James Leroy Wilson's blog

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Constructive Engagement

I saw most of the tribute to Paul Simon on PBS this evening, in the event of his being awarded the first-ever Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. The group Ladysmith Black Mambazo performed, bringing to mind Simon's 1986 Graceland album that propelled them to the world stage.

At the time, South Africa's apartheid regime was a pariah. Several countries of the British Commonwealth boycotted the Commonwealth Games because Margaret Thatcher's Britain, host of the event, had not imposed economic sanctions against South Africa. Ronald Reagan's "constructive engagement" approach to South Africa was a sore point for many American black leaders, and didn't help Republican chances with blacks. The United Nations even created a blacklist of entertainers who performed in South Africa. But Simon, whose career was in decline at that point, traveled to South Africa and recorded most of Graceland there, and featured many black South African musicians.

The rest is, well, history. Graceland became an international sensation and cemented Simon's reputation forever. It also caused America's bourgeois upper middle-brow to embrace world music - even domestic forms such as zydeco. It helped make the South African situation real to more outsiders, who only knew in abstract terms that blacks were segregated and couldn't vote. Graceland was a triumph for South African culture, but an embarrassment for the South African government.

Graceland won't go down as the "greatest album of all time," though it's definitely in the Top 100. What makes it special in the annals of rock is that it really did expand the cultural horizons of its listeners. And although his interests were entirely musical, Paul Simon helped inspire more social and political change than UN blacklists ever could. Positive change is the result of individuals pursuing their subversive dreams, not of governments making grandstanding rules.

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