Mandela: the three syllables not only refer to the legendary anti-apartheid leader and former President of South Africa, but serve as a modern synonym for equality, freedom and revolution. Nelson Mandela’s legacy continues to endure in hearts and history books, and his ideals will continue to serve as inspiration in popular music.
Today (July 18) marks Nelson Mandela Day, the internationally recognized day of service which is being celebrated for the first time since his death on Dec. 5, 2013. From Public Enemy to Youssou N’Dour to Santana to U2, some of music’s biggest stars have tipped their caps to the revered statesman in their songs, albums and even poems. Check out these 10 particularly memorable musician tributes to Nelson Mandela:
U2, “Ordinary Love”
U2 made this heartfelt song for the newly released film “Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom,” a biopic on the man himself. When “Ordinary Love” dropped weeks ago, it was first new material from the rock band since 2010’s “Soon,” premiered on the “U2 360 at the Rose Bowl” soundtrack. With lyrics like, “We cannot reach any higher/ If we can’t feel ordinary love,” Bono tried to embody what Mandela stood for.
Masekela, a Grammy-nominated jazz musician from South Africa, recorded this track in 1987, and sings that he “wants to see him (Mandela) walking down the streets of South Africa tomorrow.”
Unlike most protest songs, “Free Nelson Mandela” moves to a celebratory beat and a cheerful chorus — but the message is still a plea for the imprisoned Mandela to be released. “His body abused, but his mind still free” is sung of Mandela, who had been serving 21 years in prison at the time the song was written. Produced by Elvis Costello, the single was performed on the “Top of the Pops” in 1984.
N’Dour is one of Senegal’s most famous cultural icons, and his genre-bending repertoire has found him collaborating with Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, and Wyclef Jean. In 1986, N’Dour released an album entitled “Nelson Mandela,” as a tribute to the future President of South Africa.
One of the most influential hip-hop groups in history, Public Enemy was never short on righteous political messages — and it should be no surprise that one of their most iconic tracks name-checked Mandela. In “Prophets of Rage,” Chuck D raps “We have a reason why to debate the hate,” while Mandela is mentioned in the company of other prominent leaders in the anti-segregation movement.
Unlike most tribute songs in pop, this1988 Carlos Santana cut was written as an instrumental, and was also performed at Mandela’s 70th Birthday Celebration. The song obviously does not nod to Mandela explicitly, the unmistakable guitar tone and Latin percussion act as an enduring paean from the multi-platinum musician.
Simple Minds is best remembered for its 1985 hit “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” which became a classic after it was used in the “Brat Pack” favorite “The Breakfast Club.” Three years later, the group performed this tribute track at Mandela’s 70th Birthday Celebration at Wembley Stadium. The song served as a banner of hope as the band sang, “The tears are flowing wipe them from your face I can feel his heartbeat moving deep inside.”
2pac, “Just a Breath of Freedom (4 Nelson Mandela)”
Tupac Shakur’s poem acts as a letter of praise to Mandela for his decades of struggle in the name of equal rights. “Held captive 4 your politics/ They wanted 2 break your soul/ They ordered the extermination of all minds they couldn’t control,” Pac writes about Mandela’s journey.
Soon after Tracy Chapman rose to fame for her No. 1 self-titled album in 1988, she found herself writing and performing this Mandela protest song at his 70th Birthday Celebration. A constant spokeswoman for social change, Chapman’s song speaks against a society that kills and destroys that which it doesn’t understand. The most memorable verse from the track reads, “Soon must come the day/ When the righteous have their way/ Unjustly tried are free/And people live in peace I say/ Give the man release/ Go on and set your conscience free/ Right the wrongs you made/ Even a fool can have his day.”
Written as a mix of Zulu and English, the title of this Mandela freedom track is Zulu for “We have not seen him”; at that point, no one had seen Mandela outside of prison for more than two decades. Hailing from South Africa, Clegg stirred up controversy for not only writing this protest hit, but for also having bandmates of different races during the days of Apartheid. In 1999, the band was joined onstage by Mandela during a performance of “Asimbonanga.”