Stevie Van Zandt on Nelson Mandela, Anti-Apartheid Anthem 'Sun City': 'We Named Names' (Q&A)

Steve Van Zandt Nelson Mandela - H 2013
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Steve Van Zandt Nelson Mandela - H 2013

A 1985 break from the E Street Band allowed the guitarist and actor to pull together an all-star record -- among the artists featured on the track: Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Bono and Lou Reed -- and raise awareness about the struggle in South Africa.

How ironic it is that Stevie Van Zandt would be best recognized in the 21st century for playing gangsters who make people bleed when, as a solo recording artist back in the 1980s, he was most known for being a bleeding heart. The social consciousness that was the hallmark of his work in Van Zandt’s years off from Bruce Springsteen’s then-dormant E Street Band found its greatest culmination in “Sun City,” an all-star record he put together to raise awareness about the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

It may be giving rock & roll too much credit to say that music turned the tide in the world putting pressure on the South African regime and ultimately effecting radical change… but then again, it may not. “I ain’t gonna play Sun City” became a refrain in the minds of anyone who was paying attention to music in 1985, with the participation of artists including Springsteen, U2, Bob Dylan, Run-DMC, Keith Richards, Ringo Starr, Lou Reed, and a host of others suddenly turning an issue that most MTV viewers had been blissfully unaware of into a fully international cause celebre.

Van Zandt quit making solo records after reuniting with Springsteen, and now, after making a move into acting with The Sopranos, has a comparable role in a series that’s about to enter its second season -- Lilyhammer, Netflix’s first entry into original content, which comes back Dec. 13. But the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s passing seemed like a good opportunity to get Van Zandt to reminisce about the days when he was helping rub out real-life regimes, not fictional mobsters.

There aren’t that many true happy endings in life. Mandela living to be 95, after almost a quarter-century of freedom, and having been president, feels like one to most people.

In the end, it was one of those very rare complete victories. You don’t get that too often. I was involved with a lot of political issues, and you get an inch here and an inch there, then you get setbacks. But one of the greatest, most thrilling moments of my life was seeing him walk out of that jail [in 1990]. It was unbelievable…. He certainly did his job on the planet. I’m sure he went very peacefully with a very clear conscience. You look now at the TV and see everybody in South Africa dancing and singing and crying at the same time. Mandela was that kind of guy. He would want it to be a celebration of his life rather than a mourning of his death. He was so unbelievably full of life, and so brilliant. Once in a lifetime do you meet a guy like that.

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That must have been very hard to foresee when you were rallying Artists Against Apartheid in the mid-1980s. Didn’t it seem like a hopeless cause at the time?

Are you suggesting that it didn’t always feel like there was a sense of inevitability? [Laughs.] It didn’t feel like that in 1984, I can tell you that. I’d been basically researching all of our foreign policy since World War II, trying to educate myself for the first time in my life, and one of the issues that came up was South Africa. Growing up in America, we always think that we’re the good guys, and here was a clear case where we were on the wrong side. So I decided to talk about some of those issues in the ‘80s within my solo records. And I couldn’t find out much about South Africa at the time. All I was hearing was, they were putting in government reforms, and things were improving down there, and at the same time they were sort of invulnerable. So I went down there twice in ’84, just to do the research. Of course I found out that there was not any reforms really going on. Apartheid was not something you could reform; it had to be eliminated entirely. And so I decided at that point to sit down and figure out a strategy as to how this could be eliminated. The sports boycott was already in place and having a really strong effect down there, and I felt if we could get the cultural boycott in place, we could then be in a very good position to put the economic boycott in place, which would in fact bring the government down. And that’s eventually what happened.

How did that research take you to the song “Sun City”?

I finally decided that this was not just gonna be another song on one of my albums; it’s too important. So I gathered some people to get some attention for the issue. The whole anti-apartheid movement had just kind of hit the wall at that point and was sputtering around. So we did this, with 50 artists, and got a lot of video airplay on MTV and BET, and suddenly we were able to reach out and make it an issue that everybody understood.

To the extent that it really got the ball rolling on a pervasive public awareness internationally, which led to tangible results, you could make a case for this being the most effective rock protest song in history.

People have made that case, sure. People have said that for years.

A lot of the great rock protest songs were after-the-fact, like Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s “Ohio,” rather than something you could point to as leading to a cure.

Yeah, in a political sense, that certainly could be argued. Certainly “We Are the World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas” were very, very effective for their own purposes, but those purposes were specifically not political, and mine was specifically political. So it’s a very different sort of way of measuring these things. But yeah, you’re right. “Ohio” would have been absolutely part of the formation of my entire being. That sort of thing was completely inspirational in its way, along with the Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers and Gil Scott Heron, plus Bob Dylan of course being No. 1 bringing the realism of lyrics into our pop culture. Without songs like “Ohio,” it wouldn’t even have been something that you would conceive of doing.

Since the height of socially conscious rock in the Vietnam era, there have been generations of young people who haven’t really been trained to believe that music can make a significant difference.

Part of it is that we crossed the line from social concerns specifically into political. I mean, we named names. We named Ronald Reagan’s name at the height of his popularity. He’s in the song as one of the bad guys. [Laughs.] Which he was, of course. That was sort of the difference. Then we measured our success by the fact that we had such a groundswell that the congressmen’s kids were coming home asking the congressmen, “What’s this all about, this South Africa thing?” And sure enough, when it came time, the anti-apartheid act was legislated. Reagan of course vetoed it, and for the first time, his veto was overturned. That was the beginning of the end. That was how we measured our success, by having the strength within Congress to overturn a Reagan veto, which was unprecedented at the time. Then all of a sudden things started to fall like dominos. Once the banks couldn’t support that evil empire anymore, the government fell, and out comes Mandela, and the rest is history. But it looked like a reaaaaaaal long shot at the time.

