As the world mourns Nelson Mandela’s passing at the age of 95, he will be remembered not necessarily for his rule as president following his release from prison but for what he symbolized. The end to an unjust system during an unjust time. It was during his imprisonment that an almost cottage industry formed solely focused on his release. And during the 1980s, various artists of all ilk called for the release of Mandela through various mediums.
The one song in particular that always stuck with me was 1984’s “(Free) Nelson Mandela” by the Special AKA or The Specials, as they are widely known in the United States. The song became a rallying cry for his release. It would be a decade before he was released but his plight encapsulated the injustice of the apartheid system.
And while The Specials and Ska music, in particular, is widely regarded as a novelty act closely associated with Reggae and throngs of Skinhead fans, The Specials, along with Bad Manners, Madness and the English Beat are the best that the genre had to offer. I still remember approaching Neville Staple’s at First Avenue Nightclub in Minneapolis where I used to bartend to show my appreciation before their gig was to start in the mid-1990s.
Jerry Dammers, who wrote the song, told the Radio Times in 2008, “I knew very little about Mandela until I went to an anti-apartheid concert in London in 1983, which gave me the idea for ‘Nelson Mandela,’ I never knew how much impact the song would have; it was a hit around the world, and it got back into South Africa and was played at sporting events and ANC rallies-it became an anthem.”
Back in June when Mandela was still alive but gravely ill, the BBC wrote, “And when that happens (Mandela’s passing), I would be most surprised if any of them neglected to play the Special AKA song ‘Nelson Mandela’ (or ‘Free Nelson Mandela,’ if you bought the single) at some point. Even in countries where this 1984 single wasn’t a hit — No. 6 in the U.K. charts — the effervescent joy of this most demanding of protest songs is so closely aligned with with hard-won public geniality of the man himself that the two appear impossible to separate.”
And perhaps it is the biggest irony that Mandela passed just as his biopic, The Long Walk to Freedom, starring Idris Elba is gaining widespread attention as an accurate portrayal of his life.
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