Brenda Fassie told everyone that she was related to Nelson Mandela. Whether that was true or not, is immaterial. Her song, “Black President,” which she recorded in 1989, one year before Mandela stepped free from prison, is still, for many, the standard-bearer for Mandela tribute songs. The music video for the song opens with footage of an early 1960s interview, before his arrest on treason, with Mandela, before Fassie, dressed like a disciplined ANC cadre, extolls Mandela’s attributes. As images of a white policeman chasing down and beating a black woman play behind her, Brenda sings: “The year 1963 / The people’s president / Was taken away by security men / All dressed in a uniform / The brutality, brutality / Oh no, my, my black president.” She continues by singing about his sentencing and banishment to Robben Island. Half way through the mood changes: Let us rejoice for our president / Let us sing for our president / Let us pray for our president / Let us sing, let us dance / For Madiba, Madiba’s freedom.” By then, behind moving images of a freed Mandela and expectant crowds welcoming him around South Africa, replace the earlier, more depressing, ones. Fassie is credited with writing the song and it is the only overly political track on a song consisting mostly of love ballads or lovers’ quarrels. Fassie was born in 1964, the year Mandela began his prison sentence on Robben Island. He would outlive her—she died in 2004 of a drug overdose—but not before she sang for him and he joined her on stage. When she died, Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s successor as President, said Fassie was “a Pan-African activist, making souls rise in bliss wherever her voice reached.”
There’s a few other candidates that come close:
- First up, “Mandela” by Carlos Santana and the Wayne Shorter Band. This song was first recorded live in 1988. Some of the performances feature a large Mandela poster in front of Shorter’s keyboard. Those posters, usually artists’ impressions of Mandela before he went to prison, they were ubiquitous throughout the 1980s when Mandela truly emerged as a global figure. Here’s video from the 1988 Montreaux Jazz Festival of Santana and Shorter’s band performing the same song.
- “When You Come Back Home” by the black folk singer, Vusi Mahlasela. The song, which Mahlasela released two years after Mandela was released, is written for political prisoners and freedom fighters, and doesn’t single out Mandela. It starts with a contemplative opening, mourning a fallen soldier: “This is the unknown grave / The one who died maintaining his might / His will being so strong and musically inclined / His sad melodies coming out like smoke from the wood fire / And he sang / Mayibuye iAfrica, sing now Africa / Sing loud, sing to the people / Let them give something to the world and not just take from it.” That is before, Mahlasela sings about a welcome: “And we’ll ring the bells when you come back / We’ll beat the drums when you come back home.”
- Then there’s Johnny Clegg’s “Asimbonanga,” which translated from Zulu means “We have not seen him.” Clegg and his band Savuka performed the song regularly during the 1980s. During a live version performance of the song in 1999 in Johannesburg, Mandela joined Clegg on stage and then gave a speech about how music makes him at one with the world.
- Then there’s the British ska band, Special AKA’s “Free Nelson Mandela” from 1984. The song was written by Jerry Dammers. In 2008, Dammers told the Radio Times: “I never knew how much impact the song would have. It was a hit around the world, and it got back into South Africa and was played at sporting events and ANC rallies – it became an anthem.” Last month said more about how the song came about: “It was a bit like the end of The Specials. When ‘Nelson Mandela’ came along, the band was falling to pieces. But I had this idea that I knew was really important, like ‘Ghost Town.’ so there was that desperation to get it down on tape, before the thing disintegrated completely. I wrote the tune to ‘Nelson Mandela’ before the lyrics. By that time, especially in London, rock music was dead. It was all electro-pop, hip-hop, jazz or Latin. And also, Joe Hagen had this African club at Gossip’s. I was inspired by the spirit and positivity of that African music. I was trying to get in a few Latin rhythms, but also township jazz. It was a very simple melody, three notes: C, A and E. That meant the public could sing it. And then I went to Nelson Mandela’s 65th birthday party at Alexandra Palace. I’d never really heard of him, to be honest. Various bands sang about him, particularly Julian Bahula. And that’s where I had the idea to put this message into this tune I had hanging around.”
- Finally, Hugh Masekela brings showbiz to the struggle with “Bring Back Nelson Mandela.” He’ll give anything some swing.