Monday, May 7, 2012

The Politics of Paul Simon's Graceland

The 25th Anniversary of Paul Simon's Graceland has been an occasion for celebration but it is also an opportunity to reflect on the controversies that the album produced when it came out in the 1980s. Many of the details are addressed in a recent article by Robin Denselow in the Guardian.

I can't help but feel ambivalent about the record. On the one hand, I grew up listening to it and I readily admit that it was because of that record that I got into South African music in general. I'm sure other people--particularly people in the US--had this experience or something like it. As many of the musicians involved in recording Graceland have gone on to argue, the record gave black South African music an unprecedented level of international exposure.

But things are not as simple as that.

Graceland appeared against the backdrop of a global solidarity effort with black South Africans aiming to topple the apartheid regime through sanctions, cultural boycotts and divestment strategies. There was growing international consciousness about the injustice in South Africa at the time, buoyed by coalitions of artists and musicians all fighting to draw attention to the oppression of black South Africans and the collaboration of imperialist powers (especially Washington) in perpetuating that oppression. As Denselow explains:
There had already been a batch of songs attacking the brutality of apartheid, from Stevie Wonder's It's Wrong to Peter Gabriels' powerful Biko and Jerry Dammers and the Special AKA's classic protest song, (Free) Nelson Mandela. And there were campaigns to stop musicians performing in South Africa, with the likes of Dylan, Springsteen and Bono joining Steve Van Zandt in the recording of Sun City, attacking those who performed in the South African entertainment complex in the so-called "homeland" of Bophuthatswana.

Those who did so were accused of breaking a UN-approved cultural boycott, which had been in effect since December 1980. After all, the wording of Resolution 35/206 was surely clear: "The United Nations General Assembly request all states to prevent all cultural, academic, sporting and other exchanges with South Africa. Appeals to writers, artists, musicians and other personalities to boycott South Africa. Urges all academic and cultural institutions to terminate all links with South Africa."

The resolution was enthusiastically endorsed by the Artists Against Apartheid movement, and offending musicians including Rod Stewart and Queen, who had been attracted by generous fees to play at Sun City, all promised not to return.
So there is some question as to whether Simon broke the cultural boycott of South Africa and thereby wounded the international solidarity effort. Moreover, there is the question of why Simon--as opposed to numerous other musicians--didn't take an explicit, strident position of opposition to the white-run apartheid regime. Simon himself says, variously, that he didn't want to speak on behalf of the South Africans by saying anything political or that he simply wasn't interested in the politics but only the culture and the music. The former is surely a rationalization, since there was nothing paternalist about condemning the oppression of black South Africans and heeding their own calls for solidarity. The latter claim is probably closer to the truth but, as we will see below, this ostensibly "non-political" stance is itself political.

Denselow spends a lot of time examining the question of whether Simon broke the boycott and this can begin to feel a touch technical: Simon didn't perform publicly, he just recorded, so does that constitute a violation of the boycott? But this misses the main issue: the question of how to relate to the oppressive, racist regime in power. Simon's decision to go to South Africa and record with musicians there should be evaluated in that spirit--that is, in the spirit of judging whether what he did advanced the struggle for the liberation of black South Africans.

Denselow suggests that Simon should have contacted the ANC and attempted to seek their approval (something he said he did but in fact didn't). That sounds right to me, but the mere fact of ANC approval would not have redeemed the entire album from all criticisms.

At any rate, Simon argues that he was right to refuse to seek the approval of the ANC:
"Personally, I feel I'm with the musicians," he said. "I'm with the artists. I didn't ask the permission of the ANC. I didn't ask permission of Buthelezi, or Desmond Tutu, or the Pretoria government. And to tell you the truth, I have a feeling that when there are radical transfers of power on either the left or the right, the artists always get screwed. The guys with the guns say, 'This is important', and the guys with guitars don't have a chance."
I find this argument deeply unsatisfying. It shirks the issue and then tries to appeal to some kind of extra-political artistic neutrality by invoking a Cold-War opposition ("the radical Right and the radical Left are both equally bad: what we need is American "moderation" and "freedom", etc.). But there's no way to be neutral here--to ignore the apartheid regime's oppressive character while nonetheless intervening in South African culture is itself a political stance. Taken at face value, Simon appears to be saying to those for or against apartheid: "a pox on both your houses... stop making this about politics... if either of you get what you want the artists will get screwed."

