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Remembering How Hip Hop Took On the Issue of Apartheid

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One of the most underappreciated and least talked about collaborative efforts that involved hip hop was the Artists United Against Apartheid and the the boycott of Sun City. For those who don't recall, Sun City was this ultra lavish resort in this "phony" country set-up by the South African government called Bophuthatswana. This was like a country inside a country, kind of like an Indian reservation of sorts. Sun City was basically South Africa's version of Las Vegas and was set up to be this place where rich folks could go play and get decadent and then return back to SA proper.

In South Africa under the Apartheid regime there were four or five of these fake/reservation-like countries called Homelands where blacks were forced to live in overcrowded miserable conditions. They were moved off their traditional lands onto these 'independent' homelands while still being still forced to work amongst Afrikaners and subjected to harsh Apartheid rules that called for strict racial separation. It was in South Africa that blacks who were the 75 percent of the population and native to the land were subjected to all sorts of humiliations including not being allowed to live on any of the good land and having to show a special ID every time they traveled from one place to another. These rules of racial separation were brutally enforced with the Afrikaner government going all out to crush any and all rebellions.

Many asked how was it that a country where blacks were the overwhelming majority they could be under such harsh rule. Sadly, the South African government had two staunch prominent allies who stood in solid support. They were the U.S. and Israel. Both these countries supplied weapons, resources and protection. Israel worked with the Afrikaner government to develop nuclear weapons and signed some sort of secret treaty to test them.

Worldwide condemnation picked up at the time President Ronald Reagan was in office and he stood firm, vetoing any attempts to smash on Apartheid via the United Nations. He said the U.S. had a constructive engagement policy... which basically meant business as usual... while they would say Apartheid was the most desirable way to govern. At one point he even sent prominent minister Jerry Falwell over to South Africa to insure the Afrikaners the U.S. was behind them. Both Israel and the U.S. justified their stance because they didn't want SA to get help from the Soviets.

South Africa's Afrikaner government used Sun City as a way to give the country a nice look and by inviting A-list entertainers and showing them a good time, they would further highlight themselves via these de facto ambassadors. Since Reagan wasn't going to back any attempts to officially boycott South Africa, the music and entertainment industry's launched their own boycott... people like Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Sprinstein's E- Street Band kicked things off and formed the group. He gathered up prominent rock musicians like Bob Dylan, Bono, Peter Gabriel, Bonnie Raitt, Hall & Oates, Jackson Browne, Ringo Starr, Pat Benatar, and Joey Ramone, to name a few. Joining them were legends like Miles Davis, Eddie Kendricks, Bobby Womack, Nona Hendryx, Herbie Hancock, George Clinton, Jimmy Cliff, and David Ruffin.

Rounding out this all-star line up were prominent hip hop artists, including pioneers DJ Kool Herc, Africa Bambaataa, Mele-Mel, The Fat Boys, Run DMC, Kurtis Blow and Gil Scott Heron. Arthur Baker, who is best known for producing Planet Rock along with Afrika Bambaataa, was also on board.

The overall gist was to shame any entertainer or athlete who defied the UN sanctioned boycott and played Sun City for the large sums of money they offered. For the most part it worked, but there were a few like Queen, golfer Lee Travino, Frank Sinatra, Linda Ronstadt, the O'Jays, Ray Charles and Rod Stewart, who had no qualms breaking the boycott and in doing so giving credibility to the South African regime.

Here are two land mark songs from the landmark Sun City album where hip hop left its footprints. Props out to the pioneers who really put it down especially Mele-Mel and Kurtis Blow. What I like most about this joint is hearing Gil Scott Heron who was an obvious precursor to modern day rap doing his thing along side them. His commentary underscored everything that was happening. I was impressed with the way he paralleled the struggle for equality here in the U.S. along with what was going on in South Africa.

