Sunday, May 6, 2012

Learn he did, not always happily

Let me call to your attention Lawrence Downes's column in today's Times: Back to ‘Graceland’ After 25 Years.

This year is the 25th anniversary of many things, but one of those things is Paul Simon's astonishingly perfect album Graceland.

As part of the anniversary, a new documentary is out: Under African Skies. In the movie, Simon returns to South Africa to reflect and discuss on the events of that year, and his part in them.

I was just coming of age during those times, old enough to support the boycott, and understand that what was happening in South Africa was bad, and needed to change, and needed to change now.

It's always hard to discuss the role of artists in situations like this: was Simon wrong to do what he did? His work brought attention to the situation, after all. Downes notes:

“Graceland” was his biggest hit, a global phenomenon, but success made it a target. Anti-apartheid protesters picketed the world tour. African-American college students accused him of doing what white musicians always do when they find black music that’s irresistibly good. Boycott leaders deplored the thought of an outsider sidestepping their global campaign without permission or apology, and bringing a group of South African artists along with him.

Perhaps most importantly, Graceland still, 25 years later, stands as a work of art, and it has stood that test well. Downes concedes:

The regime is dead; apartheid’s defenders are gone and forgotten. Reagan is remembered for other things. Righteous anthems like Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” are trapped in their time.

But “Graceland” is not. It’s as alive and surprising now as it was then, when South African artists shared their genius with Mr. Simon.

I am of course an enormous fan of Paul Simon; he is one of the greatest talents of my time. I will look forward to watching "Under African Skies" when I get the chance.

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