Sun City

Song Review by

Between 1984 and 1985, it seemed as if every rock star on the planet had suddenly developed a conscience after that decade's long binge of cocaine and hair spray, and decided it was time to do something for their pet charitable cause. (That the self-aggrandizing Bob Geldof, once so arrogant he was known as "Modest Bob" in the ever-sarcastic U.K. rock press, kicked off this trend with Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" was only the first of the multitude of ironies to be found in this trend.) But while "Do They Know It's Christmas," "We Are the World," and the Live Aid concert were created to benefit inarguably worthy causes (it's pretty hard to be against stopping famine), and Willie Nelson's Farm Aid events drew much-needed attention to the tricky economics of agribusiness and the independent farmers who were suddenly caught in the margins, the Sun City album -- based around the song of the same name written by Little Steven, and recorded by an aggregation of performers dubbed Artists United Against Apartheid -- was one project that took a far riskier stand. On one hand, it's difficult to imagine anyone being in favor of institutionalized racism, but due to strong and long standing economic ties between America and the South African government, the United States was reluctant to pull its political support of South Africa, despite the lamentable political and economic status of most of its citizens. Feeding the hungry was one thing, opening criticizing U.S. foreign policy was something else altogether, but Little Steven (aka Steve Van Zandt) was one rocker unafraid to speak his mind about politics, and he took the bull by the horns with the song "Sun City," which used as a symbol the Las Vegas-style resort that was located in Bophuthatswana, a so-called "homeland" for black South Africans created by the white Afrikaner government. A number of well-known American artists had played at Sun City's resorts for very large paychecks, despite a United Nations-sponsored boycott, and when Van Zandt originally wrote the song, he mentioned several of them by name. Van Zandt at first intended to record the song himself, but before long he struck upon the idea of turning it into an all-star event single that would attract far more media attention than he was capable of generating on his own, and, in time, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Bono, Pete Townshend, Peter Gabriel, Pat Benatar, Hall and Oates, and Jackson Browne all lent their talents to the project; however, some of the artists (and the record company that distributed the record) were less than comfortable with the notion of attacking other musicians by name, and the verse calling them to task was omitted. Still, the lyrics that remained stated the case against South Africa with blunt clarity: "Relocation to phony homelands/Separation of families, I can't understand/23 million can't vote 'cause they're black/We're stabbing our brothers and sisters in the back." The music hit every bit as hard as the words, generating a tense but funky groove that was potent dancefloor fodder but also boasted a defiant anger that was the perfect match for the anthemic chorus, "I ain't gonna play Sun City!" And while some of the other charity records of the period may have had more hitmaking artists on board, no one put together a record with as sonically diverse a roster of performers -- one would be hard pressed to find a radio station in America that would feature Miles Davis, George Clinton, Joey Ramone, Ruben Blades, Bonnie Raitt, and Lou Reed on the same playlist, but Van Zandt and co-producer Arthur Baker found room for all of them on "Sun City," and at a time when many rock fans were still debating if rap was actually music, "Sun City" placed Run-D.M.C., Kurtis Blow, and Afrika Bambaataa right alongside a cast of rock and soul giants in a groove that owed more than a little to the electronically modified hip-hop Baker and Bambaataa helped to pioneer. With the song "Sun City," Little Steven stuck a powerful blow against institutional racism in South Africa, and with the recording of the same song, he helped to make a statement about the musical apartheid that prevented some of the finest musicians of the day from being heard in the same place, and both were noble gestures for which he should be congratulated.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Sun City: Artists United Against Apartheid 1985
Various Artists
Razor & Tie 9:37