The Power of Music and Madiba: An 89th Birthday Party for Mandela and the History Books (Guest Post)

A group of American and South African students, aged from 11 to 19, met with Nelson Mandela at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg, on 2 June 2009.

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By Ralph Simon as told to Florie Brizel

 

I have often wondered what it must be like to be a front-row witness to history – I mean, to actually be a part of something of great historical significance.  People living in the United States can recall exactly where they were on 9/11 when New York’s Twin Towers fell.  I also thought about history this year on August 28th, the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s great “I Have A Dream” speech, movingly delivered from Abraham Lincoln’s towering monument on the Washington Mall.  The closest I will ever get to that extraordinary moment is hearing it on CD or watching it on TV.
 
But six ago, on the grounds of South Africa’s Constitutional Court in Johannesburg, some 150 people took their seats in a geodesic dome to attend the 89th birthday celebration of former South African President Nelson Mandela.  Situated atop Constitutional Hill, home of the country’s highest court and guardian of its constitution, the Constitutional Court is purposefully built upon the site of a former high security prison that saw some of the worst excesses of the apartheid regime.
 
I was there that day and, for the first time in my life, I excitedly thought I might finally experience something close to a great moment in history.  That African winter morning had many highpoints, to be sure, but what ultimately secured its place in time immemorial was not a speech, but rather, a song.
 
September 77
Port Elizabeth weather fine
It was business as usual
In police room 619
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja (Come spirit),Yihla Moja (Come spirit)
The man is dead

In 1977, South African black political activist Steven Biko was killed while in detention by the South African security police.  The news of his outrageous murder prompted Peter Gabriel to research the context of his death and subsequently write the song “Biko,” released three years later on Gabriel’s third eponymous album (1980).

He wrote it as a means of personal protest and as an attempt to draw worldwide attention to the existence and horrors of apartheid in South Africa.  The song had an immediate and extraordinary political impact around the world.  It made the Top 40 on the UK music charts, became a staple on American college radio stations, and played internationally – but more importantly, it accomplished something tangible: it inspired a generation around the world to heed the call of South Africa’s then-Archbishop Desmond Tutu demanding abolition of the apartheid laws and, also, Nelson Mandela’s release from desolate Robben Island prison.

Peter Gabriel’s song did much more than simply act as a vehicle that reflected his thoughts and feelings about the unfolding tragedy in South Africa.  It also rallied the thousands of disparate and desperate Mandela supporters throughout all of Southern Africa, and inspired an outpouring of support from around the world.  The song ignited awareness, challenged people’s beliefs and, ultimately, changed their lives.

When I try to sleep at night
I can only dream in red
The outside world is black and white
With only one colour dead
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
The man is dead

The anthem-like sound of “Biko,” combined with Gabriel’s plaintive voice singing penetrating lyrics relating the extreme social injustice and political oppression of the time, proved crucial to the song’s emotional impact.  The song would have worked well merely as a song of protest, but it gained its place in posterity by balancing a strong sense of defiance with a belief in the promise of justice to come.  That promise was eventually fulfilled with Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, followed by his free election in 1994 as president of a new, apartheid-free South Africa.
 
Peter Gabriel never forgot Steve Biko or his quest to improve the human condition. In 2001, he conceived the Elders Project. The internationally renowned activist/musician asked former president Nelson Mandela to become a patron, along with Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu.  Six years later, the global launch of The Elders’ mission was smartly scheduled to coincide with Mandela’s 89th birthday…being commemorated inside that geodesic dome on Constitutional Hill.
 
An electric charge permeated the air as people milled about at the entrance to the dome in advance of the program.  Soon, the audience took their seats, and an African choir of about 50 young men and women appeared, lining the entrance to the dome.  A hush fell over the crowd as they began to sing a traditional African song of welcome with their richly woven voices soulfully blending together.
 
Then, the Elders took the stage: Kofi Annan, former head of the UN; Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus; Lee Zhaoxing, former foreign minister of the People’s Republic of China; Dr. Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland; Dame Graca Machel, former Education Minister of Mozambique; Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu; former US President Jimmy Carter; and, former South African President Nelson Mandela.  
 
Desmond Tutu advanced to the microphone, explained the genesis of The Elders, and then invited each honoree, followed by Peter Gabriel, to the lectern to say a few words.  With Tutu alongside him, Gabriel spoke of how Steve Biko’s death had spurred his own activism.  He explained how the irreconcilable murder of someone seeking decency, dignity, and human rights for everyone had had a profound impact on him, which eventually found expression in the form of a song he named in Biko’s memory.

While he spoke, the choir moved forward, almost imperceptibly, from the entrance to the side of the stage.  Gabriel, with Tutu still beside him, slowly turned to face Mandela.  Without breaking his gaze, he threw out a musical note to the choir, which began to hum in rich, harmonic unison.  Eyes still fixed on Mandela, Gabriel began to sing, acappella, the humble song-turned-anthem that helped tip the scales of racial equality toward justice:
 
You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
The man is dead
The man is dead
And the eyes of the world are watching now

Mandela was clearly moved. The choir sustained a gentle hum. Then, a remarkable thing happened:  Desmond Tutu collapsed in tears, holding on to the side of the lectern.  As he struggled in vain to compose himself, Gabriel finished the song and held him close, comforting him all the while in the process.

The geodesic dome fell absolutely silent.
 
Thirty years after its original inspiration, one of the most prominent protest anthems of the apartheid era finally had come full circle as its composer stood tall and proud and intoned his prophetic words to Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, whose lives had become entwined with Steve Biko’s posthumous legacy.  A sacrifice by one, canonized by another, symbolized by two who galvanized an entire people’s struggle that eventually paved South Africa’s long and dusty path to freedom.
 
I was at Constitutional Hill the day Peter Gabriel sang for Nelson Mandela’s birthday and Desmond Tutu cried.  Now, I can say with certainty: I experienced one of those great moments in history…from the front row.

Ralph Simon works in the field of mobile entertainment and music, is a native South African living in London. Florie Brizel is a freelance writer in Los Angeles and co-author of “Words That Shook the World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events” (Prentice Hall Press).

 

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