Nelson Mandela’s Musical Legacy

English: Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gaute...

English: Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gauteng, on 13 May 1998 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How will I remember Nelson Mandela? It will be in the music that was made about him and his role in the struggle to smash apartheid. There are many reasons why. As a child of the 80s in Nigeria, we didn’t have political programmes dedicated to the struggle – it would have been hard and perhaps a bit hypocritical, seeing as we were under the thumb of the military for the greater part of 1980-1990.  There was no CNN/cable television for us until the mid to late 90s, no internet, no news breaking globally in an instant. No. My initial education on South Africa, apartheid and Nelson Mandela was from the music of the day.

I remember Majek Fashek’s Free Mandela, from his album I and I Experience. The song spoke of the man who had been in jail for 27 years, who “left his wife and his children for the sake of Africa”. The song also reminded us that Nigeria had been independent had been independent for 29 years but Nigerians were still dependent. Majek begged Margaret Thatcher, George Bush and Frederik De Klerk to free Mandela; it begged Babangida to free Nigeria and it begged colonial masters to free Africa. During the Fela-rites-of-passage years that all Nigerian men in universities go through, I would later hear Fela Anikulapo-Kuti point out the absurdity in Thatcher and Reagan, who he said were friends of Pieta Botha, go to the United Nations to press for a charter on human rights.

I remember Ras Kimono’s Kill Apartheid. He sang, “Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Gorbachev and Pieta Botha/All of them come and join together/They want to be the blacks’ masters/So, kill apartheid, we have to kill apartheid…” I forget the musician’s name now, but I also remember “The whole world is saying: stop this apartheid; Africans are saying free Nelson Mandela! Oh yes! Liberate South Africa Now!

I remember Paul Simon’s Graceland  concert, with which he launched his African-flavoured album of the same name. Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba (God rest her soul too) did a duet – Bring back Nelson Mandela, brick him back home to Soweto, I want to see him walking down the streets of South Africa TOMORROW! Bring back Nelson Mandela, bring him back home to Soweto, I want to see him walking hand in hand with Winnie Mandela…” Apart from Masekela’s hypnotic trumpeting, there was something about that simple plea that plucked at my young heart.

I remember Onyeka Onwenu’s tribute to Winnie Mandela. “Winnie Mandela, sould of a nation, crying to be free…they can take away your man, take away your happiness, but they can’t take away your right to be free…”. I remember Nel Oliver, who resurfaced recently with the wedding hit “Baby Girl”, do a song on apartheid as well. “We must refuse segregation, we are born to live together. Open your hearts and sing in harmony, Apartheid in South Africa…” [Update: I’ve since learnt that the song was called “Upheaval”. I also found the video…]

There were so many more songs celebrating Madiba and his struggle. I’m sure I will be reminded of a few. I remember being in boarding school the day he was released from prison. We all gathered round the TV they’d brought into the common room just for the occasion. I suspect that the gravity, the significance, of the occasion was lost on the prepubescent gathering. For me, it was that this man I’d heard so many songs about was finally free.

Rest in peace, Madiba.


I’ve been told that it was sacrilegious to omit Asimbonanga by Johnny Clegg. I hope the powers that be will forgive me for this oversight, as I’ve sought to correct my error by embedding a keeper. Madiba joins Clegg on stage at this performance of Asimbonanga. Enjoy.

12 thoughts on “Nelson Mandela’s Musical Legacy

  1. Pingback: R.I.P Nelson Mandela | Pop Music Magazine

  2. I faintly remember how jubilant everyone was when the Mandela we had all been singing about was finally free. Music is powerful. I still remember the tunes of some of these songs and I don’t I’ll ever forget them. Thanks for the trip down memory lane


  3. I know these are not (particularly) the point of your article but these are the two things i love about your post.

    The song by Nel Oliver Baby Girl, it was a song I heard so much during my childhood and i have looked looked and looked for it on Youtube, asked friends but i seem to be the only one who remembers; thanks so much for reuniting me with this song 🙂

    Furthermore, you lead me to a whole array of wonderful music which tell stories deeper than sex, money and ‘babes’.



  4. Pingback: Nelson Mandela’s Musical Legacy – Y! Opinion

  5. I remember India Arie’s Wings of forgiveness and reference to Nelson Mandela forgiving oppressors. Wasn’t exactly a dedication but highlighting an aspect of his life I really would love to identify with. Thank you for this post 🙂


  6. The struggle for a free Mandela and South Africa was partly kept alive and profoundly inspired by the music that was generated within and outside of South Africa. I was deeply inspired by, for example, Hugh Massekela’s/Simone’s relevant renditions as sympathizers and I kept vigil knowing in the 1980s that freedom was just on the horizon and could not be denied much longer. Of course, at times I’m teary-eyed when I heard the new South Africa’s anthem against the background of my recollection of the struggles.
    I’m happy to have been able to visit Jo’burg, Soweto, the apartheid museum, and to have been able to reunite with a friend (and his family) who had returned after remaining in faraway exile for many years and to walk and drive and streets of Jo’burg with him somewhat recalling Massekela’s lyrics – wanting to see Nelson and Winnie ‘walking down the streets of Johannesburg’ – etc. Jamaica, of course, was in the forefront of the external resistance movement against apartheid from the 1960s and that resistance helped to raise consciousness within and beyond the Island’s borders.
    P. E. Martin (Jamaica)


  7. I was looking to download the “Africans are saying free Nelson Mandela” song when your blog popped up. I totally enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing. God bless Nelson Mandela’s memory and those who lent their voices to his struggle.


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