Sundance Documentary on Paul Simon Playing South Africa Undercuts Power of Cultural Boycott – Mondoweiss and Just Left Blog Post

Whatever you think of Paul Simon’s music and especially Graceland (which I like a lot) a new movie at Sundance about the recording of that album could undercut the BDS campaign against Israel, and especially the cultural boycott. The film Under African Skies follows Paul Simon as he returns to South Africa 25 years after the release of his hugely popular album Graceland. As many of you may not recall, Simon traveled to South Africa in the mid 80’s to record portions of this album at the height of the economic and cultural embargo (boycott) of South Africa–an embargo imposed by the United Nations and supported by the African National Congress. He came under plenty of fire for doing so.

The movie, while it claims to deal with both sides of the question of whether Simon should have violated the embargo, amounts to a justification for Simon breaking the embargo. It could be said that the primary purpose of the film (which Simon’s brother Eddie helped produce) was to validate his having done so and the right of other cultural figures to do likewise. In this respect the film has a dangerous potential: convincing wide audiences that cultural boycotts such as that against Israel should not be adhered to.

In the film Simon does engage directly with those who disagreed with his breaking the embargo, but he comes off as self-involved, not particularly astute, and never gets the importance of the embargo as a means of ending apartheid. His claim is that he as an artist should be beyond politics and those politicians should not tell him or any artist what they can do. He looks at his violation of the embargo entirely as a question of artistic freedom and has no understanding of its importance. For him, it’s about him. In fact, the original trip to South Africa was made for selfish reasons: his career was in a lull and he wanted to make a new album.

A telling moment in the film is where Simon describes a meeting he had with the African National Congress at which he was told he should not have broken the embargo. (As I recall he had already gone and returned.) Simon reacts by saying that if that’s the kind of government they will be–telling artists what to do—he wants nothing to do with it. He entirely misses the point. The embargo was a political necessity to bring apartheid to an end; it was not about censorship. Here we have Simon claiming that “artistic freedom” was more important than an embargo imposed by the UN and the ANC as a means of ending apartheid. Mandela himself spoke of the importance of the boycott in ending apartheid and commentators have pointed to the isolation of South Africans as key. The fact that Simon was invited back to South Africa by Mandela does not wash away Simon’s actions, especially as he never wavers from his view, justified by this film, that it was right for him to have violated the boycott.

The film also tries to rationalize Simon’s breaking the embargo by interviewing and filming the Black musicians with whom he worked. They seem to have real affection for him, and Graceland helped launch some of their careers outside of South Africa. The film describes how important it was to bring the voices of Black musicians to the wider world– which arguably helped undercut apartheid. But, of course, that is not the point. Violation of the embargo by someone as famous as Simon undercut a key means of bringing down apartheid—isolating South Africa—and potentially encouraged other artists to do likewise. Moreover, measuring in retrospect whether Graceland helped or hurt apartheid is an after the fact justification.

I still like Graceland. I still listen to Graceland. It is joyful and life affirming. But I will always be haunted by its history.