Paul Simon Graceland
Photo: Partial cover of Paul Simon's 'Graceland: The Remixes'

Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ and Everlasting Redemption

Thirty-five years later, the redemption narrative driving Paul Simon’s Graceland has expanded to excuse the morally questionable decisions he made in recording the album.

Paul Simon
25 August 1986 (US)

August 25th of last year marked the 35th Anniversary of Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland, a critical and commercial bounce-back for the artist after the increasingly diminishing returns of his ’80s singer/songwriter releases (Zollo 2020). The record, a mishmash of his typical pop-rock sound with South African musical genres like kwela and marabi, infamously involved Simon breaking the UN cultural apartheid boycott to record with South African collaborators like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Gaxa Sisters.

The cultural boycott, a powerful weapon within the anti-apartheid movement, was in opposition against the Nationalist Government’s discriminatory division of the black and white populations of South Africa. This was a system that ravaged the Black South African population through unequal separation, forcing this four-fifths of the national population to live on 17% of the poorest land in the country (Greer 2006). 

It would be wholly inaccurate to say that Simon did not face backlash for what he did. Ever since leaving for Johannesburg in February of 1985, the musician has faced wave upon wave of criticism from virtually every kind of public, governmental, and academic group. Members of Artists Against Apartheid were naturally violently opposed to the journey, with Special’s frontman Jerry Dammers infamously stating that Simon was “helping maybe 30 people” and “doing far more harm than good” (Denselow 2012). Cultural critiques of Simon’s use of the foreign ‘Other’ for personal gain (in this case, the South African musicians) were also rife, with African National Congress leader Walter Sisulu publicly calling on these artists not to “become the old spit in Paul Simon’s mouth, something that he has swallowed and is now reproducing according to his own taste” (Meintjes 1990). 

Yet, the album was also widely celebrated. Graceland was an enormous commercial success, selling 16 million copies worldwide to date. It was also largely accepted as an act of artistic and personal redemption for Simon, his last album, 1983’s Hearts and Bones, being a commercial failure, his marriage with Carrie Fisher coming to a very messy and public end, and his relationship to friend and collaborator Art Garfunkel beginning to deteriorate (Bloom 2012). With the success of Graceland, Simon finally seemed back on his feet. 

Since the ’80s, the problems with this story, that the ‘energetic music of South Africa’ allowed Simon to emerge reborn, have been increasingly pointed out, with many observing how it recreates the parasitic relationship the West typically has with foreign cultures. A deeper academic critique of this process, drawing on figures like the late writer and activist bell hooks, shows how Simon’s album mirrors the process of ‘Eating the Other’, explored in a chapter within hook’s 1992 text black looks. Here, hooks details how ethnic and racial differences can be “continually commodified and offered up as new dishes to enhance the white palate” (hooks 1992). The Other offers personal redemption through the perceived power it holds, such as the “capacity to be more alive” and solve modern afflictions like an incapacity to experience happiness. In the end though, the Other is “eaten, consumed, and forgotten” for the benefit of white society (hooks 1992). 

You don’t have to go far to find this narrative of ‘redemption through the Other’ still holding strong for Simon’s album. With a quick Google search of Graceland, endless articles, like Far Out Magazine‘s 2021 writeup, are eager to tell you how the album was Simon’s redemptive release after his “marriage to Carrie Fisher had collapsed”, and the “commercial failure” of his previous record, and by being exposed to a bootleg cassette of South African ‘street music’ he redeemed his washed-up sound with “endorphin-inducing sonic exuberance” (Taylor 2021). 

In fact, this ‘redemptive narrative’ has become so powerful that, three decades later, Graceland’s past controversy has taken on a new form, one that allows the legacy of the album to be smoothed back into the palatable story of redemption Simon’s album initially sold itself with. The social and political issues with Graceland have not been forgotten, but simply incorporated into the album’s narrative that placed the ‘Other culture’ as a means by which Simon could achieve personal and artistic renewal.

This process has involved culturally framing, categorizing, and (largely) justifying everything the artist did through positioning it as one of many ‘hurdles’ Simon bypassed on his redemptive journey, alongside the failures within his musical career and personal life. Today, specific and genuine criticism of the album, tackling its colonial-like incorporation of South African Music, tokenistic treatment of many of the musicians, and the larger mess Simon left after breaking the apartheid boycott (more on that later) is mostly regulated to think pieces or university dissertations. When the album is discussed en-masse, it is using phrases and titles like ‘How Paul Simon managed to “redefine his career…despite a United Nations boycott” or how Simon “set out on a perilous obstacle course “that included “fevered controversy” (Momoniat 2013).