In order to fully appreciate this other cut "Revolutionary Situation" -- which is basically sound clips and samples over hard hitting beats -- is to hear it in full stereo. That wasn't fully captured during this particular recording. Produced by drummer Keith Leblanc who did the song Malcolm X on Tommy Boy record, the entire song has sounds coming out of left and right speakers. They range from Nelson Mandela's daughter, Zindi, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Alan Boesak, and Steve Biko and Ronald Reagan. You get this sense of urgency that at any minute South Africa is gonna explode if the walls of Apartheid don't crumble. Hearing Ronald Reagan inside this song makes you realize how utterly out of touch and mean-spirited we sounded as a country. Sadly it was because of this exposure of Reagan's insensitivity that 'Sun City' got limited airplay and PBS refused to air the documentary that went alongside making this album.

Coming off the Sun City album, which raised about a million dollars, many in hip hop kept the message alive. There was the big divestment movement at UC Berkeley. Myself and my crew did an anti-Apartheid song that was played during rallies. Others like Afrika Bambaataa whose pioneering Zulu Nation organization was named after the South African tribe who fearlessly fought the British, took it a step further and started doing concerts overseas where he raised money for the African National Congress. Bam will be the first to tell you that he was inspired after seeing the movie Zulu to form his organization and later adapt certain things including battle strategies from them. Hip Hop had been acknowledging South Africa and her freedom struggle from day one.

Also in that vein was Arrested Development, who also donated money to the ANC and if memory serves me correctly performed when Mandela came to Oakland at the conclusion of his Free South Africa tour

One of the most prominent groups to address the issue of Apartheid was Stetsasonic the original hip hop band. They did a song that sampled Jesse Jackson who had just come off making a historic run for president. The song was called Free South Africa and was not only a 12-inch single that was promoted and pushed, but had an accompanying video.

Y'all remember this?

The Setsasonic single came out during the hey day of Hip Hop's Golden Era which was ushered in because of a series of secret meetings held at the Latin Quarters, the biggest and most popular nightclub in New York during the mid-'80s. Top artist of the day from The Jungle Brothers to KRS-One to Bambaataa and many others came together and agreed to stop wearing the popular gold dookie chains which were made with gold from South Africa. A fast and hard rule was agreed upon which forbade anyone from performing on the stage wearing gold. The chains were replaced with leather African medallions and essentially ushered in Hip Hop's Golden Era.

The primary architect behind that was Paradise Gray of the legendary group X-Clan who ran the nightclub. He is finishing up a book and documentary along with writer/activist Giuseppe Pipitone about that special period...

Also coming out of that Afrocentric/Golden Era in Hip Hop was Queen Latifah and her song 'Ladies First' many may have forgotten the video that she did which was directed by Fab 5 Freddy who was also hosting Yo MTV Rap. The imagery used in the video shows the resistance to Apartheid.

Hip Hop/New Wave icon Malcolm McClaren best know for the landmark song Buffalo Gals which came out in 83, had on the flip side this song about Soweto:

Here's another video which I forgot. Straight outta of the UK is Brotherhood in the form of the Black Rhyme Organization To Help Equal Rights (B.R.O.T.H.E.R) was a collection of some of the most talented UK Hip Hop artists around in 1989. Instigated by the political ragga-rap group Gatecrash, the main purpose of their debut record, "Beyond the 16th Parallel" was to raise awareness of the racial inequalities of the South African apartheid regime. Assembling an all-star line up, including the late Bernie Grant MP, each of the separate groups had the task of tackling the specifics of the Botha government.

Another group out of the UK that strong addressed Apartheid was the Cookie Crew with one of my all-time favorite songs 'How Long Has this Been Going On.'

In South Africa, there were scores of rappers, but the most potent and most political was Prophets of Da City (POC) who wound up being banned by the government because of their lyrics. They wound up performing at Mandela's inauguration, but remained critical of the government which they felt had been too forgiving to the Afrikaners. They remained banned and were recently the subject of a documentary put together by South African filmmaker Dylan Valley talking about their plight.

We will leave out with a new song from Jasiri X and his new song about Mandela called "Listen to What the Drums Say."

This piece first appeared on Davey D's website hiphopandpolitics.com.