To be sure, in the name of the Left, Stalinism destroyed artistic freedom and crushed the radical, avant-garde cultural movements that arose in the wake of the revolution. Radical artistic currents such as constructivism were banned and a monstruous ultra-conservative neo-classicism was mandated from above by the new ruling class of bureaucrats led by Stalin that had crystallized by the late 1920s. And, of course, the fascist assault on modernism on grounds of "cultural Bolshevism" is well known. In both of these cases, the artists did get screwed (along with a long list of other groups, I might add, from the working-class and the Left to national minorities and other oppressed groups). The cultural reaction embodied in Stalinism, on the one hand, and fascism, on the other, has traditionally been used by Cold Warriors to exonerate the US and slander any attempt to radically re-think the relationships between art and society. It has been used as a powerful means of insulating the status quo from any form of radical criticism. Simon's point that the "artists always get screwed" by "extreme" politics is, at rock bottom, little more than re-articulation of that Cold War trope.

These are interesting questions, but they still don't get to the heart of the matter. Whether or not Simon asked permission from the ANC, whether or not he had a song with a lyric or two explicitly denouncing apartheid, and whether or not he actually broke the boycott, important (social and political) questions about the nature of the music itself remain.

What, for instance, should we say about the cultural/artistic encounter between Simon, the white American musical star, and the black South African musicians with whom he collaborated? What were the power relations between them and what were the basic assumptions that grounded their interactions?

Collaborative though it was in many respects, it was still a Paul Simon record. Simon gathered together recordings of South African musicians, remixed them, and added his own melodies and lyrics on top of them in some cases. Simon had final say over every artistic detail on the record. Alone with other American engineers in a studio in New York, Simon spliced together things he liked and discarded things he didn't. The final record reflected the perspective of Simon vis-a-vis the South African cultural landscape he intervened in and drew from. It wasn't a dialogue among equals, and neither was it (as Simon sometimes claims it was) an attempt to showcase South African music to the world. It was Paul Simon's perspective that defined the contours of the final cut of the record, for better or worse.

Was this necessarily a bad thing? Does it evince a kind of top-down approach in which Simon saw himself as standing above and, to some extent, using the others?  The truth is likely to be a complicated combination of both. The fact that Simon could casually fly in, cherry pick here and there according to his own artistic judgments, and use what suited him draws our attention to a big asymmetry in power between them. But, of course, Simon himself can hardly be blamed for the structural relations of domination that were in place in Apartheid South Africa and, indeed, between powerful imperialist powers and less powerful countries in the Global South. That he chose to work with cultural materials drawn from black South Africa was both a personal (for Simon) endeavor as well as a public project whose meaning is multi-faceted and surely not 100% bad.

But to say that Paul Simon did South African music a service by drawing international attention to is a complicated matter. As a matter of fact, his record did draw attention to South African music and many musicians unknown outside of Africa subsequently launched successful international careers. Still, Jonas Gwangwa's remark that "so it has taken another white man to discover my people?" is apt because it captures the fact--rooted in the oppression and marginalization of black South Africans--that it took the social power of a wealthy North American record label--and a well-known white musician--to enable South African music to receive some modicum of recognition for what they had been doing all along. A state of affairs in which a well-known, wealthy white musician from North America is needed to grant subaltern musicians access to international audiences is wrong. But the wrongness of that state of affairs is one thing, and the question of what individuals do to act within it is another. Simon cannot reasonably be held responsible for that state of affairs, but his actions within this context are eminently criticizable.

As I see it, the most problematic political element of the Graceland phenomenon pertains to the following point made by Marxist critic Fredric Jameson about the:
"...need for the first world to constantly cannibalize fresh sources of cultural production. Hence the vogue of black vernacular speech in the United States. Black language is still alive, and is constantly reinventing itself. The white cultural power structure cannibalizes that, draws on it, co-opts it, if you like, and re-invigorates itself. This is now going on in the world writ-large; if you look at music, for example, the way in which black music, South African music, is being used int he first world. It's probably wrong to call it completely exploitative. the argument has to be more complicated today. Paul Simon's Graceland is not only plagiarism, cultural theft, or whatever, it's also a form of cultural diffusion which is comparable, if you like, in mass culture to what the Romantics did for world culture in the early nineteenth century. It's a complicated matter that has many positive features, but it also signals the exhaustion of the capacity of first world societies to produce their own culture."
This analysis seems to me right on target. As I've said, it would be wrong to simply see in the Graceland phenomenon nothing but pure exploitation and cultural appropriation. It would be wrong to see nothing but an encounter structured by imperialist global relations. A touch of ambivalence is required for several reasons--not least of which the danger lurking here if we simply render the South African musicians who played on Graceland as mere victims. As many have said (e.g. Ray Phiri), they used Paul Simon in some ways just as he surely used them. This isn't to suggest that we read the cultural encounter here as one of complete symmetry--what I've said above still stands and clearly militates against such a facile conclusion. But it does introduce a degree of complexity that acknowledges the agency of South African musicians operating in a field that is structured by imperialism and neo-colonial power relations at the global level.


JM said...

