kept strong personal ties to exiled South African musicians, and in one of countless conversations the idea of a concert had emerged. The movement was vastly inexperienced in the field of popular culture; this first venture was uncertain, the crowd the concert drew small.
One of the people in the audience that day was a shy young man from Coventry called Jerry Dammers. He was also the leader of a band called the Special AKA. Founded six years earlier as the Specials, it was, by 1983, enormously successful, with several UK Top Ten singles under its belt.
Dammers had not heard of Nelson Mandela; he only attended the concert because he ran into an old friend who was going. While listening to the music, he picked up a pamphlet and read that in prison Mandela was given shoes too small for his feet.
Winnie was the source of the story. Earlier that year, during a visit from his wife and daughter, Nelson had complained that a new pair of shoes was pinching his toe. To his astonishment, he read in a newspaper the next day that his toe was to be amputated.
The image of the prisoner’s feet stuck in Dammers’s mind. He was working at that moment on an instrumental tune, and when he got home he began putting lyrics about Mandela to it.It became the best-selling song Dammers would write, and it brought Mandela’s name “from the political world into people’s living rooms.”
The song that ensued, “Free Nelson Mandela,” reached the UK Top Ten Singles list in late 1984.
It became the best-selling song Dammers would write, and it brought Mandela’s name “from the political world into people’s living rooms,” as the British parliamentarian and antiapartheid activist Peter Hain observed.
By the mid-1980s, Nelson Mandela was already enormously famous. In a document compiled by South Africa’s Department of Foreign Affairs in 1983—the apartheid bureaucracy’s hunger to quantify all information on proud display—the honors thus far bestowed upon him across the world were named.
A block of flats in the East End of London had been christened Mandela Heights; a room in an art gallery in Glasgow was named the Mandela Room; he had been given the freedom of the city of Rome, and of the town of Olympia in Greece; a high school in the village of Ilmenau, West Germany, had been named after him; an avenue in Harlow in the UK bore his name; 12,443 people in Bulgaria had signed a petition calling for his release; 20,000 well-wishers in the German Democratic Republic had sent him postcards, as had several thousand people in Sri Lanka. The document went on like this for twenty-three pages, the accolades categorized by country in chronological order.
But his entry into popular culture was of a different order. It was not just the sheer numbers of young people who now heard his name. It was what that name came to mean.
There might have been any number of ways to tell this story other than through Jerry Dammers. One might have told of Peter Gabriel’s 1980 hit celebrating Steve Biko, or the 1985 song “Sun City,” in which forty-nine artists—among them Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, and Lou Reed—sang of never performing in apartheid South Africa. The meaning of the tale resonates beyond any of its particular episodes. It concerns what was then a just-emerging relationship between music and politics, of which Nelson Mandela was to be the greatest beneficiary.
The 1960s, rather than the 1980s, is of course remembered today as the decade par excellence of politically aligned music. But its politics were quite different from what emerged twenty years hence. The allegiances between musicians and the social movements they championed back in the 1960s were more or less direct.
And with political commitment came fidelity to a counterculture, and thus to the idea that one’s music was pitted against the mainstream, an awkward proposition for those whose records began selling in the millions. Hence, the famous incident at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when some of Bob Dylan’s fans booed him for singing with electric accompaniment, thus betraying folk for commercial rock.
Political pop of the 1980s was not in any way against the commercial mainstream; on the contrary, political commitment became a question of branding. An assortment of causes—famine, the environment, repression of dissent behind the Iron Curtain, the war in Lebanon, apartheid in South Africa—were chiseled into sound bites by the producers of major televised events and pitched to the managers of pop artists; they then haggled over words and images to the finest degree.
This branding was itself an expression of something now ambient: style as an emblem of political attachment—the display of one’s political identity in the clothes one wears, in the establishments one frequents, in the books one reads, and, indeed, in the music to which one listens.In the wake of the concert, the British Anti-apartheid Movement commissioned Gallup to determine Mandela’s name recognition among the country’s population. Almost everybody knew who he was…
In retrospect, it may seem inevitable that Nelson Mandela would come to occupy so grand a place in the lifestyle politics of the 1980s. His was perhaps the most tellable story about the death throes of the colonial epoch, itself one of the great stories of the age. And it did often seem that powerful currents beyond the comprehension of those calling for his release bore their campaign along. The Jerry Dammers hit, for instance, was more akin to manna from heaven than the product of hard work.
Skill and shrewdness nonetheless had their place in what was to come.
The Jerry Dammers hit gave the British Anti-apartheid Movement an inkling of riches it could scarcely have imagined. And it went chasing these riches, as it might. When Nelson’s seventieth birthday approached in 1988, the movement literally threw all it had at music. It wagered everything in its coffers, and thus its very posterity, on a concert to be held at Wembley Stadium in London and broadcast around the world.
The movement was in unfamiliar territory now; it brought in events producers who knew little of its politics but much about popular culture. And as these outsiders got to work, so the nature of the event changed. At first, it was to demand freedom for Nelson Mandela and for all political prisoners in South Africa and South-West Africa; it was also to express solidarity with the ANC and the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO).
Soon, the other political prisoners, SWAPO, and the ANC were dropped. And then, as several bands wavered over whether to perform at a concert demanding freedom for a man who advocated violence, even the call to free Mandela was abandoned. The event simply became “The Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute.”
The concert’s political message, as its producer, Tony Hollingsworth, remarked, was now within the grasp of a five-year-old child: a man is in prison because he is black, and it is wrong. That is all.
There was also a great deal of luck. Behind the scenes, Margaret Thatcher’s government was leaning heavily on the national broadcaster, the BBC, not to carry the event. “It began to appear as if the BBC might pull out,” the Anti-apartheid Movement leader Alan Brooks recalled,
and if the BBC had pulled out, that was an end to international coverage. One band and then another…would have pulled out, and we’d be left with a half-empty Wembley Stadium and a bill of bills that high, and we were staring bankruptcy and the end of the Anti-apartheid Movement in the face. It was terrible. Going into the office each day…felt like walking on glass.
And then, of all people, South Africa’s blundering foreign minister, Pik Botha, came to the rescue, launching a public attack on the BBC for broadcasting the event. “From the moment that happened we knew we were safe,” Brooks recalled, “because there was no way that the BBC could back down under the onslaught of the South African regime.”
In the end, sixty-seven broadcasters screened the concert. It went out across the Soviet Union and India, to the viewers of Rupert Murdoch’s new Fox channel in the United States, to countries throughout Latin America and Europe. Among the most widely broadcast live television events in history at that time—some 600 million are estimated to have watched it—it was bettered that year only by the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.
As for the musicians who performed, “it seemed,” wrote one commentator, “that all the key living figures in the history of political pop had been assembled on one stage at last,” all framed by a giant, quarter-century-old photograph of Nelson Mandela.
In the wake of the concert, the British Anti-apartheid Movement commissioned Gallup to determine Mandela’s name recognition among the country’s population. Almost everybody knew who he was—ninety-two percent of Britons—and seventy percent supported his release. Sympathy for him crossed party lines: ninety-seven percent of Labour supporters wanted him freed, which was perhaps not surprising, but so did a healthy majority of Conservative Party supporters at fifty-nine percent.
The same poll asked whether people knew the name of the member of Parliament in their district: just one in two did.
From Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage by Jonny Steinberg. Copyright 2023 (c) 2023 by Jonny Steinberg. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House.