Freedom Songs: How Nelson Mandela Used Music To Change The World

A couple of months ago, I was tasked with interviewing a handful of up-and-coming bands for NME’s ‘Young Britannia’ cover: to find out what made them tick and what ticked them off, to uncover the inspiration behind their songs and what motivated them to create, to pry them on their thoughts on the music industry and how they felt about the current political landscape. For the most part, the message I got back was one of apathy. “I don’t care about any political government because they’re all one and the same,” Childhood singer Ben Romans-Hopcroft told me. “It’s led me into this disillusioned state where I don’t know what I want from the country to live in. I’m more focused on music because I’m surrounded by sadness.”

Given how muddled, muddied and murky it can be trying to wade into politics right now, it’s an understandable stance: it can be frustrating feeling that whatever you say, think or do won’t make any difference on a large scale. And it’s not a viewpoint that’s limited exclusively to new bands, either – in October of this year, Noel Gallagher parroted a similarly disenfranchised party line, as Kevin EG Perry discusses here. But today, with the world still reacting to Nelson Mandela’s death and the tributes still pouring in, it’s impossible not to think about how powerful music can be when it’s used as a tool of engagement rather than a mere means of escapism.

Because, more than many of us probably realize, Mandela’s message was spread through music and partly spearheaded by songs. And it goes far, far beyond the usual glut of tracks we’re familiar with, too: while Jerry Dammers and The Specials’ ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ climbed to Number 9 in the UK Singles Chart, freedom songs were playing a huge part in South Africa, too. Canadian filmmaker Jason Bourque’s new documentary Music For Mandela gets to the nitty-gritty of how music had a big role in Mandela’s struggle both in prison and as part of the anti-apartheid movement. In the film, he talks to the formerly exiled South African jazz musician Jonas Gwanga who explains that, with all mentions of Mandela banned by the government, music became a way of spreading his message. “His name was kept alive especially through music,” he says. “When people sang about Mandela… the young generation would ask ‘who is Mandela?’ Then we would explain.”


Songs, then, are inextricably linked with Mandela’s struggle: witness the popularity of Hugh Masekela’s ‘Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)’, a track which gave a voice to the anti-apartheid struggle and which Mandela danced to once he was released in celebration. But moving beyond the importance of how they soundtracked a decades-long protest, they were also a great comfort to Mandela and his fellow inmates at Robben Island, too. The BBC have an excellent interview with Bourque (as have Spin), in which he reveals how Mandela used music to raise spirits among himself and his fellow inmates: touching, grin-inducing anecdotes of how he and his fellow prisoners would sing the subversive workers’ folk song ‘Shosholoza’ as they endured back-breaking shifts at the lime quarry, or how they’d put on concerts every Christmas to boost morale. And an interview with Mandela’s best friend Eddie Daniels reveals how he’d frequently treat everyone to renditions of the old Scottish song ‘Bonnie Mary Of Argyle’. “Mandela and the prisoners would give Christmas concerts – and the music would resonate through the prison walls,” says Bourque. “In prison there were subversive folk songs that they could sing and get away with.”

Rather than focus on the massive pop stars who undoubtedly played a huge part in bringing Mandela’s story to a global audience, though, Bourque explores just how pivotal simple songs were to spearheading the anti-apartheid movement and keeping Mandela’s legacy alive in South Africa. In addition to interviews with BB King, Sean Paul, Estelle and Mandela’s own hip-hop artist grandson Bambatha Mandela, Bourque also talks to the former exiled jazz musician Jonas Gwangwa. With Mandela’s image banned during his time in prison on Robben Island and the government determined to stamp out all mentions of him, freedom songs became an important part of spreading his message. “His name was kept alive especially through music,” he says in the film. “When people sang about Mandela… the young generation would ask ‘who is Mandela?’ Then we would explain.”

Like lots of other people, Bourque first became aware of Mandela’s story courtesy of his 70th birthday tribute gig in Wembley, London in 1988, which was watched by roughly 600 million people around the globe and boosted by appearances from Simple Minds, Stevie Wonder, Dire Straits and Sting. But Mandela’s connection with music runs much deeper than a one-off giant pop concert. It would be daft to exclusively zero-in on the relationship between the two, of course, when there’s so much to still be said, discussed and learnt about his legacy in the coming weeks. But while everyone from Barack Obama and David Cameron to Kendrick Lamar, U2 and Rihanna pay tribute, it’s something that should be remembered next time you’re tempted to succumb to apathy. As he once said himself: “Music is a great blessing. It has the power to elevate us and liberate us. It sets people free to dream. It can unite us to sing with one voice. Such is the value of music.”


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