The Activism Single: Sun City

This seemed to be an eighties thing. I suppose it hit the big time with Do They Know it’s Christmas from Band Aid. That was followed up by We Are the World by USA for Africa. Frankly, these songs were musically lame, and neither of them challenged the political foundations of the problems they addressed. But there was a lesser known song put together by a coalition of musicians that had a much more revolutionary attitude. A song that challenged other musicians to take up a cause, and shamed performers who had failed to do so.

This song was inspired by a conversation between ABC News reporter Danny Schechter and songwriter Steven Van Zandt. Schechter and Van Zandt at first planned for the song to have fewer artists than ended up in the final version and the original lyrics contained a list of artists who had played Sun City. As the group of performers who wanted to participate grew   Van Zandt decided that the song should be more of a “bandwagon” song that encouraged other artists to boycott Sun City and offered more general support for the South African divestment movement. Direct call outs were left to the individual artists doing promotional interviews. For instance, Hall and Oates went on record about turning down over a million dollars to play Sun City and mentioned a few of their fellow musicians who had not.

Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City only reached #38 on the US charts. It did much better in the UK and Australia. Part of the issue in the US was that by the 80’s, most US stations had very narrow  musical formats. The mix of hip-hop, pop, and rock was rejected by a number of stations. And if any reader is interpreting “narrow format” as a racial thing, you are probably right. Also, some stations objected to the direct criticism of Ronald Reagan by name.

Maybe I’m just old and out of touch, but it seems mainstream music has become completely depoliticized. The only mainstream antiwar song I can think of from the early 2000’s that got airplay was BYOB by System of a Down. And of course, this song is highly relevant this time of year.

Beyonce seems to taking things in the right direction. Her song Formation isn’t exactly a protest song, but I like how she performed it at the Super Bowl.

I hope someone can tell me I’m wrong in the comments. Have there been some mainstream political songs I’ve missed out on recently?


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