Nelson Mandela, the iconic anti-apartheid leader who helped end nearly 50 years of racial segregation by a white minority government in South Africa, died on Thursday (December 5) at the age of 95 after a series of lung infections. During his lifetime his battle to end apartheid was supported by musicians from around the world.
As early as the mid-1980s, ska band the Special AKA released a protest song called “Free Nelson Mandela,” which would give way to large-scale concerts and tributes like London’s Wembley stadium performance (also known as the Free Nelson Mandela Concert). All aimed to help raise awareness of Mandela’s brave work to end the practice of segregation in South Africa. Later, music-loving Mandela would even reveal that he was a major fan of U.K. pop sensations the Spice Girls.
Born July 18, 1918 in Umtatu in South Africa’s Cape Province, Mandela rose to prominence in the early 1950s as the leader of the Defiance Campaign, whose goal was a non-violent end to the National Party’s minority rule. He led a splinter group, however, whose tactics employed violence against government targets and, in 1962, Mandela was arrested and convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government, which landed him a prison life sentence.
Continuing his campaign from behind bars at the harsh Robben Island Prison, Mandela became an international cause célèbre during his 27-year stint. (He also contracted the tuberculosis that ultimately played a part in his death during that time.) An international campaign for his freedom — helped by a number of prominent musicians, actors and celebrities — led to his release in 1990.
He was elected the first black president of South Africa in 1994 and continued to be a beacon for racial equality for the rest of his life, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
On Thursday, current president Jacob Zuma honored the activist during a late-night address, saying, “What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human. We saw in him what we seek in ourselves.”
Indeed, Mandela’s time in prison was marked by a loud, diverse campaign for his release and subsequent support for his causes from musicians all over the world. Here are just a few highlights of their efforts:
U2 To Run-DMC
» In 1984, English ska band the Special AKA released a protest song called “Free Nelson Mandela” that became an international anthem during Mandela’s incarceration.
» A year later, E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt assembled an all-star group of performers for his “Sun City” single under the name Artists United Against Apartheid. The “We Are the World”-style song targeted South Africa’s resort, where a number of major artists (Rod Stewart, Black Sabbath, Elton John) had played during the apartheid regime.
“Sun City” had a wide-ranging roster of contributors, including such hip-hop icons as DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Run-DMC, Afrika Bambaataa and Kurtis Blow, as well as rock and pop stars Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Lou Reed, U2, George Clinton, Joey Ramone, Pete Townshend, Hall & Oates and Rolling Stones members Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood.
Freedom Concerts And Birthday Celebrations
» A June 1988 show at London’s Wembley stadium (known as the Free Nelson Mandela Concert) bowed with songs from Sting, George Michael, the Eurythmics, Al Green, the Bee Gees, UB40, Stevie Wonder, Salt N Pepa, Whitney Houston and Peter Gabriel.
» Nelson Mandela: An International Tribute for a Free South Africa was a massive concert beamed all over the world from London’s Wembley Stadium two months after his release from prison in 1990. It featured the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Denzel Washington, Neil Young, hip-hop group the Jungle Brothers, Tracy Chapman, Natalie Cole and Peter Gabriel.
» A 90th birthday tribute concert in London’s Hyde Park in 2008 had appearances from host Will Smith, Amy Winehouse, Josh Groban, Queen with Paul Rodgers and South African musical icon Johnny Clegg.
» Mandela’s birthday continued to be an important milestone for many in the hip-hop community, with everyone from Nick Cannon to Ghostface Killah and Russell Simmons often taking time out each year to post inspirational quotes from the South African icon and pay tribute to his struggle.
Spice Girls Superfan?
Believe it or not, Mandela, who had met with practically every world leader, artistic and political figure of note in the years after his release, was most blown away by … the Spice Girls. When he met the British pop tarts during their tour of South Africa in 1997, Mandela joked, “These are my heroes. This is one of the greatest moments of my life.”
The Ladysmith Connection
» Grammy-winning South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who came to world prominence in 1986 thanks to their work on Paul Simon’s smash Graceland album, were called “South Africa’s cultural ambassadors” by Mandela.
After meeting Mandela at his 90th birthday celebration, they became close to the leader, accompanying him to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 1993 and to his inauguration a year later. They were also later recruited to serve as ambassadors for his HIV/AIDS global awareness campaign in 2003.
50 Cent Sees The Light
» In one of the most unlikely encounters, in 2008 50 Cent visited with Mandela during a G-Unit tour of Africa.
“I’ve been enlightened in a lot of different ways,” 50 said of his meeting with Mandela and tours of some of the nation’s museums, including the Apartheid Museum, conducted by Mandela’s grandson. “To have someone directly involved give me information was exciting. You know, I learn faster hands-on than I do from reading books. It’s exciting to be in a position where people [of the Mandela’s stature] will actually take the time out to explain these things to me.”