The reach of oppression can be vast. The poor, outspoken, different, and dissonant are often harmed by political and social persecution; however, oppression can also hinder another foundational element of culture: artistic expression. In its fight against racial segregation, the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa established a cultural boycott during the 1960s. The purpose of the boycott was to demonstrate international disapproval of the racist policies instilled by the South African National Party. Various multinational efforts to isolate South Africa with regard to film, sport, and music persisted until the lifting of apartheid in 1994.
A new documentary playing on SnagFilms, Under African Skies, tells the story of Paul Simon's 1985 trip to South Africa to record his now-legendary, Grammy- winning album Graceland. Through interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel, Quincy Jones, Lorne Michaels, and Paul Simon himself, the film highlights the musical, historical, and cultural significance of Simon's album. Graceland is undoubtedly praiseworthy and pivotal; however, Under African Skies examines the broader power of music, and more specifically, how this power affects oppression.
In a country torn apart by racism, Paul Simon connected with his black band members in a way that speaks to the unifying force of art and music, a force capable of transcending oppression and political turmoil. Simon's guitarist and longtime friend Ray Phiri refers to music as the closest thing to religion, and believes in music as a tool to bring people together to "find solutions to their problems." In his view, that is exactly what Graceland achieved. Along with Phiri, Simon's band members were bound together by their musical collaboration, and this bond remains firmly intact.
Although creating Graceland was a transcendent personal experience for the musicians, Simon drew a firestorm of criticism for violating the cultural boycott. Not surprisingly, his toughest critics are former members of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. In their view, Simon's presence in South Africa was counterproductive to their struggle to isolate the racist National Party and end apartheid. Under African Skies maintains a tension between Simon's faith and love of music and the harsh reality of racial tension that pervades the nation. This tension builds throughout Simon's account of the formation of Graceland, and pressure to stop recording only added to theme of artistic repression in South Africa. Watch the full story of the making of Graceland and see both the lives of those who were forever affected by the album and the dramatic global response to Simon's time in South Africa. Under African Skies will be available on snagfilms.com through August 16th.