“Sun City” featured a mind-blowing assemblage of ’80s classic rockers & NYC hip-hop legends

By on May 16, 2019

“New York artists reach out beyond the inner cities to their brothers and sisters in South Africa with ‘Sun City,’” Night Flight’s Pat Prescott informs us during her introduction to the video featuring a mind-blowing assemblage of ’80s classic rockers & NYC hip-hop legends, known collectively as Artists United Against Apartheid.

Watch part of the Godley & Creme-directed video near the end of our nearly hour-long 80s-era “Take Off to New York” — tucked inside this  syndicated 1992 episode of “Night Flight” — on Night Flight Plus.

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The Artists United Against Apartheid project was founded in 1985 by record producer Arthur Baker and activist/musician Steven Van Zandt, a.k.a. Little Steven, the guitarist and producer with Bruce Springsteen‘s E Street Band since the early ’80s.

He’d visited racially-segregated South Africa a few years earlier, although he never played at Sun City, which was founded in Bophuthatswana in 1979.

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Little Steven was appalled by the unjust actions and evil he saw being committed by whites against blacks. They weren’t allowed to vote, nor where they able own land, and they even needed permission to travel.

He was appalled to learn that white artists like Frank Sinatra, Rod Stewart and Linda Ronstadt were being paid as much as $200,000 for a two-week run at the Las Vegas-style gambling & hotel resort complex, which catered exclusively to wealthy white tourists.

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The video features Little Steven and friends walking to an anti-apartheid rally in NYC, where along the way we see Springsteen, the Temptations’ David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, Joey Ramone, Jimmy Cliff, Daryl Hall, John Oates, Lou Reed, Rubén Blades, Bobby Womack, Run-D.M.C., Kurtis Blow, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Duke Bootee, Big Youth, Jackson Browne, Daryl Hannah, Midnight Oil‘s Peter Garrett and many, many others.

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Filmmaker/ journalist Danny Schechter helped Little Steven convene the performers for the video, and later produced two related films — Sun City and The Making of Sun City — which, aired, in part, on “Night Flight.”

Several additional artists — including George Clinton and Bonnie Raitt — were filmed in Los Angeles and edited into the video later.

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Read more about Artists United Against Apartheid’s “Sun City” below.

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By 1985, in order to combat the effects of drought and famine in Africa, Bob Geldof had already organized Band Aid, gathering up some of the UK’s biggest superstars to sing “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

Then, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie organized USA For Africa’s “We Are The World,” Bryan Adams rallied fellow Canadians as the Northern Lights to sing “Tears Are Not Enough,” and Ronnie James Dio got heavy metal acts into the charity game via Hear N Aid’s “Stars.”

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Little Steven wanted to do something different, and later said “Sun City” was a song “about change not charity, freedom not famine.”

“Relocation to phony homelands
Separation of families I can’t understand
23 million can’t vote because they’re black
We’re stabbing our brothers and sisters in the back
I ain’t gonna play Sun City”

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So far, during the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan had refused to impose economic sanctions on South Africa, calling instead for “quiet diplomacy.”

The U.S. had invested as much $7 billion in the country where whites earned four times as much as blacks did.

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Little Steven’s original idea was to have at least one representative from each genre of music appearing, like Miles Davis for jazz, Joey Ramone for punk, etc. but then more and more artists stepped forward, wanting to participate.

In the end, over fifty artists contributed to “Sun City,” including all of the artists we’ve previously mentioned, plus Kool DJ Herc, the Fat Boys, U2‘s Bono, Bob Dylan, Herbie Hancock, Darlene Love, Bobby Womack, Pat Benatar and many, many more.

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Pete Townshend played guitar, Ringo Starr and his son Zak Starkey were the drummers, Clarence Clemons played a sax solo and Miles Davis soloed on the trumpet.

Some of the musicians contributed other songs too, expanding the project into a full length album.

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Initially, Little Steven had some difficulty getting the single any airplay. Most “white” radio stations said it was “too black,” and most “black” radio stations said it was “too white.”

He then went to see the people at MTV, who weren’t playing videos by black artists, and reportedly told them, “This is your chance to not only put black people on MTV, but to be edgy — like you’re supposed to be!”

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After MTV began playing the video, the record sold well, raising about a million dollars for the anti-apartheid movement, which was mostly used to aid political prisoners and their families.

The video and single had the impact Little Steven had intended when American artists also stopped playing at Sun City.

Night Flight’s “Take Off to New York” also features some of the best late ’80s and early ’90s  music videos from Big Apple acts like Lou Reed (“Walk On the Wild Side” from Live at the Bottom Line), former New York Dolls frontman David Johansen (“Melody”), the Ramones (“Howling at Moon the,” directed by Francis Delia), Blondie (“In the Flesh”), Run-D.M.C. (“Rock Box”), Talking Heads (“And She Was,” directed by Jim Blashfield), Laurie Anderson (“Sharkey’s Day”), Yoko Ono (“Hell in Paradise”), Phantom Rocker & Slick (“Men Without Shame”), Lisa Lisa & the Cult Jam with Full Force (“Wonder If I Take You Home”), and a snippet of our interview with Grandmaster Melle Mel.

Watch Night Flight’s “Take Off to New York” — and other episodes featuring “Take Off” episodes, here and here — on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.