Sun City (song)
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|Single by Artists United Against Apartheid|
|from the album Sun City|
|Released||October 25, 1985|
|Format||12-inch and 7-inch|
|Genre||Protest song, new wave, dance, R&B, hip hop|
|Songwriter(s)||Steven Van Zandt|
|Producer(s)||Steven Van Zandt|
"Sun City" is a 1985 protest song written by Steven Van Zandt, produced by Van Zandt and Arthur Baker and recorded by Artists United Against Apartheid to convey opposition to the South African policy of apartheid. The primary means of that opposition is to declare that all the artists involved would refuse any and all offers to perform at Sun City, a resort which was located within the bantustan of Bophuthatswana, one of a number of internationally unrecognized states created by the South African government to forcibly relocate its black population.
Van Zandt was interested in writing a song about South Africa's Sun City casino resort, to make parallels with the plight of Native Americans. Danny Schechter, at the time a journalist with ABC News' 20/20, suggested that the song should be a different kind of "We Are the World", or as Schechter explained, "a song about change not charity, freedom not famine."
As Van Zandt was writing it, Schechter suggested that he include the names of the artists who had played Sun City in defiance of a United Nations-sanctioned cultural boycott. "I was probably still thinking of 20/20's exposé of conservative Africanists 15 years earlier," says Schechter. References to specific performers who had played in Sun City appeared in the demo but were omitted from the final version of the song.
Musically speaking, the song combines elements of hip-hop (which was beginning to achieve mainstream popularity at the time), R&B, and hard rock. The main hook is multiple successive artists singing "I, I, I, I, I, I", followed by all the artists together singing "ain't gonna play Sun City!"
When Van Zandt was finished writing "Sun City", he, Baker and Schechter spent the next several months searching for artists to participate in recording it. Van Zandt initially declined to invite Bruce Springsteen, not wanting to take advantage of their friendship, but Schechter had no problem asking himself; Springsteen accepted the invitation. Van Zandt also had reservations about inviting jazz giant Miles Davis, whom Schechter also contacted; with minimal persuasion, Davis also accepted. Eventually, Van Zandt, Baker and Schechter gathered a wide array of artists, including Kool DJ Herc, Grandmaster Melle Mel, The Fat Boys, Rubén Blades, Bob Dylan, Herbie Hancock, Ringo Starr and his son Zak Starkey, Lou Reed, Run DMC, Peter Gabriel, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Darlene Love, Bobby Womack, Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, Jackson Browne and Daryl Hannah (his girlfriend at the time), U2, George Clinton, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Peter Wolf, Bonnie Raitt, Hall & Oates, Jimmy Cliff, Big Youth, Michael Monroe, Peter Garrett, Ron Carter, Ray Barretto, Gil-Scott Heron, Kashif, Nona Hendryx, Pete Townshend, Pat Benatar, Clarence Clemons, Stiv Bators and Joey Ramone.
"Sun City" reached #38 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in December 1985. Only about half of American radio stations played "Sun City". Some stations objecting to the lyrics' explicit criticism of US President Ronald Reagan's policy of "constructive engagement," particularly singer Joey Ramone's lines in the song "Our government tells us / We're doing all we can / Constructive engagement is / Ronald Reagan's plan." (Ramone also expressed open discontent and criticism towards him with the Ramones song "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg".) "Sun City" was banned in Apartheid South Africa itself.
The song did somewhat better overseas, reaching #21 on the UK Singles Chart, #4 in Australia and achieving chart action in a number of other European countries, becoming a substantial hit in The Netherlands. It was also a top ten single in Canada in December 1985 and January 1986.
Van Zandt and Schechter also struggled to get their documentary seen. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) refused to broadcast the non-profit film The Making of Sun City even though it won the International Documentary Association's top honors in 1986. PBS claimed the featured artists were also involved in making the film and were therefore "self-promoting." In 1987, WNYC-TV, the New York City-owned public television station, aired an updated version of the documentary, produced by filmmaker Bill Lichtenstein along with Schechter. The film included updates about the Sun City resort and apartheid as well as the success of the Sun City video. In addition to airing the documentary, WNYC-TV made the film available over the PBS system to public television stations across the country for broadcast.
The album and single raised more than US$1 million for anti-apartheid projects, but it paled in comparison to the popular and financial success of "We Are the World". It premiered at the United Nations, thanks to the Special Committee Against Apartheid and UN officers such as Aracelly Santana.
In South Africa, "Sun City" would later inspire musician Johnny Clegg to create a local organization similar to Van Zandt's. "Sun City" also became the catalyst for the South Africa Now TV series.
Since the end of the apartheid era, the song is rarely played on the radio.
- Goldberg, Denis (2015). A Life for Freedom: The Mission to End Racial Injustice in South Africa (Reprint ed.). University Press of Kentucky. p. 304. ISBN 9780813166858. Retrieved August 10, 2018 – via Google Books.
- Christgau, Robert (1986-09-23). "South Africa Romance". The Village Voice. Retrieved 28 November 2013.
- Lynskey, Dorian (2011). 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs. Ecco.
- "Hot 100". Billboard.com. December 14, 1985.
- "Rock History 101: The Ramones' 'Bonzo Goes To Bitburg'". Consequence of Sound (Cos). Retrieved 22 April 2016.
- "Stevie Wonder and 5 Other Artists Banned in Apartheid South Africa: The Beatles, Pink Floyd and More". Music Times. Retrieved 22 April 2016.
- "Top Singles". collectionscanada.gc.ca. 43 (17). January 18, 1986. Retrieved April 22, 2016 – via Library and Archives Canada.
- Artists United Against Apartheid at African Activist Archive Project; including documents, photographs and the video "The Making of Sun City" (1987) that includes the original video