Friday night it rained in Silver Springs, Maryland, but the crowd gathered outside in the plaza to view Under African Skies sat on the ground anyway. They also gathered on steps decorated with mosaic tiles, sat on concrete ledges, and stood in groups to view Paul Simon’s story about his journey back to Africa 25 years after the successful release of his album “Graceland”. This landmark 80s album was a cross-cultural collaboration between Paul Simon and South African musicians, including LadySmith Black Mambazo and Stimlea. It also disregarded the cultural boycott in place against any artistic exchange between South Africans and people from other countries.
In 1985, apartheid was at the height of political tension, and a cultural boycott had been included as part of international measures to stop the oppression of Africans within their own country. Along with computer sales, arms and embargo restrictions, cultural exchange with South Africans was prohibited. Sounds simple — oppression = bad; freedom = good. But as the story of Under African Skies unfolded on the large outdoor screen beneath a starry sky in Maryland on Friday night, two distinct perspectives on the making of “Graceland” crystallized. The right of the artist to create vs. the needs of the many. While it’s certainly not the first time art and politics have been at odds, Simon put the experience into context when he states it was “one event with many stories”.
Simon’s last album, “Heart and Bones”, had been an unsuccessful release (his first), and he found himself suddenly in a quiet space. In the film he describes the sudden cessation of daily calls from the record company asking to hear lyrics in progress or the “next hit”. During this respite, he found himself listening to a cassette tape titled “Accordion Jive Hits” over and over. After about a month, he realized that this was now his favorite music. He started trying to find the musicians, only to discover that they were South African. Industry professionals recommended that he hire New York musicians to recreate the sound — but Simon was adamant. He wanted authenticity, so he reached around the world to find out if he could collaborate with these musicians. He was invited to Africa, and his search for Graceland began.
The film cuts back and forth in time, weaving Simon’s lessons in Africa with disturbing political images of apartheid silhouetted against this incredibly creative music that became “Graceland”, the album. The editing is seamless; the throughline is the struggle to reconcile the images of an oppressed people with the joyous sounds of music that rise above the din. The process of making music itself was courageous — it balked against both sides of the debate — Apartheid police who didn’t want the voice of the people heard and Artists Against Apartheid who felt that only an all-inclusive boycott would finally bring an end to it.
It is the words of the South African musicians themselves that are the most haunting in the film — “If I have to die, and I die onstage — I will die happy. But if I die in the street, then that would be cowardly.” And later in the film a musician describes unfulfilled dreams of making music and having his artistic voice heard, and asks, “How can you victimize the victim twice?”
Simon brings the impact of bringing these musicians to America home when he tells the story of how they arrived in New York, eager to see Central Park. “Where do we go for a permit,” they asked. Simon explained to them — you don’t need a permit to go to Central Park. You’re free. You can go wherever you want.
The brilliance of this film is that it delicately balances both perspectives on the edge of a sword. You see the despair, the need to boycott — the needs of the many. And also, you see the voice of the individual artist — one for whom the dream of making music that the world will hear becomes a reality. The Saturday Night Live footage of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” captures this moment in time, and it is emphasized by Loren Michael’s narrative of that moment of this new song, of something completely different happening live on stage, and the wall of applause and cheers that filled the studio when the song was finished. And even more appropriately, the song was composed shortly before the show aired because the record company was delaying the release of the album. “We were already booked,” says Simon in the film. So they wrote something new — and the world listened.
Simon’s task of setting lyrics to these rhythms new to him elevated his writing. He had an epiphany where he realized that the lyrics weren’t working because the complexity of the rhythms within the music required a new approach. The bass was the sound to transcribe images to, not the lead guitar. And Graceland was a chorus that would not be ignored — so he made the physical trip to see Graceland in Tennessee. And realized that Graceland was a metaphor for a spiritual journey. For us, the political struggle is over, but the music remains.
In Graceland, in Graceland
I’m going to Graceland
For reasons I cannot explain
There’s some part of me wants to see Graceland
And I may be advised to defend
Every love, every ending
Or maybe there’s no obligations now
Maybe I’ve a reason to believe
We all will be received
*** Paul Simon, Graceland Lyrics
*** Songwriters: KRIKORIAN, STEVEN / SEXTON, CHARLIE
Under African Skies: Directed by Joe Berlinger and starring Paul Simon, Maya Angelou and Okeyerama Asante.