Sundance doc’y on Paul Simon playing South Africa undercuts power of cultural boycott

on 11 Comments

Whatever you think of Paul Simon’s music and especially Graceland (which I like a lot) a new movie at Sundance about the recording of that album could undercut the BDS campaign against Israel, and especially the cultural boycott. The film Under African Skies follows Paul Simon as he returns to South Africa 25 years after the release of his hugely popular album Graceland. As many of you may not recall, Simon travelled to South Africa in the mid 80’s to record portions of this album at the height of the economic and cultural embargo (boycott) of South Africa–an embargo imposed by the United Nations and supported by the African National Congress. He came under plenty of fire for doing so. 

The movie, while it claims to deal with both sides of the question of whether Simon should have violated the embargo, amounts to a justification for Simon breaking the embargo. It could be said that the primary purpose of the film (which Simon’s brother Eddie helped produce) was to validate his having done so and the right of other cultural figures to do likewise. In this respect the film has a dangerous potential: convincing wide audiences that cultural boycotts such as that against Israel should not be adhered to.

In the film Simon does engage directly with those who disagreed with his breaking the embargo, but he comes off as self-involved, not particularly astute, and never gets the importance of the embargo as a means of ending apartheid. His claim is that he as an artist should be beyond politics and those politicians should not tell him or any artist what they can do. He looks at his violation of the embargo entirely as a question of artistic freedom and has no understanding of its importance. For him, it’s about him. In fact, the original trip to South Africa was made for selfish reasons: his career was in a lull and he wanted to make a new album.

A telling moment in the film is where Simon describes a meeting he had with the African National Congress at which he was told he should not have broken the embargo. (As I recall he had already gone and returned.) Simon reacts by saying that if that’s the kind of government they will be–telling artists what to do—he wants nothing to do with it. He entirely misses the point. The embargo was a political necessity to bring apartheid to an end; it was not about censorship. Here we have Simon claiming that “artistic freedom” was more important than an embargo imposed by the UN and the ANC as a means of ending apartheid. Mandela himself spoke of the importance of the boycott in ending apartheid and commentators have pointed to the isolation of South Africans as key. The fact that Simon was invited back to South Africa by Mandela does not wash away Simon’s actions, especially as he never wavers from his view, justified by this film, that it was right for him to have violated the boycott. 

The film also tries to rationalize Simon’s breaking the embargo by interviewing and filming the Black musicians with whom he worked. They seem to have real affection for him, and Graceland helped launch some of their careers outside of South Africa. The film describes how important it was to bring the voices of Black musicians to the wider world– which arguably helped undercut apartheid. But, of course, that is not the point. Violation of the embargo by someone as famous as Simon undercut a key means of bringing down apartheid—isolating South Africa– and potentially encouraged other artists to do likewise. Moreover, measuring in retrospect whether Graceland helped or hurt apartheid is an after the fact justification.

I still like Graceland. I still listen to Graceland. It is joyful and life affirming. But I will always be haunted by its history.

About Michael Ratner

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11 Responses

  1. Dan Crowther
    January 30, 2012, 10:17 am

    I liked Paul Simon, until I heard the original recordings and music of the people he straight up stole from. He’s the Led Zeppelin of folk music. A musical imperialist.

    The dude played Israel last year as well – and caught some flack for it

    Here’s the presser he did in Tel Aviv:
    “Simon talks about himself as a secular Jew and refers to his puzzlement at being sometimes expected to opine on behalf of Jews in general, especially with regard to Israeli/Palestinian issues. (Simon deliberately avoids commenting specifically on any political issues; of-course as soon as his gig in Tel Aviv was announced he would have begun coming under pressure to cancel it from those who advocate “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” against Israel. Clearly he did not cancel it.)”
    I can understand where the guy is coming from, I mean, half of his fans up and moved to Israel – gotta go where the fans are, right?

  2. Kathleen
    January 30, 2012, 11:20 am

    How many people would howl if Dylan etc went and sang and promoted Palestinian musicians who were singing against Israeli apartheid?

    • jimby
      January 30, 2012, 5:29 pm

      that’s funny. i have read that dylan was an admirer of meir kahane and the jdl. it would be like chuck norris reading rumi.

