Just a few months after Nelson Mandela walked out of South Africa’s Robben Island after 27 years of imprisonment, 17-year-old Nas and his mom, postal worker Fannie Ann Jones, found themselves face to face with the iconic anti-apartheid leader at Yankee Stadium.
It was June 1990 and nearly 200,000 Stateside supporters had packed the Bronx, New York, sporting venue to welcome Mandela and rally around the cause of ending the entrenched practice of segregation in South Africa. The aspiring rapper from Queensbridge (born Nasir Jones) was in the nosebleeds but he could still make out a thunderous chant going up in the stands. ”Amandla! Amandla!” the Zulu word for power, they shouted, according to New York Times coverage that day.
“So we looking down and they had the big, um, those screens on the side of the stage and [Mandela] and his people are there and he’s — I can’t remember the one thing he kept saying because it wasn’t so easy to understand everything that he was saying,” Nas recalled to MTV News when we sat with him back in 2011. “But there was something that he would repeat, it was like a chant … and the whole crowd would repeat it, and it was the best thing ever man. That’s when I really started to understand people dedicate their life to freedom.”
On Thursday (December 5) Mandela’s family gathered at his Johannesburg home to bid him farewell. The influential activist and that country’s first democratically elected black president died at 95, but his impact could be felt as world leaders from President Obama to Bill Clinton paid touching tribute. But the loss reached far beyond the beltway. Musicians had long been drawn to Mandela, staging concerts and recording protest songs during and after his incarceration. The famed Wembley Stadium show known as the Free Nelson Mandela Concert in London drew performers from Sting to Whitney Houston in 1988.
And though Nas was still a few years from releasing his seminal 1994 album, Illmatic, when he first laid eyes on Mandela that summer day, the South African icon’s fight for civil rights would leave a lasting mark on him. God’s Son would go on to name-check him in such songs as “Tribes at War” and Game’s “Letter to the King,” and he told us it was no accident that the man affectionately known as Madiba often called on musicians to help further the cause.
“You know he is, and Africa is a very musical place so he is able to relate with musicians,” the Life Is Good MC continued. “Most musicians write about things, [and] it comes from a pure place, it talks about things that everyone can relate to. It’s not just one side, it’s not just a republican thing — everybody can get with it. So in his heart, he knew that out of everybody, you know, musicians are who he could trust.
Even 20 years after Mandela earned his freedom, his struggle and ultimate triumphs continued to reverberate, particularly in the hip-hop community. In 2008, 50 Cent traveled and toured the “horror film” South African prison where Mandela spent nearly 30 years and he got to meet the towering figure, who gets a big-screen homage in the new biopic “Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom.” Fif told MTV News earlier this year that “[my struggle] compared to that is nothing.” And Nas seemed to share that sentiment when we spoke with him.
“I mean, he spent 27 years in prison? Let’s just let’s deal with that,” he said. “If I spent two years in prison I would lose my mind, right? Or if I was in that prison I would have to know every day I wake up in there, I’m here because I chose to correct a situation. And the way I felt fit and I didn’t care about the repercussions, so I know why I’m here. I can’t imagine being in prison for two months for something like speaking out about things that are just unjust and then the thing I’m speaking out against locks me up? Two days would drive me crazy!
“This man is a stand-up man. … We can’t imagine what he had to endure,” Nas added. “We can’t imagine what was his motivation to get up and fight.”
But fight he did.