“Free Nelson Mandela
21 years in captivity
Shoes too small to fit his feet
His body abused but his mind is still free
Are you so blind that you cannot see? I said…
Free Nelson Mandela, I’m begging you
Free Nelson Mandela…”
Given the media coverage since his death on Thursday, most readers likely know of Nelson Mandela’s passing. The 95 year-old South African leader had been seriously ill for some time. As the ubiquity of tributes attest, Mandela became an icon of resolution and justice in the face of his nation’s system of racial Apartheid.
It would be easy to simply join the chorus of voices extolling the statesman’s great virtues; but to do so would betray the complexity of the man; and ignore some of the more subtle impacts he had on our common global culture.
Mandela’s impact on popular culture emanates from many sources, but one of the more interesting positions him as artistic subject rather than political visionary. In 1983, Jerry Dammers — the founder of the multiracial English ska-punk band The Specials, later renamed The Special AKA, attended an anti-apartheid concert in London. Dammers later admitted that he knew little of the movement and less about Mandela. After the concert, he was moved to compose his own contribution to the cause.
What resulted was an up-tempo ska track named “Free Nelson Mandela.” It was catchy, danceable and contained a potent message that awakened a global conscience. Released in 1984, the song became a top 10 hit in the United Kingdom and the movement’s unofficial anthem.
“It ends with the thing of ‘I’m begging you’ and then ‘I’m telling you.’ It is a demand but in a positive way; it brought some sort of hope that the situation could be sorted out,” Dammers told CNN.
At the time of Dammers’ writing, Mandela had been held captive on South Africa’s infamous Robben Island for more than 20 years. As a member of the African National Congress and advocate of guerrilla attacks, Mandela was frequently arrested and eventually convicted in 1964, along with other ANC leaders, for sabotage.
Before Dammers’ song, Mandela’s plight — along with that of black South Africans — was something of a boutique cause. Once the percussively driven tune hit the airwaves, the world took notice.
Beyond fandom, “Free Nelson Mandela” inspired other artists to stage a boycott against performing in South Africa. According to CNN, the song’s popularity motivated a 1988 concert in London’s Wimbley Stadium. Organized by Dammers and the band Simple Minds, the Nelson Mandela 70th birthday concert featured acts such as Dire Straits, George Michael and Sting. Peter Gabriel played “Biko” about another anti-apartheid activist, while Steven Van Zandt performed his influential song “Sun City.” The event was watched by a global television audience of 600 million and is credited with hardening popular opposition internationally to the apartheid regime.
Today, it may be hard for young people to imagine the trajectory needed for a song like “Free Nelson Mandela” to become the inspirational vehicle it did. In 1984, there was no Internet, no YouTube. Mtv was a fledgling enterprise. Social movements were analog and slow to foment. Even so, Dammers’ inspirational musical missive managed to move a generation; and helped Mandela move a nation.