  3. Walid
    January 30, 2012, 3:41 pm

    The controversial isue keeps creeping up in Beirut since most of the artists that play there also play TA usually either just before or right after, but feelings about boycotting or not of the artists ranges from indifference to the strongly opposed. The local BDS group tried convincing DJs van Buuren and Tiesto from performing in Beirut but didn’t have much public support. Performers that cheer Israel and encourage its occupation should not go to Lebanon. So far, one was blocked from going, the French-Moroccan comedian Gad Elmaleh in 2009 for the Beiteddin music festival because he had been photographed in an IDF uniform cheering the IDF troops during or shortly after Israel’s vicious 2006 war on Lebanon. The Elmaleh controversy is still talked about and debated.

    Last week there was a controversy about the right and wrong of European athletes currently playing on various Lebanese soccer teams having played for Israeli teams, and 3 weeks ago, Canadian singer Lara Fabian cancelled a Beirut concert because the local BDS people had written to her about the wrong of her showing up in Beirut because of her pro-Zionist feelings and she agreed to cancel her show. She had performed at Israel’s 60th anniversary party and sang in Hebrew an Israeli nationalist song that is not complimentary to the Palestinians and declared her love for Israel; her companion is a Zionist, many good reasons for her to not perform in Lebanon. About 10 days ago, she accepted to cancel her show because she didn’t want problems but something must have happened to make her change her mind a couple of days back as her show is back on. Hopefully she’ll change it again and decide to skip Lebanon. She’s in the same cheerleading-for-Israel category as Gad Elmaleh.

    • Shmuel
      January 30, 2012, 3:51 pm

      French-Moroccan comedian Gad Elmaleh … in an IDF uniform cheering the IDF troops during or shortly after Israel’s vicious 2006 war on Lebanon.

      Sorry to hear that. He’s really funny (especially his Quebecois imitation).

  4. marc b.
    January 30, 2012, 4:22 pm

    don’t be too harsh on simon, the whole history of sixties folk music is built on theft and the commercial promotion of lesser talent. for example, crosby, stills and nash is about an organic, authentic development of 60s counterculture as the Monkeys. (or is it with two ee’s, i forget.) apparently crosby couldn’t play a hand of ‘go fish’ without a session musician to back him, never mind playing rythm on guitar. tim buckley, who was an exceptional talent, and was very popular in his day, is largely forgotten while we can’t be but punished with the likes of the mamas and papas and bob dylan on PBS on a weekly basis. i don’t need to hear a classically trained voice, but dylan’s nasal whine sounds like some pre-pubescent with a head cold and a clothes pin on his nose.

    here is buckley doing ‘song to the siren’ and his son’s ‘grace’. out [email protected] standing. too bad he and his son, jeff, had to pack it in prematurely. both incredible talents.

  5. marc b.
    January 30, 2012, 4:25 pm

    this is rank racism. there is no such thing as a ‘funny’ imitation of the quebecois, the inventors of castor oil and beaver ear muffs. not to mention the culinary apex of western culture, poutine. won’t be finding much poutine in rome, i don’t imagine. no italian chef could pull it off.

    • Shmuel
      January 30, 2012, 4:39 pm

      Not bad, marc b., but Elmaleh is better ;-)

      • marc b.
        January 30, 2012, 5:13 pm

        well, us demi-kebeckers have to stick up for one another. me pere, god rest his soul, was originally from st-hyacinthe. btw, elmaleh is probably on target. no matter how many times i’ve been to quebec, i still understand RFI much better than anything i hear one kilometer outside of montreal.

      • Walid
        January 30, 2012, 7:32 pm

        Elmaleh lived in Quebec for a while, so he picked up the patois and could play with it. Many Lebanese familiar with him from France were very pissed off that he couldn’t make it to Lebanon.

        As to Marc with the demies racines maskoutaines and the poutine, there’s only one word to describe it: obscene; but people love it. In a nutshell, it’s a bowl of French fries, topped with small pieces of tasteless odorless squeeky curd cheese and poured over them, dark brown chicken fat/flour gravy with salt and pepper.

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