In a television interview from October 1983 (a clip of which made a comeback on social media), talk show host Don Lane asks a young Linda Ronstadt: “You went to South Africa recently. Have you received criticism for going there?” This moment arrives nearly an hour into the new documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (2019, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman). In a short clip, we see the pop singer interviewed on the Don Lane Show, faced with a question about her performance at the infamous Sun City casino resort in apartheid South Africa.
Ronstadt’s Sun City tour landed her in the first edition of the United Nations’ “Register of Entertainers, Actors And Others Who Have Performed in Apartheid South Africa.” The UN Register, which was sometimes referred to as a blacklist, was first published in 1983 by the UN Special Committee against Apartheid, itself established by a vote of the UN General Assembly in 1980 (which had been opposed by a handful of countries including Canada and the United States). Other performers singled out by the UN for violating the boycott over the previous two years included Liza Minelli, Olivia Newton-John, Dolly Parton, Clarence Carter, Shirley Bassey, Barry Manilow, and Rod Stewart. By 1985, the UN Register included 388 names of performers who had broken the boycott since 1981, including Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Liberace, and the Beach Boys.
Inclusion on the UN’s Register or blacklist was not final. Artists could easily be removed from the list if they signed a pledge that going forward they would boycott South Africa until apartheid had ended. And indeed, many artists readily complied: in 1985, Goldie Hawn was shocked to find herself on the Register and made clear her intentions to sign the pledge. “I feel awful about it,” Hawn told the Chicago Tribune, “Warner Bros. told me it was a good market and wanted me to go there. And I was so naive, I went. I was really quite innocent until I got there and saw what a horror story it was—then I spoke my mind (against apartheid). I won`t be going back, God knows!”
“As far as I was concerned it was just a gig,” Ronstadt told Don Lane:
I don’t think that if you disagree with the policies of the government, which I do very definitely disagree with the policies of the South African government, I don’t think that’s enough of a reason not to go and play music there. If I did that, I wouldn’t be able to play in the United States … if I decided that I wasn’t going to play where attitudes of racism prevailed I certainly couldn’t play in Australia or England or lots of places in the United States …
Regrettably, the documentary quickly moves on, and can be fairly accused of glossing over the controversy. Even worse, by following the interview with a clip of Ronstadt’s friend Bonnie Raitt praising her political intellect and “depth,” the film effectively presents Ronstadt’s decision to perform in apartheid South Africa as a savvy and politically mature choice, and it comes across as somehow laudable.
This is unfortunate, for Ronstadt’s decision to play Sun City was not only morally wrong, but it was also an important cultural moment of the anti-apartheid era, especially in the United States. While Ronstadt certainly wasn’t alone in breaking the cultural boycott, she was nonetheless one of the most visible celebrities to do so, and unlike many other artists she refused to apologize. Her intransigence on this issue made her a key symbol in the debates over the boycott, and a flashpoint for activism. As such, the controversy deserves further reflection.
Crossing the picket line
In May 1983, Linda Ronstadt was paid $500,000 to perform 6 concerts at Sun City as a last-minute fill-in for another act that fell through. Sun City was a popular white-owned resort in the nominally “independent” Bantustan of Bophuthatswana, which was promoted by the South African government and its supporters in an effort to downplay the horrors of apartheid. In Sun City, Black and white South Africans could mix while partying or gambling. Using this ruse, many of the world’s best athletes (especially golfers and boxers) had been convinced to compete in events there.
Although Ronstadt was conflicted about the offer, it was reportedly Frank Sinatra who convinced her to play Sun City, who “assured her that Bophuthatswana was fully integrated” (Sinatra himself was paid up to two million dollars for his visit in 1981). Despite these assurances, Rolling Stone Magazine noted that the crowd that came to see Ronstadt was “almost totally … 99.44 … percent pure-white.”
In sharp contrast with the many artists who quickly repented after finding themselves on the UN blacklist, Ronstadt flatly refused to apologize for playing Sun City and would not sign any boycott pledge. In defending her actions, she turned the issue into a matter of principle, expressing opposition to the very idea of a cultural boycott.
“The last place for a boycott is in the arts,” Ronstadt told Rolling Stone in 1983, “I don’t like being told I can’t go somewhere.” She insisted that her visit was in no way an “endorsement” of the apartheid government, but that “if I won’t play a repressive government, a police state … then I couldn’t play the black countries or Alabama or Boston.”
These are themes that Ronstadt continued to repeat for years, as illustrated in an interview with the Orange County Register in 1989. Criticizing the logic of boycotts, she remarked:
Would I play Israel? You bet. Would I play one of the Arab countries? Of course. We are directly interfering with people’s lives in Central America and, as a Latin [Ronstadt’s father was from Mexico], how can I be a member of this country, play concerts here, give aid and comfort to people who—through their tax dollars—are allowing people to be massacred and tortured? Once you start thinking like that, you have to be responsible for everything, and you can’t be that way.
