Art-vs.-politics Dilemma Blacks Differ Over Simon Benefit Concert

Posted: June 12, 1987

It would be wonderful if the South African children now being detained, beaten and killed under the vile apartheid system could be saved by song.

It would be wonderful and simple. But unfortunately, when art and politics collide, the result is most often explosive and complicated.

That's true in the case of the benefit concert scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday at the Spectrum.

The benefit is an extension of Paul Simon's international oncert tour, featuring his controversial, Grammy-winning album "Graceland," which has introduced the rhythms and melodies of black South African musicians to appreciative audiences around the globe - and reinvigorated Simon's stagnant career.

Inspired by a tape he heard of black South African music, Simon went to Johannesburg, recorded with several black musicians, then completed the songs back in the U.S. He also collaborated in London with the Zulu group Ladysmith Black Mambazo to produce the most haunting song in the album, "Homeless."

Joined by exiled South African musicians Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, as well as Ladysmith Black Mambazo and guitarist Ray Phiri's group Stimela, Simon's "Graceland" tour blossomed into an unprecedented showcase of black South African music.

For that reason, a second leg of the tour was planned, as a benefit: one- third going to Children of Apartheid, founded by activist/churchman Allan Boesak; one-third to the United Negro College Fund and one-third to a children's aid agency in each city where the show is held - in Philadelphia, the House of Umoja, which serves delinquent boys.

Another goal of the benefit was to draw more blacks into the audiences - which had been predominantly white during the first tour, largely because Simon's popularity in the '60s was primarily among whites. Promoters in every city on the tour are required to advertise in black media outlets in their communities.

In Philadelphia, spots have aired on WDAS radio, and Julius Erving is the co-promoter of the benefit with Electric Factory Productions.

Yet blacks have been urged to boycott the concert.

The opposition is a perfect example of the complexities that emerge when art and politics collide - when artistic expression and the politics of revolutionary struggle cannot be comfortably reconciled.

The Martin Luther King Anti-Apartheid Coalition, led by Catherine Blunt and supported by state Rep. David Richardson, is planning to picket the Spectrum. They argue that Simon violated the UN resolution calling for a cultural boycott of South Africa.

Technically, they are correct. Though Simon has not been listed on the register of artists who have violated the boycott (he has never performed in South Africa), he did get an asterisk on the March update of the list. The footnote said that although he had recorded music in South Africa, he has pledged not to perform there.

But are the positive results of Simon's collaborative effort - which has promoted the work of black South African musicians, not the South African apartheid regime - worth so little and so politically "incorrect" as to justify a boycott of a concert that will raise money to help South African and Philadelphia youth?

For supporters of the boycott, the answer is yes.

"I see this (the Simon benefit concert) as a flim-flam operation and a psyche job on black people," says Dave Richardson, adding that people who wish to support the House of Umoja, UNCF and Children of Apartheid should send contributions to them directly.

"We don't need to be legitimized by Paul Simon in order to support our community."

There's no question that Paul is profiting from the "Graceland" venture. The tour will promote sales of the already successful album.

Another issue in the local protest is promotion of the concert. Catherine Blunt says that although Dr. J. is black, he's not a "longstanding black promoter like Georgie Woods or Stanley Culbreth."

Perhaps South African children who are being detained will understand that black people in Philadelphia found it politically incorrect to contribute to a benefit concert that might ease their oppression.

Fortunately, this is not Johannesburg. Free choice is an option for anyone whose concept of political correctness and cultural expression in a revolutionary struggle allows them to support the Simon benefit.

Sister Falakah Fattah of the House of Umoja is happy for that. "I'm grateful that someone suggested hat we can use some help," she says, ''because we can."

It is true that the imprisoned youngsters in South Africa will not be freed simply by song.

But beyond the fundraising, hearing the song of their struggle from black South Africans will do more to touch the hearts and minds of an indifferent world than any dry speechifying and direct proselytizing - no matter how culturally pure and politically correct.

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