By 1984, Paul Simon had fallen into a bit of a musical rut. He and his longtime musical partner, Art Garfunkel, had called it quits way back in 1970 after making five well-loved albums together as Simon & Garfunkel. The two met in grade school in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens, New York; while still in high school, they recorded the single "Hey Schoolgirl" under the name Tom & Jerry. The single sold over 100,000 copies and reached #49 on the Billboard charts in 1957. Yet the pair were unable to match the success of their first hit and soon went their separate ways for college - Simon to Queens College and Garfunkel to Columbia University.
After graduating, Simon enrolled in law school but soon dropped out and moved to England to pursue a musical career. In late 1965, while still overseas, Simon got word that a song that he and Garfunkel had previously recorded, "The Sound of Silence," had begun receiving major radio airplay in the States. He returned to New York immediately, reacquainting with Art Garfunkel (who had earned a Columbia MS in mathematics in the meantime!). Together, the duo recorded five albums together, all of which were major hits, and their music was featured in the 1967 film The Graduate. The duo eventually broke up in 1970 over personal issues that arose from the massive success of the album Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Undeterred, Paul Simon continued making music, only as a solo performer. He achieved huge success with his first three solo albums, the eponymous Paul Simon (1972), There Goes Rhymin' Simon (1973), and Still Crazy After All These Years (1975). Though his 1980 solo album One Trick Pony was not a major commercial success, Simon remained in the spotlight when he and Garfunkel reunited for a one-off free concert in Central Park on September 19, 1981, drawing over half a million fans.
Following the success of this concert, however, Simon's career took a turn for the worse. In 1983, his new album, Hearts and Bones, proved to be a major commercial failure - probably the first of his musical career. By 1984, Paul Simon was in a rut. He felt as if he had lost all inspiration to write music - nothing felt new or fresh to him musically.
So what did he do?
He did what any other famous, borderline washed-out musician would do - he went to South Africa for inspiration in the hopes of recording an album that would blend the sounds of American popular music with South African mbaqanga and isicathamiya. Duh...
But in all seriousness, Paul Simon first fell in love with South African music after a friend gave him a mixtape of South African music. While listening to the sounds and rhythms of this music from halfway across the globe, Simon found the inspiration for his next project. He pursued that spark, traveling to Johannesburg to meet in person with some of the musicians he had grown to admire.
Now before we continue with the rest of the story, let's pause to reflect for a moment. If we didn't know that Graceland, the album that grew out of Simon's South African wanderings, would go on to become a major critical and commercial success, we might figure that the whole idea sounds... terrible. You can almost hear the executives at Simon's record label dropping F-bombs on each other when they first got wind of the concept. "So Paul, you say you're going to make an album combining American pop sensibilities with South African music - a genre that most Americans have never heard!!??? WHAT THE...!?"
And there was another, even more serious problem with the idea of Paul Simon traveling to South Africa back in 1985: Black South Africans were still living under apartheid. By clinging to the nakedly discriminatory racial, economic, and political policies of apartheid through the 1980s, South Africa's ruling white minority had solidified the country's position as a pariah state in the international community. People around the world organized boycotts in attempts to isolate South Africa and force its government to end apartheid; Simon's visit to the country would be seen by many as a betrayal of the spirit of the boycott.
Simon's journey came nine years after the Soweto Uprising of 1976, which marked a new, more militant phase in the South African resistance movement. Angry black youth in Soweto, a township outside of Johannesburg, violently protested the white government's efforts to teach black students in Afrikaans (the language - an offshoot of Dutch - of the white Boer ruling caste). These clashes between black youths and white South African police forces strengthened and were broadcast into living rooms all around the world, galvanizing increasing international opposition to apartheid. By 1985, South African Prime Minister P.W. Botha announced plans to reform apartheid from within while still maintaining the basic structure of racial domination - "adapt or die," he would urge his white countrymen. But black South Africans, organized under the exiled African National Congress (ANC) of Nelson Mandela and the new United Democratic Front (UDF) sought to end apartheid by making the country "ungovernable." Violence and protest continued to grow through the mid-1980s. This prompted Botha to declare a state of emergency in 1985, the same year Paul Simon traveled to the country.
