‘Under African Skies’ Asks What Artists Owe Political Movements

Cliche and uncreative as it may be, Graceland is one of my all-time favorite albums, so I was intrigued by the idea of Paul Simon traveling back to South Africa, reuniting with the musicians he worked with to make the album—and perhaps most importantly, sitting down with Dali Tambo, the founder of Artists Against Apartheid, and really listening to why people were upset that he broke the South African boycott. Under African Skies, the documentary that premiered at Sundance, doesn’t really live up to that last promise. Tambo gets to tell the story and significance of the boycott only in brief statements rather than an extended narrative, and the movie ends with an unqualified pardon for Simon given everything that’s come in years past. But even if we only get half the story I hoped we would from it, Simon still offers a forceful articulation of the idea, which I don’t entirely agree with, that artists should stay entirely separate from governments and movements, even ones they disagree with.

“I saw right then and there that Paul resisted the idea,” of at least notifying the African National Congress he was coming to South Africa, Harry Belafonte recalls of Simon’s reaction when Belafonte made that recommendation.”The power of art was supreme…and to go to any group and bed for right of passage was against his instincts.” Later, in one of the movie’s many celebrity endorsements, Simon says “I thought about writing political songs about the situation, but I’m not actually that good at it,” only for Peter Gabriel to come in to talk about how much more effective Graceland was than his own protest anthem “Biko.” And Simon says he’s resistant to the idea that art should be explicitly put at the service of politics. Politicians, he suggests, tell artists to “come and take the love and respect people have for you and transfer it to this candidate by your support. The artists are always treated as if they worked for the politicians.”

But I think there’s a bit of a false choice here that Under African Skies doesn’t quite acknowledge. Doing the ANC the courtesy of letting them know you’re coming to town isn’t the same thing as accepting approval to come on the condition that you write certain songs or do certain performances, and it wouldn’t have taken away from Simon’s ability to arrange for the Graceland tour to come to Zimbabwe or to sing the then-banned South African national anthem at those shows in a demonstration of racial unity. In the movie, Simon says he was viscerally disturbed by the racism he witnessed while recording in South Africa, including comments by engineers that the inability by black South African musicians to master part of a song was proof of their racial prejudices. Hooking up with anti-apartheid groups could have given Simon some context for what he was dealing with. There is a middle ground between seeking out information about what you’re confronting and how to behave respectfully and compassionately in a new situation, and turning yourself into an artist-for-hire to political parties. History has validated Simon’s approach to promoting the album and the artists involved, including anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who he brought to international prominence. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t possible for him to act in a more consultative manner at the time.

All of that aside, Under African Skies is just a fantastic making-of-the-album movie. There’s a ton of video footage available from Simon’s recording sessions in South Africa and of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s reporting trip to New York (in one of the movie’s most heart-wrenching stories, the members of the group asked Simon where they had to go to get a pass that would permit them to visit Central Park during that journey). It’s amazing to see the music come together, to see the role that dance played in the recording process, and to see Simon’s wonder as he discovers something entirely new. And it’s a gift that so many of the South African artists involved could come back to discuss their memories of the collective creative process. In a particularly terrific moment, Lorne Michaels tells Simon before he and Ladysmith Black Mambazo go on stage to reveal their songs to the world “If it doesn’t work, we’ll just cut it.” What a wonderful thing for music that he was wrong.