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“Sun City” wasn’t a radio hit like “We Are the World.”


Yet somehow it permeated the consciousness of those of us who were around as young people in the mid-‘80s.

Many people have said that to me. [Rage Against the Machine guitarist] Tom Morello the other day spoke about how it really started his whole political consciousness. But it was everywhere. MTV and BET both really did play it quite often. I went and met with both of them and really pleaded the case, and everybody sort of got on board. But you’re right -- it was too black for white radio and too white for black radio, sort of ironically expressing our own apartheid!

That was very much a part of the whole project, reminding people how we are not that far removed from these sort of things ourselves. I mean, when I was down there [in South Africa], I had to be very humble about it. We were less than 20 years from our own [racial breakthroughs] -- our own housing act in ‘68, our voting rights act in ‘65, civil rights in ‘64. Plus, the entire homeland policy down there -- which was the evil strategy to get all the black South Africans out of South Africa, return them to these phony homelands, and then declare those homelands as independent countries, and then having done that, declare South Africa to be a democracy, and then bring those same black workers back as immigrant labor -- that was based on, basically, our Indian reservations and our Native American situation. So there were plenty of parallels to our own country that I was quite aware of.

In 1988 you played at a huge 70th birthday celebration for Mandela in London, when he was still imprisoned. What was the mood like by then?

That was quite intense. We ended up doing two of them. One was to get him out of jail, in 1988, and one was to celebrate when he got out of jail, in 1990. It was wonderful for unifying my Artists United Against Apartheid with their anti-apartheid groups over there, and bringing together all of the people who had written (anti-apartheid songs), like Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” and Jerry Dammers’ “Free Nelson Mandela.” I don’t think Gil Scott Heron was there, but he should have been, because he had the first one of them all, called “Johannesburg.” Of course I had him on the “Sun City” record. That first one was ostensibly a celebration of his birthday, but of course it wasn’t. It was very much a nonstop marathon telethon to get him out of jail. And things like that actually did work, combined, of course, with the economic sanctions, which really were the bottom line.

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How were your efforts received in South Africa initially?

Mandela’s beginnings were with the whole armed struggle, and when you went down there, you realized how bad it was. It was brutal, and you certainly couldn’t blame them for trying to fight back. When I first went, just to meet with people was a challenge. To get them to be honest with me was another challenge, because it was illegal to endorse sanctions. I was trying to figure out what was going on and how people really felt about the sanctions, and ultimately trying to get them to endorse my strategy. So I had to very respectfully tell them, “Listen, I don’t blame you for picking up these guns and fighting back, but you cannot win that way. We can win this war, but it’s gonna be won on TV.” And trying to tell somebody who doesn’t have electricity that “You’re gonna win the war on TV” was a bit of a challenge! [Laughs.] Eventually they endorsed what I was doing, and got Mandela’s tacit endorsement through the ANC from prison. They figured they had nothing to lose, obviously.

Do you have a favorite memory from the “Sun City” sessions?

I think Miles Davis walking in there was the high point for me, because he’s just one of those guys you’re probably not going to work with under any other circumstances. He was the longest shot. He was a very, very tough guy. And we did not have it organized like Quincy [Jones] or Bob [Geldof] did. Whenever people showed up, we would call up our poor video guy and say, “Wake up, Miles Davis just walked in” at 2 in the morning. And it wasn’t like people were each assigned a line. I had everybody come in and basically do the whole song or capture their own way of expressing how they felt about the issue. Which is why the song turned into an album, eventually, because we had so many cool things. Miles Davis played the whole six-minute track, but I could only really use about 15 seconds at the beginning. I’m not gonna leave five and a half minutes of Miles Davis on the floor -- that’s not gonna happen! So we brought in Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams and Ron Carter and had them play to Miles, and created a song around it. When Miles came in, he sat down and I said, “Let me play you the track.” I played him the track and started to talk to him about it, and he leans over and in that whispery voice says, “You want me to play, or what?” [Laughs.] It was like, “What are you wasting my time for by playing me this song? You got me here, I am with you against the South African regime, but let me play!” I’m like, okay, babe!

Did you ever feel like at the time like maybe you were tilting at windmills by wanting to create a change with apartheid, or did you have a real glimmer of hope?

I’m not that patient [to engage in a hopeless cause]. I’m not that sophisticated, to be honest, where I can sort of slooooowly inch away at things, thinking “Well, this will be solved 200 years from now, as long as we take one step at a time.” I envy those kind of people who do that heartbreaking work all around the world, trying to feed people ... they feed one person and there are two more hungry the next day. I totally respect those people, but I’m a results-oriented person and I have no patience. I had ADD way before it was fashionable. So if I’m gonna get into this, I intend to solve it. This was one of those cases where, yes, it was a real long shot -- I was aware of that. But at the same time, by being down there, feeling it and knowing certain things, you could see vulnerabilities, like how much they hated not being able to compete in the Olympics. I mean, some of these Afrikaaners were just the most egotistical people I’ve ever encountered. And I live in a world of egomaniacs! I’m one of them. But I’d never seen anything like this attitude they had. So I knew they were very, very vulnerable when it came to issues of sanctions. I did believe, logically, that if we were able to publicize this issue the proper way, things would be in fact inevitable.

Watch the "Sun City" video below:

Twitter: @chriswillman