In the same interview, Ronstadt questions whether cultural boycotts punished the right people, and suggests that music itself could be a force for reform: “If rock ‘n’ roll had been circulating freely through there (South Africa) from the ’60s on, I think there would have been even more of a change by now. Look what happened over here. There was a revolution in the ’60s—some of it for the good, a lot of it not so good— but much of it for the good, and that was propelled by pop music.”
Boycotting Linda Ronstadt
Ronstadt’s unapologetic violation of the boycott made her a prominent target for the anti-apartheid movement.
Importantly, Ronstadt was an implicit target of the 1985 protest record “Sun City” (featuring the refrain “I ain’t gonna play Sun City”) which was written by Bruce Springsteen’s former lead guitarist Steven Van Zandt who had visited South Africa twice in 1984. The song had the participation of 50 artists including Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and Ringo Starr, who performed under the name Artists United Against Apartheid. Initially, the charge was intended to be more explicit: original lyrics included the line “Linda Ronstadt, how could you do that? Rod Stewart, tell me that you didn’t do it,” but this was removed from the final version of the song.
Like other artists who found themselves on the UN Register, Ronstadt’s shows were picketed by anti-apartheid groups across the United States. In Los Angeles in 1988, the group Unity in Action handed out flyers that read: “BOYCOTT Linda Ronstadt! Protest Against Collaboration with Racist Neo-Nazi South Africa!” Many of the artists who were picketed ultimately complied with activists’ demands and agreed to sign a boycott pledge, but Ronstadt was one of only a few (with Ray Charles) who steadfastly refused.
Rubbing salt in the wound was Ronstadt’s appearance on Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album in 1986, which itself was controversial for being recorded in apartheid South Africa and therefore appeared to violate the cultural boycott. The collaboration did not go unnoticed; in a review of Graceland published in the Southern Africa Report (a prominent Canadian anti-apartheid newsletter), David Galbraith noted that “It’s not hard to read [Simon’s] decision to include Linda Ronstadt, a prominent Sun City performer, on one track as a deliberate repudiation of the UN blacklist,” adding that “the fact that ‘Under African Skies’ happens to be the worst on the album is a purely serendipitous demonstration of the symbiotic relationship between art and politics.“
For arguably breaking the cultural boycott, Simon was criticized by the African National Congress, the most prominent liberation movement at the time, and his name was added to the UN Register. However, unlike Ronstadt, Simon sought to mitigate against the criticism: in early 1987 he sent a letter to the UN supporting the principle of the boycott and promising not to perform in South Africa, and thereafter he was quickly removed from the blacklist (although some anti-apartheid groups continued to boycott his album). By 1988, the list of artists who had pledged support for the boycott, and therefore had been removed from the Register, included Frank Sinatra, Tina Turner, Eartha Kitt, Cher, and Paula Anka.
By 1991 the list of names on the UN Register was dwindling, but there was one absence that was particularly surprising: after all her objections, in the summer of 1990 Linda Ronstadt had “quietly” informed the UN that she wouldn’t return to South Africa until apartheid was over, and therefore her name had been deleted. Did she have a change of heart? It seems unlikely; in late 1989 she had told the Orange County Register that “art should never, never be boycotted,” and while she admitted that she would not return to Sun City, this was only because “you can’t make any money doing it” and she doesn’t “care for casinos.” More likely, in a time when Mandela had been released from prison and the end of apartheid seemed inevitable, she didn’t want to be among the very last names still on the list.
Why Boycott ____?
Nearly four decades later, Linda Ronstadt’s arguments against the cultural boycott ring both hollow and familiar. Her central charge — it doesn’t make sense to boycott any particular place given that racism exists everywhere — misses the point completely. After all, the logic of the cultural boycott was not that racism existed in South Africa, but rather the fact that South African liberation movements (and later the United Nations) were specifically requesting it. These organizations had provided a clear reference point for action and solidarity, which artists like Ronstadt decided to ignore while deferring solely to their own personal judgement.
This is a feature which is also lost in contemporary debates over the boycott of Israel, which tend to repeat many of the exact same arguments. The simple answer to the question of “Why Boycott Israel?” and not elsewhere is precisely because it is a response to the call from Palestinians themselves. Unfortunately, too many artists see the issue in the same individualistic terms as Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who complained to Rolling Stone about the pressure to comply with the BDS call, saying that it is “really upsetting that artists I respect think we are not capable of making a moral decision ourselves[.]”
In justifying their decision to boycott South Africa, a 1988 pamphlet by Unity in Action quoted African National Congress official Barbara Masekela:
No consideration of the cultural boycott that looks away from the daily occurrences in the streets of South Africa, the daily struggle and sacrifice, is of any consequence.
The cultural boycott is no rigid theoretical discourse. It is a practical political exercise that must be designed to aid and abet the initiatives of our patriots against the scourge of racist economic exploitation.
It is a question of choosing to betray or support our struggle for national liberation.
Linda Ronstadt made her choice. Let’s learn the right lessons from it.