A Woman, Thinking

Honor in Graceland

Words on WordsPoppy LochridgeComment

This week's question:

Considering the political context in which Paul Simon traveled to South Africa to record musicians there, do you think Paul Simon should have made the “Graceland” recording when he did and in the way that he did? Think about how you might have responded to this question as a black South African teenager in the mid 1980s; as a world citizen in the 1990s, and how you might respond to that question in the light of the 25 anniversary of the Graceland album? As you think about this you might read a wiki entry on South African political history, on the global presence of South African music, on the Graceland album and its politics.

I am sad to say that no, I do not think he should have made the album when and how he did. At the heart of it, this is a question of Utilitarian philosophy - do the ends justify the means? And the answer is complex. On the one hand, it’s a very enjoyable album and several South African musicians, particularly Ladysmith Black Mambazo, benefited from a rapid rise to the attention of the Western world. It is unclear how much direct benefit this album had for the people of South Africa - the resistance to apartheid was already strong, and I believe that this album was coincidental, not instrumental(1), to the onset of democracy.

On the other hand, Paul Simon’s stated reasons for making the trip to South Africa in spite of the boycott - “Personally, I feel I'm with the musicians. I’m with the artists”(2) - demonstrate that he considers himself an artist first, and a world citizen second, and as such, the boycott simply didn’t seem to apply. In his stated view, if artists contain themselves to producing only what art is politically convenient, we lose too much culturally. And this is true: if artists of all stripes only produced what is politically convenient, we would not have had the work of: Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, or Bob Dylan; Liu Bolin or the Guerilla Girls; George Orwell, Alexander Pushkin, Upton Sinclair, or Salman Rushdie, to only name a few.

Since the introduction of both art and politics into human society, we have used the one to comment on the other. However, this does not appear to have been Paul Simon’s intention. His words display a Romantic view that artists are above political boundaries, and can ignore them at will. This is a privileged position, part of the “invisible backpack”(3) which Paul Simon, as a white, Jewish, American man, carries - the presumption that his actions will be judged based on his intentions and the ability to define his identity as a musician instead of by race or nationality, and to expect that others will use his self-definition instead of adding their own.

I can think of no situation where failure to acknowledge and question ones own privilege is honorable, even when no-one is harmed by that failure. Even mine. In interviews, the artists who played on the Graceland album have expressed gratitude to Simon for giving them the experience of being part of the album and introducing them to world audiences (4,5). While I may feel that Simon should have checked his privilege and contacted the ANC to work out an arrangement by which his desire to work in the studio with South African musicians could be met while acknowledging the politics of the situation - I, as a white, educated, American woman have my own invisible backpack, which contains the assumption that I know what is right and best for people in “third world” nations. Once I acknowledge my own privilege, I must acknowledge too that I cannot take that gratitude away from the artists, that they know better than I what the album has done for them. Likewise, I have to admit that my point of view is strongly influenced by the time and place I am in; if I had been a black South African in 1987 instead of a white American, I might instead have felt excited about the project, and proud of the work done by my countrymen.

1. This was also not an instrumental album. Ba dum bum!
2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/apr/19/
3. http://www.uakron.edu/dotAsset/1662103.pdf
4. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/30/opinion/
5. Graceland (Classic Albums Documentary) - 1997