The late sixties and early seventies are full of amazing songs of protest and awareness. Protest songs about the Vietnam War and socially conscious songs about the environment filled the airwaves. Marvin Gaye asked us What’s going on? and Crosby, Still and Nash sang about Kent State in Ohio. Once the eighties came around their weren’t too many war protest songs (Well except Born in the USA … the Boss still had more to say about Vietnam … I once had a debate about whether or not “Born in the U.S.A.” is a protest song. This was in England, so maybe they didn’t get it, but Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 Grammy award-winning hit is undoubtedly a protest song. )
However there was still things to protest in the eighties and Steven Van Zandt brought awareness to my young teenage ears and eyes when he brought together a collection of artists to protest Apartheid in South Africa. Thanks to Bob Geldof I was well aware of the famine in Africa but I had no idea about the horrendous situation in South Africa and had not heard the name Nelson Mandella at that point. (Acutally I was familiar with the song Nelson Mandela by The Specials but hadn’t realized who he was.) So when in 1985 Steven Van Zandt brought together a bunch of artists who agreed to not only boycott playing Sun City but participate in a song about change not charity, freedom not famine, I was like … What is going on … how is this happening still and what can we do to make it stop.
The track had too many artists to list them all … but here is just a sampling of the artist who participated. Grandmaster Melle Mel, The Fat Boys, Rubén Blades, Bob Dylan, Herbie Hancock, Ringo Starr and his son Zak Starkey, Lou Reed, Run DMC, Peter Gabriel, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Darlene Love, Bobby Womack, Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, Jackson Browne and Daryl Hannah (his girlfriend at the time), U2, George Clinton, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Peter Wolf, Bonnie Raitt, Hall & Oates, Nona Hendryx, Pete Townshend, Pat Benatar, Clarence Clemons, Bruce Springsteen and Joey Ramone. It was a real cross over track bringing all sorts of musical styles together.
“Sun City” reached No. 38 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in December 1985. Only about half of American radio stations played “Sun City”. Some stations objecting to the lyrics’ explicit criticism of US President Ronald Reagan’s policy of “constructive engagement”, particularly the one and only Joey Ramone’s lines in the song “Our government tells us / We’re doing all we can / Constructive engagement is / Ronald Reagan’s plan.” (Ramone also expressed open discontent and criticism towards him with the Ramones song “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg”.) “Sun City” was banned in Apartheid South Africa itself but went on to raise over a million dollars towards anti-apartheid causes.
If you haven’t seen this video before … it is worth a watch … so many great faces and it really did raise awareness and contribute to the end of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandella.