Certain Songs #105: Artists United Against Apartheid – “Sun City”


Album: Sun City.

Year: 1985.

I guess that the best way to explain why “Sun City” was the greatest of all of the 80’s all-star jams, one of the greatest protest songs in history, and one of the key texts in terms of bringing rap and rock together is to hit some of the highlights of the powerhouse video.

After a few seconds setting up what “Sun City” even is, the song proper kicks off with Miles Fucking Davis soloing over an Arthur Baker beat so sick that not even Taylor Swift could copyright it.  Then after a bit of table-setting the for the song to come, BOOM! Run-DMC – who knew a thing or two about merging rap and rock – kicks off a round robin of rappers getting straight to the point:

We’re rockers and rappers
United and strong
We’re here to talk about South Africa
We don’t like what’s going on
It’s time for some justice
It’s time for the truth
We’ve realized there’s
Only one thing we can do

And what’s that? Personal economic boycott. Starving the system. Just ask Little Steven. He ain’t gonna play Sun City. A Pete Townshend guitar chord signals scenes of protest, violence and jubilation in South Africa, interspersed with scenes of the all-star rockers and rappers singing the chorus.

I, I, I, ain’t gonna play Sun City.

You can do whatever you want to do. But not me. It’s probably not much, but it’s an actual thing that I, as an artist, can do. And if we all do it, well, it probably won’t stop Apartheid, but at least we’re not making money from it, either. It’s so much more powerful than “there’s a choice we’re making, we’re saving our own lives” or “thank god tonight it’s them instead of you.”

In the next verse, everybody starts walking down the street towards the camera, led by David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks and Bruce Springsteen, while the ghostly visage of Pat Benatar at the microphone floats by.

And so it goes: George Clinton starts a line, Joey Ramone finishes it (the one about Reagan, natch), and Nona Hendryx puts a big ole button on the verse.

But here’s the thing about “Sun City;” it’s also a great pop song that understands it needs to be a great pop song. When it hits the great big hook:

Na na na na na, na na na yeah

it puts itself in the tradition of treacle like “We are The World,” but rather the other great Apartheid protest song, “Free Nelson Mandela,” which was based upon an old Booker T & the MGs song.

And look! There’s Lou Reed with Ruben Blades and John Oates. And Melle Mel, and Kurtis Blow. What the hell  is Daryl Hannah doing there? Right, singing with her boyfriend  Jackson Browne, who’s also hanging w Bob Dylan. And Darlene Love. And the guy from Midnight Oil. 


Ringo Starr, Peter Gabriel (who does an amazing song-chant on the album called “No More Apartheid” ) and so on and so forth until they’re all hanging out singing “Na na na na na, na na na yeah” while Clarence Clemons solos over the outro just as Miles Davis soloed over the intro.

This, kids, is how you make protest music: both righteous protest and amazing music.

Official Video for “Sun City

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