I recall Lady Smith Black Mombazo saying they were happy that Paul Simon gave them some exposure, so there's something. I also recall one of the songs mentioning Biko.
As for the Mandela and the ANC, they didn't turn out as leftist in the end although Tutu, it should be said, seems the most progressive of them, he called for reparations for the South African apartheid victims from the companies that participated in the country.

t said...

I agree that its significant that many of the musicians involved were happy to get the exposure, and I note this in the post. The musicians weren't mere victims--they had an active role in the project even though there contextual factors that made it difficult for them to stand on equal footing with Simon and the big money and social power behind him.

I will be the first to say that the ANC has contradictions, that Mandela and ever subsequent ANC leader has compromised with the local and international ruling class, etc. In the post I link to a blog post from a few years back where I looked at a debate on the current (frustrating) state of the ANC today.

In that post I discuss an (excellent) article written by Patrick Bond which points out that when mass movements are mobilized in South Africa, they have the effect of exerting "powerful checks on plutocratic leaders". The larger issue, however, is to understand "how popular protests around water, jobs, housing and living standards were diverted into a fight against Thabo Mbeki, rather than Mbekism -the system as a whole".

The question here that I find interesting is this: "why does the Left remain shackled to the ANC leadership, when South Africa's pure PR electoral system offers it a good chance of independent representation on a platform that would undoubtedly resonate with important sectors of the population?" As always, the liberation of the masses in South Africa is intimately tied up with the self-activity of the working class locally and internationally.

Richard said...

a belated comment: while the insight of cultural imperialism is clearly accurate, as it is in other instances, like Bonnie Raitt, for example, the reverse side of this coin is the rejection of musical cultures more indigenous to first world musicians, which, while it would be inaccurate to describe them in racially homogeneous terms, don't quite involve the extremes of appropriation here, for example, consider Johnny Cash and country music more generally, as well as punk and forms of experimental music that evolved out of classical music and the creative use of modern technology

hence, the question becomes why people like Paul Simon and Bonnie Raitt, unlike others, found themselves drawn to engage in this cultural imperialism at all

Anonymous said...

Simon reinvograted his career by making this record (which drew on the energy of cultural production in South African music). He got quite a lot of out of it--and as you put it, Graceland was still a "paul simon record" even though it required collaboration to come about.

I've always been bothered by the problem of what to say about solo records by certain artists who collaborated with others in the course making the album. To call it simply a "so-and-so album" seems unfair.

JM said...

Speaking of Africa also, did you see this from a maoist blog, granted, but..
Compare that to the zimbabwe articles found here and it seems that Zimbabwe is trying to improve their popularity with people, but I'd say it's also sorta late for that what with past oppressions and the like

Anonymous said...

You say nothing about the irony of the title "Graceland". Elvis, of course, is the "king" of appropriating black culture, gentrifying it, and profiting big while giving the musicians who got him there the short end of the stick. Elvis bought up songs from black musicians for pennies and then turned around and made millions off of them. I'm not saying Simon is the same as Elvis. But the irony here is striking.

Anonymous said...

Paul McCartney stated that "The Beatles re-packaged American black blues music, sold it overseas back to white kids"....I can't see that Simon did not know what he was doing would rattle a few cages in the political world during that time...but hey Graceland is still a great album!

Anonymous said...

The real story of Graceland and Paul Simon is about a singer songwriter named Heidi Berg. Paul had two flops and was going through a divorce when Lorne Michaels introduced him to her. She was the bandleader of his "New Show" in 1983. Paul agreed to be her producer and they were working on her album. She was an accordionist, guitarist, singer and she had found a tape of African Accordion Music which she was inspired by and wanted to use as a production idea and feel for her record. Simon asked her to lend it to him and he would give her his opinion. He took the tape and ran to South Africa bought all the rights, used the exact tracks and sang his lyrics over them. Added horns and crap. Never gave Heidi a penny. Tried to erase the entire truth. He told the world that his "friend" Heidi gave him a gift. He is a lowlife thief. Talented, and completely without a soul.

Anonymous said...

great album with dark edges, google :los lobos/paul simon

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

fuck paul simon, death to all white people

Anonymous said...

It is ironic that after all these many decades, the great Paul Simon has not had another breakthrough idea similar in it's creativity and uniqueness to Graceland. My guess is that talented unspoiled young artists like Heidi Berg who have influences and inspirations not available to dying old con men like Simon, now avoid him like the plague. Like Anne Rice's Vampire Lestat, who in his weakened state was forced to feed on the blood of sewer rats and swamp lizards, old broken evil Simon has stolen all he could from a now wary world. He has even tried artistic theft by means of marriage and ended up in a drunken brawl with his wife. Both looking worse for wear and talking to the cops. May he get his just desserts. May his children know him for who he really was. May we all get what we deserve in the end.