I recently mentioned my excitement at the 25th anniversary of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album, and the accompanying hoopla. Indeed, part of the celebration is the release of a new documentary on the making of the album entitled, Under African Skies (the film takes its title from the name of one of the album’s many great tracks). I was fortunate to catch an early screening of the film and can say with confidence that it lived up to most of my overly-hyped expectations. In addition to great behind-the-scenes footage of Simon in the studio with his incredible crew of South African session players, as well as the likes of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Hugh Masekela, the film delves deep into the album’s creative process.
Among the biggest challenges Simon faced in making the album was the cultural boycott on South Africa at the time, upheld by the U.N. and the African National Congress in protest of the deeply divisive and racist apartheid system. Indeed, to this day, his trip to South Africa at the invite of some of that country’s musicians still ruffles feathers among those who fought to end apartheid, and a good portion of the film is devoted to presenting both sides of the argument. While I came away from Under African Skies with a new understanding of the political landscape from which “Graceland” emerged, it was Simon’s ruminations on the role of the artist in our society that hit me hardest.
While the boycott forbade all relations with apartheid-era South Africa (from trade to sports to music), effectively isolating the country from the world as a protest against its leadership, Simon’s view of the situation went in the face of this strategy. The role of the artist, he maintained then (and still does today), should not be subject to the will of politicians. The artist, he says, is separate and above politics and nations and deserves free passage anywhere to create. This is a paraphrasing of Simon’s actual words, which are far more eloquent. And, combined with the sounds from the record, the stories of the musicians whose lives were forever changed by the making of “Graceland” and the world which embraced its music, the film has a powerful and profound impact. Obviously, I was a fan going in, but I have a far deeper respect for Paul Simon now.