The end of apartheid was only a few years away; Mandela would be freed from prison in 1990, then elected South Africa's president in the nation's first post-apartheid democratic election in 1994. But no one knew that in 1985, when both sides appeared to be digging in for a long and brutal struggle.
Paul Simon was invited to come to South Africa by the Black South African Musicians Union. But in accepting their invitation, Simon broke the United Nations' cultural boycott on the country, and in turn courted considerable controversy. For a brief period following the release of Graceland, Simon was even blacklisted by the UN and the ANC.
So with all these apparent obstacles standing in the way, just how did Graceland become one of the most improbable hit albums of the 1980s?
The counterintuitive answer is simply that Graceland was made by the right artist at the right time. Oh, and the music is really groovy, too.
Paul Simon was one of only a handful of established artists who could have attempted such an album. At its heart, Graceland is an album about collaboration - both musically and culturally. Paul Simon worked with many South African musicians, most notably the all-male a capella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo and bassist Bakithi Khumalo. This collaboration courted considerable controversy from a variety of groups. As previously mentioned, the United Nations and ANC both blacklisted Simon for traveling to South Africa and breaking the cultural boycott. Anti-apartheid activists even picketed outside several of Simon's concerts in protest. Simon wholeheartedly disagreed with the notion of a cultural boycott "that boycotted the very people who needed to have the world come in and look at them." In this sense, Simon believed that a cultural exchange between the United States and South Africa could bring pressure to bear upon apartheid in the same way that cutting off South Africa from the international economic system through sanctions and divestment could make apartheid unsustainable. As an album, Graceland gave voice (musically) to an oppressed people whose voices were all to often ignored and suppressed.
Despite this, Simon received considerable criticism for this collaboration. Some of the labels thrown onto Simon by his detractors included "the benevolent musical colonizer," or even "that Livingstone of the '80s" (a reference to the British imperialist David Livingstone, who "discovered" Victoria Falls in 1855). Another critic argued that, "like some explorer or missionary in the 19th century, the European is the center of attraction, the organizer, the teacher, the master." Some of this controversy stemmed from the fact that Simon held the copyright to all of the songs despite the fact that several South African musicians contributed heavily to the writing of the music.
Several other critics believed that in making Graceland, Simon had appropriated a culture for his own financial benefit. Simon countered these criticisms, explaining, "my view is instinctually cultural. Looking at things culturally, as I did with Graceland, there's a political implication involved, but essentially I come at the world from a cultural sociological point of view and [my radical critics] want to define the world politically." Despite such critiques, the members of the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo received enormous attention following the release of Graceland, and have maintained international attention ever since. According to Hugh Masekela, another famous South African musician, "Paul Simon brought the music of South Africa to 10 million ears."
The album's hit track, "You Can Call Me Al" is a story of resilience and redemption. Prior to traveling to South Africa, Simon was in a rut both musically and personally. His musical career had reached a major slump and his second marriage, to the actress Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia from Star Wars!) had come to an end in 1984. "You Can Call Me Al" details the thoughts of a man going through a mid-life crisis. His beer belly has made him "soft in the middle," as he desperately needs "a shot at redemption," or "a photo opportunity" at the very least. But lo and behold, it is during Simon's trip to South Africa, a place where he is a complete and utter foreigner, that he finds redemption and rejuvenation. He sees beauty in the mundane aspects of daily life in South Africa, whether it's the "cattle in the marketplace" or even "scatterlings and orphanages." The jubilation he experiences while surrounded by new sights, sounds, people, languages, and customs leads Simon to conclude that he sees "angels in the architecture," prompting him to declare "Amen! Hallelujah!"