Here, we see a consistent positioning of Simon as the white male protagonist braving career failure, personal tragedy, and now, cultural backlash for breaking an anti-apartheid boycott on his road to personal redemption. This is now part of the album’s story, part of the narrative trotted out every time we arrive at an anniversary date. There are examples of retrospectives and modern discourse that actually reckon with the album’s difficult past, but these are increasingly few and far between (Denselow 2012). When the South African apartheid is 30 years from having ended, it is this legacy and narrative, one that has readily incorporated the undeniably negative actions Simon committed when recording Graceland, that stands as most troubling. 

It’s important to first understand how this narrative of personal and artistic redemption was sold to the Western public during the production and release of Graceland, to the point where it has pervaded until today. From its conception, Simon’s album was driven by the familiar story of a disaffected, down-on-his-luck white man being redeemed and reenergized through the mysterious, fascinating, and energetic ‘Other’ culture of South Africa. 

hooks can again help us see how this narrative was appealed to on a musical level. In Eating the Other she describes how ‘Othered’ foreign cultures hold the promise for Western “sensual and spiritual renewal” (hooks 1992). The failure of Hearts and Bones was blamed by both critics and Simon himself on its flat and “slightly depressive” sound, which the South African musical influence was directly framed as ‘livening up’ (Eliot 2006). Simon incorporated musical genres such as kwela, with its use of the upbeat penny-whistle, and the call and response vocal style of marabi. 

The reaction to the use of these South African sounds was textbook ‘eating the Other’. 

A 1986 promotional Rolling Stone interview saw Simon agreeing that Graceland’s tracks achieved their “springy, rhythmic quality” through the “African flavor of the music” (Fricke 1986). Similarly, a 1986 New York Times article (discussing Simon ‘bringing home the music of Black South Africa’) described how the musician had “immersed himself in the black South African musical community” and “discovered a world of vitality” (Holden 1986). What’s important here is that the media didn’t just praise the album or the instrumentation within it, they made the assessment that the time in South Africa “reenergized Paul, and not only revved up his music”, but “finished off his disappointments and sorrows” (Eliot 2006). Here, we see a direct representation of hooks’ claims, with the Other being conventionally framed by the West as holding the capacity for sensual and spiritual renewal.

Inherent in this concept of ‘Other’ cultural influence is the quality of mystery and intrigue. As such, the ‘foreign mystique’ of the album’s origins was played up by the media. Simon was exposed to this music through guitarist Heidi Berg lending him a tape by South African township jive band the Boyoyo Boys (who to this day, only have a Wikipedia section under Graceland’s). The 1986 Rolling Stone interview was therefore titled ‘Paul Simon: African Odyssey’, and directly framed Simon as having embarked on a journey to South Africa to “satisfy his curiosity”, a statement whose colonial implications don’t need to be spelled out (Fricke 1986). 

It would let Simon off the hook to say that this image was entirely perpetrated by the press. This was an interdependent relationship, with Graceland’s media and lyrical themes readily feeding into this narrative of personal redemption through the foreign ‘Other’. Within ‘Eating the Other’, hooks states that Westerners are driven to seek out these cultures due to a “postmodern malaise of alienation” and lack of redemptive identity (hooks 1992). Taking a glance at the lyrics of Graceland’s most successful single “You Can Call Me Al”, we see Simon almost perfectly adhering to this narrative. 

The song follows a (Paul Simon-surrogate) white male protagonist experiencing the personal revival offered by ‘the Other’. Disgruntled at modern life, the man asks “where’s my wife and family?”, questions “who’ll be my role model?” after the disgrace of a previous figure and laments that he has a “short little span of attention”. Predictably, the third verse places the man on a street in “the third world”, now being enraptured by the perceived primitiveness of this ‘Other’ country. South Africa’s poverty is therefore glorified in order to rejuvenate this man; He is “surrounded” by “cattle in the marketplace, scatterlings and orphanages” and begins “spinning in infinity” and saying “Hallelujah!”  

Perhaps the most direct example of this narrative in Simon’s media is seen within the 1986 music video for “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”, blatantly depicting the musician being rejuvenated by this ‘Other’ culture. In the video’s closing moments, South African musicians encircle Simon, and their positive energy gradually causes him more excitement and happiness, his arm raised and an uncharacteristically expressive smile on his face. Here, Black South Africans are reduced to a “personal metaphor”, functioning as symbolism for how Simon overcame his melancholic musical and personal persona to achieve the upbeat style of Graceland (hooks 1992; Elliot 2006).