The huge role of music in Nelson Mandela’s struggle for freedom

Nelson Mandela wrote that many young people thought his Christian name was ‘Free’

The Special AKA released single Free Nelson Mandela in 1984 - which climbed to the top of the charts in countries around the world.

The Special AKA released single Free Nelson Mandela in 1984 - which climbed to the top of the charts in countries around the world.


In his autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela wrote “I am told that when ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ posters went up in London, most young people thought my Christian name was: ‘Free’.”

Up until 1984, Mandela’s name was not widely known outside of political activist circles. That all changed though with the release of a hit single, Free Nelson Mandela, which climbed to the top of the charts in countries around the world.

The song’s writer, Jerry Dammers of The Specials ska group, didn’t know who Nelson Mandela was until he went to a concert in 1983 by South African musician Hugh Masekela. He heard Masekela shout out “Free Mandela” at the end of his set.

“I was already working on an upbeat, catchy melody that sounded vaguely African, so I put the words Free Nelson Mandela to it to pass on the message. It was a hit all across Europe, but the most amazing thing was seeing crowds sing it in football stadiums in South Africa,” says Dammers.

Song of defiance
At the time in South Africa, it was illegal to show pictures of Mandela or even mention his name in public, so singing Dammers’s song became an act of defiance in the country.

Previously, Masekela and singers Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte had battled to keep Mandela’s name and plight in the headlines during the 1960s and 1970s but it was another hit song, Peter Gabriel’s Biko, released in 1980, that raised international awareness of apartheid in South Africa.

It was written about African National Congress activist Stephen Biko who died in police custody. Gabriel says “Bono called me up after the song’s release and told me that U2 had learned about apartheid and Africa from the Biko song.”

The music community was saluted by the ANC for doing more for publicising the inequity of apartheid than politicians. Back in the early 1960s, the Musicians Union became the first trade grouping to place a ban on its members performing in apartheid South Africa following the 1960 Sharpeville massacre.

Sun City
Following the global success of the Free Nelson Mandela song, US guitarist Steve Van Zandt released the Sun City song in 1985. Featuring performances by Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan among a stellar cast, the song called on musicians to turn down lucrative offers to perform in South Africa’s Sun City casino resort.

In 1988, the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute was held at London’s Wembley Stadium and broadcast live on the BBC.

Featuring a Live Aid style mix of musicians, it was seen by 600 million people in 67 countries.

The concert was reprised in 1990, but this time with the newly free Nelson Mandela as the guest of honour. Mandela was keen to seek out “the man who had written the song about me”.

When he was introduced to Dammers, he took issue with some of his lyrics.

Dammers had written “21 years in captivity/shoes too small to fit his feet”, but Mandela in a typical gesture of humility and honesty wanted to point out that, contrary to popular belief, the shoes his captives had given him were the right size.

Yes, the basis for his imprisonment was wrong, but his shoes had always fitted him.

There is an online campaign – backed by politicians, sports stars and celebrities – to make Free Nelson Mandela the number-one song at Christmas in Ireland and the UK.

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