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“Under African Skies” and a very fine line.

June 24, 2012

Jesus’ face was black as night / the pale yellow moon shone in his eyes

His path was marked / by the stars in the southern hemisphere

And he walked the length of his days / under African skies…

I received Paul Simon’s Graceland as a cassette tape (woah remember those) for my eleventh birthday. Now, I loved this freakin’ album but, being eleven, I was completely unaware of the controversy surrounding the album’s initial release (basically, in a really small and incomplete nutshell, Paul Simon went to South Africa, without asking permission from the African National Congress, and recorded the instrumentals for Graceland, thus violating the United Nation’s cultural boycott of South Africa that was in place to combat apartheid. In addition, he was accused of basically exploiting African musicians.)

This past week, I saw the documentary, Under African Skies, about the making of Graceland and that controversy.

Initial, gut reaction: Paul Simon went to South Africa and completely and blatantly ignored the African National Congress and the UN cultural boycott, both aimed at ending or at the very least forcing people to see apartheid, simply because he wanted to make music with these South African musicians. He chose to ignore what was going on in South Africa at that time to do this. As a white, very, very privileged man, he could choose to do so.  Damn, Paul. But thought you’d know better for some reason.

However. Over the course of the movie, one thing became clear – at least to me: Paul Simon didn’t do this because he was selfish, because his privilege allowed him to ignore fucking apartheid. Paul Simon did this because he fundamentally believes art is not beholden to political boundaries, should rise above political turmoil. That people who make art are artists first and foremost, above all else. Therefore, for people who are artists, the importance of making music supersedes boycotts and the desires of political parties.

Reaction to that: What a lovely world Paul Simon lives in. Not that I disagree with him, but it’s a state of mind that is pretty much only available to him because he is a cisgendered and white and male and privileged and from a first-world country.

The artists he was making music with? No matter how much they wanted to be artists first, no matter how much Paul Simon saw them that waythey would and currently will always be black first. And not just in South Africa.

Missing that point? Is a pretty big fucking deal, Paul. Sorry dude.

Regardless of how much I want to be in Paul’s world, it’s the same as if I said “Yah, I don’t see race.”

And. Yet.

There is so much footage in that documentary of the South African artists. The studio scenes of them dancing as they recorded the music that would become so iconic, these fucking awesome riffs. Their joy over this experience, the ways it changed their lives. Their words on what Graceland meant to them.

The impact their music had on the world. On. The. World.

On me, as an eleven year old white girl.

As one of the interviewees in the documentary states, there is so much negative about Africa that we see, here in our nifty lil privileged American homes. Africa is a starving, black child with flies in her mouth. At the time of Graceland, South Africa was apartheid. One thing Graceland did was show the world Africa is much, much more than that. There is joy and hope and dance and song.

So. Despite all that I know about race and privilege. Despite the fact that ol’ Paul could probably use a bit of instruction on race and privilege…. I had to wonder: Where is the line, then? Where is the line between ignoring the reality of hate, and ignoring the reality of hope? Must we also focus on what is wrong in order to see clearly, or is there need to also see clearly what is right? Is there a place to show people the good, so that they will care about changing the bad? But where is the line where we show too much, where we exploit, and where we start to pretend it’s really not that bad?

Could Paul have gone to South Africa at a different time? Would that have been better – or was it perfectly timed, regardless of if he meant that? Was his violation a small price to pay for a Graceland concert, attending by thousands of black and white South Africans, where they sang the banned national anthem on stage?

When do we start seeing men as artists first? But how do we keep from ignoring their realities, in the face of our own privilege?

Does everything we do to combat hate and injustice and bigotry in this world have to be politicized, have to have a strong message – or is there a place for art, for collaboration, for the coming together of people as people? Is there a place for this, for connecting to one another as human beings, in spite of the hate and the injustice and the bigotry? Is it important – or even as important – as the boycotts and the anger? Or it this all just easy for me to say, as a white, privileged, American woman?

I do highly recommended the documentary, especially if you’re familiar with the album. And if only for the awesomeness of the original recording footage.

This is the story of how we begin to remember / This is the powerful pulsing of love in the veins…

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