Jamie York is a producer for On the Media.
Thursday, May 17, 2012 - 03:59 PM
A new documentary ‘Under African Skies’ is out that revisits Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland. The film (which I haven’t seen) reunites Simon with some of the contributing musicians and wades back into the political controversy surrounding the recording of the album, its runaway success and the subsequent tour.
I was old enough to listen to Graceland obsessively (via the Columbia Record Club) on my Walkman in 1986 but not old enough to be aware of the uproar Simon caused when he violated a boycott of apartheid South Africa. I’ve since become fascinated with all the issues the album raises: political responsibility, cultural appropriation, the “ecstasy of influence” and intellectual property. All of them are bound up in a piece of music that I loved first and thought seriously about only years later.
The first sign, for me, that something was amiss in Simon’s creation was the allegation by Los Lobos that at least one song “The Myth of Fingerprints” wasn’t really Simon’s creation at all. Los Lobos allege that Simon simply stole their song, gave them no credit and, when confronted, told them that if they didn’t like it they should “sue him”.
That allegation led me to a remarkably clear framing of Graceland written by Ethan Zuckerman. Zuckerman’s done a lot of thinking about cross-cultural collaboration and he places Graceland’s moment in context - taking on the two primary criticisms; that the South African (and, though he doesn’t mention it, the East L.A.) musicians were exploited and that the very style of the album is a kind of musical colonialism. Ultimately, Zuckerman argues that Simon is guilty of neither and that instead he’s a ‘bridge figure’; someone deft enough at negotiating different worlds that he brings them together – and then acts as a cultural guide for the rest of us.
I can’t recommend Zuckerman’s piece enough but I’m not so sure I agree with his acquittal of Simon. I think cultural appropriation, especially in art, is inherently messy. Trying to sort out who has the ‘right’ to certain culture is a fool’s game and arguing politics with a work of art is also folly. But stealing someone else’s song? I’ll never know why Los Lobos failed to take Simon up on his alleged offer to sue. But, documentary or no documentary, I do know I’ll never listen to Graceland quite the same way again.
Do the politics of Graceland make a bit of difference to you? I'm curious if any background information could change the way you listen to (and hear) a piece of music?