Sun City

Artists United Against Apartheid, “Sun City” (from Sun City)

written by Noah Baerman


Quick, what “charity rock” song from the 1980s had more participants who became members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame than “We Are the World?” If your answer is “Sun City,” you are correct and I am impressed. While other awareness-and-fundraising songs of that era are endearing, this song has an edge that not only raised awareness but engaged in another level of activism.

Little Steven Van Zandt (of E Street Band Fame) put this project together to raise awareness of Apartheid, with this song centering around the Sun City resort and issuing a defiant cry for his fellow artists to resist the big payday and remain in solidarity against what was going on in South Africa. In addition to his boss (a.k.a. The Boss, Mr. Springsteen), there were a number of big-at-the-time stars enlisted to participate in this song, including Hall and Oates, Pat Benetar and Bono (plus some guy named Bob Dylan). Other important musical figures also participated, some of them (like Ruben Blades, Jackson Browne and Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett) were generally politically outspoken in their own work. The project became a whole album, with additional contributions by Peter Gabriel, Gil Scott-Heron and Miles Davis, reuniting with 1960s cohorts Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams.

The song “Sun City” is wrapped in a high-energy mix of funky soul and intense rock. The lyrics offer an angry, defiant counter-attack not only to what was going on in South Africa but to others’ indifference. When David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks (the co-lead singers of debatably the most classic incarnation of the Temptations) sing out about the conditions, you can hear the snarl. When Darlene Love wails “this quiet diplomacy ain’t nothin’ but a joke,” it’s hard to turn off your conscience and pretend she’s singing “Today I Met The Boy I’m Gonna Marry.”

So why wasn’t this song a huge hit on a level comparable to its charity rock predecessors? I suppose there are a few reasons. The music itself is super-funky, maybe not quite (with apologies to Michael, Lionel and Quincy) watered down enough for that level of mass appeal. Many of the hall-of-famers and other stars in question were also maybe a bit more musically progressive and/or otherwise left-of-center – serious music fans might get excited about Jimmy Cliff, Lou Reed, Joey Ramone, Miles Davis, George Clinton, Bobby Womack and Grandmaster Melle Mel, but it’s not as if pre-teens were drawn in by them (well, except me, but I was weird).

Really, though, I feel like the biggest reason is also the biggest reason why this song is so potent, and that is the direct communication of hard truth. Of course the artists in question were all presumably doing well enough that I don’t want to liken them to Freedom Riders. However, they all went out on a limb politically and financially with this project and they collectively present the musical equivalent of an angry mob (a humane and soulful one, but still angry) demanding justice.

Noah is a jazz pianist, composer, educator, and author seeking musical fulfillment, personal growth and a good recipe for saag paneer. He is the founder and Artistic Director of Resonant Motion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *