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)

Empowering Propaganda

Since the ’80s, the strength of Graceland’s ‘redemption’ narrative has been continually reaffirmed by its incorporation of the morally questionable decisions Simon made when recording the album, and the (arguably very justified) backlash that ensued. Delving deeper into the modern discussion around the record, you can still see a similar framing of the ‘power of the Other’ as allowing Simon to overcome this, with numerous pieces describing how Simon “would have none of the boycott” due to his overwhelming drive to “follow his artistic instincts”, or articles that say Graceland “reminds you that great music outlasts the politics of the moment” (Camacho 2016; Holden 2012).

Other articles frame Simon’s choice of “recording and performing with black South African musicians” as a political gesture (something Simon directly denied back in 1986), which apparently “anticipated the end of a racially segregated South Africa”, therefore fitting neatly into the white savior narrative (Fricke 1986; Hoby 2011). Some write-ups don’t even mention the boycott, instead choosing to (predictably) focus on how the album was a “journey of redemption and rediscovery for Simon” (Taylor 2021). With every one of these retrospectives, this narrative is further embedded within our cultural psyche. This is, unavoidably, a bad thing.  

For one, this version of the story obscures the genuine harm, symbolic, long-term, and immediate, that Simon caused in South Africa when recording Graceland. After its release, Graceland received “ample airplay” by South Africa’s Nationalist state media, and was used by government representatives as evidence against cultural sanctions (Meintjes 1990). The South African musicians recruited by Simon (and the album itself) were also employed by this government to solidify the Separate Development politics, which were used to “defend the concepts of racial separation and the strengthening of the townships” (Greer 2016).

For example, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, featured on Graceland tracks like “Homeless”, were made cultural ambassadors by the African National Government due to the indigenous folk traditions referenced in their music. These supported the government’s appeal for Separate Development policies, based on the concept that “blacks of the country actually belong in artificially created tribal homelands” to observe these folk traditions, and therefore need to be separated from white society through government-created boundaries (Meintjes 1990).

The fact that Graceland‘s success aided the National government, even directly, should not be overlooked. This was a government body set on hindering “the growth and progress of the black population”. For example, the South African Broadcasting Corporation blasted deafening syncretic music” to Black South African populations in attempts to dull their senses and make them more receptive to government propaganda and saw the artists collaborating with Graceland as working to achieve a similar purpose (Scher 1992). The effects of these kinds of governmental actions are still being felt within South Africa, with apartheid spatial patterns in towns and cities contributing to high poverty levels for many black South Africans today (Mariotti & Fourie 2014).

Subtler uses of Graceland to further the white supremacist power structures within South Africa are similarly obscured by the album’s contemporary ‘redemption narrative’, which attempts to minimize its troubling history. Graceland was embraced by conservative White South Africans explicitly through the lens of it ‘cleaning up’ the traditional sounds of indigenous South African culture. White South African reviews from the time commented how Simon had used his ‘Western influence’ to make the African elements “less raw, more flowy, more gentle. And most pleasant!” (Meintjes 1990).

Here, we see a re-enactment of the ‘civilizing process’, where prejudice is strengthened against Black South African music in its “traditional form and context”, via claims that it needs ‘reworking and updating’’ Through this, the White South African population is able to “validate their superior sociopolitical positioning” over the ‘inferior Other’ (Meintjes 1990). This was an immediate negative impact the recording and release of Graceland had on the Black population of South Africa. These are things those discussing the album need to reckon with, rather than smooth over or subtly justify within the context of a larger, more digestible ‘white man redemption narrative’.

Spicing-Up the Palate

Thirty-five years after Graceland, a white artist’s legacy being used to justify mistreatment of ‘the Other’ is a recurring sight, something that Simon’s actions have undoubtedly contributed to. Like Simon, white musicians continue to borrow from ‘Other’ cultures and then discard them, all for the sake of rejuvenating and ‘spicing up’ the palette of their music. 

