There was a time when race was usually only considered an issue for South Africa. After years or protesting South African politics and apartheid in conventional manners, some charities and activists decided to raise awareness through music. The result was Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday party (a month prior to his actual birthday) to protest the Black political leader’s ongoing imprisonment. The ANC (African National Congress, a radical group attempting to bring Black power to the government anyway possible) wanted a highly-politicized event but organizers agreed to focus on music to get more coverage and attention. It happened this day in 1988 and it worked.
It was held in London’s Wembley Stadium – the stadium holds about 80 000 and was sold out. What’s more, the concert was televised in over 60 countries including the U.S. (On Fox), Britain and more surprisingly the USSR and China. Mind you, the American broadcast wasn’t without controversy. Some politicians objected to it being shown at all, given that Mandela was officially a “criminal” in his land, while many others objected to the network’s handling of the concert. They edited it down heavily and actually refused to use Mandela’s name in the advertising, calling it “Freedom Fest” instead.
While Mandela wasn’t there in person, obviously, the effects of the show and the protests which followed didn’t go unnoticed in South Africa. Then president Botha of that country moved Mandela to a much more open and better prison, after 25 years in harsh conditions only weeks later and by 1990, he was released outright. Most estimates say about 200 million tuned in to see the concert that day and at least double that have viewed it since in repeats or videos. The day-long event began with Sting doing a four-song set, including “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free.” His manager was irate with him for doing that, he felt Sting should have been a headliner or not there at all, but Sting was scheduled to perform in Germany that night and didn’t want to cancel, hence his early appearance. The show went along with a few speeches from the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Connolly and Monty Python’s Graham Chapman. While inexplicably Prince and Bono refused to appear, musical highlights were aplenty. Among the main stars were George Michael, Eurythmics, Paul Young, Bryan Adams, Midge Ure with Phil Collins doing XTC’s “Dear God”, UB40, with Chrissie Hynde, Peter Gabriel (performing his renowned South African protest song “Biko” with Simple Minds and Youssou D’nour), a jam doing “Sun City” including Meat Loaf and actress Daryl Hannah (there with her then boyfriend Jackson Browne) with Simple Minds and Stevie Wonder. He played two songs after nearly walking out on the event because of equipment problems; he ended up using Whitney Houston’s band’s gear instead. As as a fnale, Dire Straits appeared. Mark Knopfler’s band had Eric Clapton joining them for an embarrassment of riches on guitars. They played seven tunes including Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight”. Dire Straits would break up shortly after (but reunite briefly in the ’90s.) but went out on a high note therefore.
The event didn’t hurt by any measure. It raised about $2 million for charities including Oxfam and by 1994, Mandela, now much better known internationally, was not only no longer incarcerated but the President in South Africa.