Paul Simon’s beautiful, world-widening “Graceland” album turns 25 this year and a new film, Under African Skies, explores all the admiration and controversy it invoked. Most Westerners had never heard anything like the simultaneously ethereal and earthy hybrid African sound Simon conjured together with nonpareil black musicians such as the choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, whose members were at the time beset by the tragic, violent indignities of South African Apartheid. Hearing this music broadened the world for millions of people, and it traveled the globe as a currency in service of freedom for oppressed blacks in Soweto and other segregated sections of the country.
At the time of the album’s release, however, it was generally considered (especially by an understandably reactionary African National Congress) that Simon had transgressed against an active, global “cultural boycott” by going there and recording, a fact he professed virtual ignorance about. Musicians at the time (including, to his credit, Simon) refused to play concerts at Sun City, where the crowds were all-white by law. But Simon contended that his journey to record there—not to sell tickets but to make music with musicians who welcomed him and who were among those being oppressed fell outside the mandate of the boycott. It was a classic case of “do first, ask permission after.” He never did receive permission. “Graceland” won multiple Grammy awards and even more hearts. And it paved the way for Ladysmith to perform on multiple international tours, showing the world up close that discrimination against any human being, let alone those with this kind of resilience and spirit and vitality in their very bones, was absurd and eventually bound for the dustbin of history. Apartheid was abolished in 1991.