“I can feel so much light and beauty in here,” the singer told the 70 000-plus crowd. The couple also made full use of the other performers on the festival line-up: Pharrell Williams stepped onto the stage for a relaxed rendition of “Nice’ while Ed Sheeran joined Beyoncé for a delicately delivered, first-ever live performance of “Perfect Duet," off Sheeran’s Divide.
Sheeran is due to tour South Africa in March next year, and his expansive appeal was evident in a rousingly-received performance which included “Shape of You” and “Thinking Out Loud." Improbably filling a huge stage — designed to switch between the music and the regular announcements of Global Citizen commitments by heads of states and business leaders — Sheeran’s live looping allowed him to showcase a musical simplicity that was, along with Kacey Musgraves’ country-inflected set, a counterpoint to the festival’s high-energy performances.
Along with Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, Musgraves was largely unknown to the crowd, but both demonstrated an appealing unshowiness, with Vedder taking seriously the citizen activism message of Global Citizen. His solo set was threaded with action-directed messages, made haunting use of the Grammy Award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir on “Better Man” and ended with a version of John Lennon’s call to peace, “Imagine."
Festival curator, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, was like everyone’s congenial musical brother, turning up several times — including (on piano) with Musgraves — and helping deliver one of the music debuts of the night, a collaboration between Cassper Nyovest and Stormzy. Titled “Timbuktu”, the track (which also features the Coldplay-in-disguise group Los Unidades and Jess Kent) is one of four on the just-released Martin-overseen Global Citizen – EP 1 (Parlophone).
Smartly placed on the line-up just ahead of The Carters, Nyovest is a homegrown hip-hop heavyweight who had come to the event fresh off his own stadium-filling show in the coastal city of Durban the previous night. Nyovest’s ongoing sonic nod to his South African music heritage was highlighted when he was joined by the legendary mbaqanga group, the Mahotella Queens, for “Malome," while the festival’s own activist lineage was underscored by the appearance of Bob Geldof. Former Boomtown Rats leader Geldof delivered a moving, honest appraisal of Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy that ended with a solo performance of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song." “This is where I blow JAY-Z and Beyoncé off the stage,” the co-founder of Live Aid said with his trademark irony.
Other highlights included the much-anticipated collaboration between Usher and South African DJ and producer Black Coffee — a mash-up of “We Dance Again” and “Without You,” Usher’s hit with David Guetta. The performance, early on in the show, gave the American star the opportunity to showcase his grasp of the distinctly South African dance, the Gwara Gwara (recently favoured by Rihanna and Childish Gambino). It also set the scene for a festival where dancing was a recurring backdrop to performances, or took center stage, as in the blistering set by South Africa’s rising star, Sho Madjozi. The festival additionally illuminated the dominance of Nigerian artists in Africa’s push into the global music scene with powerful appearances by Wizkid, D’banj, Tiwa Savage and Femi Kuti.
The latest iteration of the Global Citizen Festival honored the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth (July 18, 1918) giving most of the speakers -- which included Oprah Winfrey -- an opportunity to pay tribute to the late global icon through quotes and tributes. The festival was hosted by The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, who grew up in Soweto, the South African township that borders on the FNB Stadium. Noah struck an easy balance between the festival’s serious messages of urgent global social change and the entertainment that was at its heart.
Watch some of the highlights below.