Modern examples of this aren’t hard to find, and it would be a mistake to assume that social progression and further awareness of racial issues since Graceland’s release (the term ‘Cultural Appropriation’ virtually did not exist in 1986) has prevented this narrative from prevailing. Artists like Post Malone have jumped to black-created genres like rap music to push forward a rock career that was not picking up steam. Pop stars like Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus used black culture to add edge and appeal to musical careers that needed the same ‘spicing up’ that Simon’s did in the ’80s. 

The unavoidable truth that this process reinstates existing white supremacist power is seen every time these artists move on from the ‘Other’ cultures. As they parasitically utilize these cultures to revive their careers, they are willing to demean or neglect them when they are no longer useful. As soon as he had a breakout song with White Iverson, adopting rap instrumentation and slang, Post Malone was quick to assert in an interview after interview that he was “an artist” and not “a rapper” (Stephen 2018).

On other occasions he told his fans: “If you’re looking for lyrics, if you’re looking to cry, if you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip-hop” (Dandridge-Lemco 2017). Although he continues to largely make rap music, he has been able to move fluidly in and out of the genre at his own will, getting on stage with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 2019 and being met with fan comments protesting strongly that he fits within the more reputable genre of rock rather than rap. As we saw with the 2019 Lil Nas X controversy, this genre fluidity is not a privilege afforded to black artists (Mark 2019). 

Similarly, Miley Cyrus was more than ready to completely discard rap music after the 2013 third career wind she received through collaborating with artists like Juicy J, French Montana, and Future, saying in a 2017 Billboard interview that she “can’t listen to [rap] anymore” due to its lyrical content (Norris 2017). Cyrus then returned back to the willing, welcome (and white) clutches of country music with her 2017 country-pop album Younger Now. Then, after disappointing sales from that release, 2018 brought her right back to hip-hop (Holmes 2018).

Similarly, Paul Simon got to leave behind Apartheid Africa after using the real-life experiences of its residents to fuel the emotions on his ‘comeback’ album, departing after making many things worse and reaffirming the social and cultural dominance of the white Nationalist Government. Then, 25 years later he gets to tour around the country with little to no criticism. He even has a 2012 touring documentary that covers, in his own words, “​​the controversy that surrounded [Graceland] and how it was resolved (Perpetua 2011). Today, when asked about breaking the boycott, Simon states that he has “no regrets about it whatsoever” (Martin 2012). 

These modern examples demonstrate how many of the core racist beliefs about the Other’cultures within the artists’ minds remain unchanged, even if they are willing to engross themselves in the musical culture for the sake of renewal. Again, this shows that this dynamic isn’t harmless, it is damaging. At best it isn’t changing anything about unequal racial dynamics within the music industry (see again Simon’s continual assertions that Graceland was not political), and at worst it’s moving the whole thing backward. 

How then, do we look at Graceland? This is an album that will inevitably be discussed and praised every time we reach another anniversary date and will always be destined to appear within every boomer-friendly music publication’s ‘best albums of all time’ write-up. 

Well, we need to address Graceland in a way that fully acknowledges the controversy around the album, and recognizes why this controversy occurred. Salon’s 2016 article on the “fraught and tuneful South African album” stands as a clear example of this. Writer Scott Timberg smartly juxtaposes the two parallel histories of Graceland, discussing how “thirty years ago, two things happened…an aging musician” allowed a virtually unknown music genre to become “instantly popular” in the US, and a “wealthy white American man broke a United Nations boycott designed to isolate a brutally racist government” for his economic gain, creating a musical legacy in which the American man rather than the South African artists are recognized (Timberg 2016). 

Additionally, there needs to be support and acknowledgment of the South African musicians, like the Boyoyo Boys and the Gaza Sisters, that made the album successful. These acts are routinely homogenized into a group of interchangeable ‘South African musicians’ that worked with Paul Simon when the story of Graceland is retold, to predictably focus on Paul Simon as the white-male protagonist undergoing his journey of personal redemption. 

Works Cited

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