Brave Artists Take A Stand Against Apartheid

James Rozoff
4 min readNov 22, 2023

“I know that their strugglin’ over there
It ain’t gonna free me,
But we all need to be strugglin’
If we’re gonna be free.
And don’t you wanna be free?”

In 1975, Gil Scott Heron released the song Johannesburg, the first song I’m aware of to bring up the issue of apartheid in South Africa. Later that same year, Richard Pryor was invited to host Saturday Night Live, and he accepted with the proviso that Gil Scot-Heron be the musical guest. Scott-Heron, an African American musician with an overwhelmingly Black following, suddenly had the chance to perform Johannesburg to millions of predominantly White viewers. Consciousness of a great evil began to grow.

In 1980, English musician Peter Gabriel released the song Biko, which told the story of the murder of black activist Steven Biko in a South African police cell. 1983 saw the release of Randy Newman’s Christmas In Capetown. Stevie Wonder’s It’s Wrong (Apartheid) was released on his 1985 album Square Circle:

“And you know deep in your heart
You’ve no covenant with God
Because he would never countenance people-abusing
You know apartheid’s wrong
Like slavery was wrong
Like the holocaust was wrong “

And then, later that same year, Steven Van Zandt wrote the song Sun City. This was a major step forward in artists opposing apartheid for two reasons. First, he invited other artists to participate. Besides the above-mentioned artists, many of the biggest names of the day were happy to join, including Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen, Run-DMC, etc. Second, the song explicitly stated the artists’ refusal to play in Sun City, a city which was created by forcibly removing the native population that had lived there.

The artistic movement that grew up around this song was called Artists United Against Apartheid, and not only did it apply pressure to South Africa’s apartheid government and other artists willing to perform in Sun City, the artists put their own governments in the crosshairs as well. The time-tested governmental ploy of pretending to do something while actually doing nothing was called out in the following verse:

“Our government tells us we’re doing all we can
Constructive engagement is Ronald Reagan’s plan
Meanwhile people are dying and giving up hope
Well this quiet diplomacy ain’t nothing but a joke”

Cry Freedom was released in 1987, a movie that revolved around the death of Steven Biko. And again, the injustice of an apartheid system that so many wished to keep quiet was exposed to people all around the world. It is impossible to compare the courage of actors and musicians to the people willing to face death for their cause, nevertheless the courage of artists was necessary to advance the cause of those living under oppression.

The hypocrisy was being revealed. The evil that is apartheid, the evil that is racism and settler colonialism was being exposed, and people were being called to task. The usual way in which politicians and the power behind them feign concern while perpetuating injustice was disrupted. It took nearly 20 years from the time Gil Scott Heron appeared on Saturday Night Live, but in 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected president in the first free and fair elections in South Africa’s history.

Change was forced upon them, because change toward justice can only ever be forced upon those who choose politics as a career, can only be forced upon those whose natural inclination is to place profit over morality. Change happened because those with a conscience would not let their consciences be silenced. Change happens because those who have a conscience do not let their consciences be silenced.

Change starts with a single person willing to speak up, or write a song, or paint a picture. It starts with someone listening to their conscience rather than conventional wisdom or a status quo propped up by people who profit from the existing system. And this sort of bravery strikes a chord in people whose natural inclination is toward justice and human decency. Which is most of us. It just takes a few brave souls to speak up. And that’s never really been the problem. The problem is the institutions erected to separate the common people from the slightly less common people who are willing to speak up against power. Seek those people out who are willing to oppose the institutions of the powerful at the cost of their own fame and fortune. They will very rarely steer you wrong.

From Peter Gabriel’s song Biko:

“You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher

And the eyes of the world
Are watching now
Watching now”