The 25th anniversary of musician Paul Simon’s groundbreaking album Graceland, released in late 1986, has been commemorated by a documentary film by American filmmaker Joe Berlinger. Titled Under African Skies, the film revisits the controversy surrounding Simon’s visit to South Africa in 1985 to record the album with South African musicians including guitarist Ray Phiri and vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
On the advice of Simon’s friend, Harry Belafonte, Simon traveled to South Africa without first consulting the African National Congress, while the apartheid government was firmly in power. His visit to the country thus contravened the United Nations cultural boycott on South Africa enforced to pressurise the South African government to revise its discriminatory policies.
The film is orchestrated around a conversation between Simon and anti-apartheid activist and co-founder of the activist group Artists Against Apartheid, Dali Tambo. Tambo argues in the film that by visiting South Africa in this way, Simon tacitly supported the upholding of apartheid in South Africa. In response, Simon argues for the political freedom of artists, stating that his visit and the subsequent release of Graceland contributed greatly to international awareness of the isolation of artists in South Africa.
Other commentators in the film include Phillip Glass; Paul McCartney; Joseph Shabalala, vocal lead of Ladysmith Black Mambazo; and Quincy Jones. Under African Skies premieres in New York at the IFC Centre this Friday night, and will be screened at venues in South Africa later this year.