Life, Politics, Pop Culture

Mandela, Music, and the Education of a College Radio DJ

To begin, my knowledge of South Africa, apartheid, or Nelson Mandela was never formed by Toto. (Really, CBS?)

In 1980, I bought Peter Gabriel’s third album (the “Melt” cover) for the low, low price of $3.99 at Believe in Music. “Games Without Frontiers” caught my ear on WLAV, and I memorized the rest of the album lyrics after repeated plays on my portable stereo system. The final track, “Biko”, with its stark chords and African choral background piqued my interest. Who was this Biko?


Fast forward five years to my senior year at Eastern Kentucky University, home of the Colonels and fledgling campus radio station, WDMC. A 12″ mix of something called “Sun City” reached my music director desk. Great, another all-star fund raiser, I thought. We’d already worn out the grooves of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and USA for Africa’s “We Are the World”. Good songs, good causes, helped thousands of people.

But “Sun City” was different. What began as a research project by Little Steven Van Zandt became an unforgettable seven minutes of jazz, rock, rap, and pop. “Sun City” raised awareness not only of apartheid, but of the Reagan Administration’s role to stop economic sanctions against South Africa.

This song changed my way of thinking about the political power of music. As Little Steven mentioned in an interview with NPR’s Here and Now, “Not only does art transcend politics, art is politics.”

Today, as we remember the life of Madiba, and celebrate Human Rights Day, it’s important to remember these songs of social protest.

Where are the voices of protest today?

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