Peter Gabriel Re-Records “Biko,” His Anti-Apartheid Protest Song, with Musicians Around the World

Wis­dom, humour, com­pas­sion, under­stand­ing, bril­lian­cy of intel­lect, unselfish­ness, mod­esty, courage—he had all these attrib­ut­es… The gov­ern­ment quite clear­ly nev­er under­stood the extent to which Steve Biko was a man of peace. He was mil­i­tant in stand­ing up for his prin­ci­ples, yes, but his abid­ing goal was a peace­ful rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of all South Africans.

—Don­ald Woods

When South African police mur­dered Steve Biko in deten­tion on August 18, 1977, they thought they were rid­ding them­selves of a thorn in their side, that in killing him, they could for­get about him. Senior TIME edi­tor Tony Karon, who grew up in white South Africa, record­ed what the Min­is­ter of Police said when announc­ing Biko’s death to “a con­fer­ence of the rul­ing par­ty”: “I am not glad and I am not sor­ry about Mr. Biko. It leaves me cold. I can say noth­ing to you. Any per­son who dies… I shall also be sor­ry if I die.” Then, writes Karon, “they laughed. Like B‑movie Nazis.”

Despite the apartheid state’s best efforts to destroy him, Biko’s death made him a mar­tyr. “I didn’t know Steve Biko,” writes Karon, “but his death made clear to me, and hun­dreds of young white peo­ple like me, what mil­lions of black South Africans knew from expe­ri­ence…. The fight to end apartheid had claimed many thou­sands of lives before his, and many thou­sands more would be killed after Biko’s mur­der. But no death shook my world, and the coun­try all around me, more than Steve Biko’s.”

Biko helped found the South African Student’s Orga­ni­za­tion (SASO) while study­ing med­i­cine at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Natal, and he found­ed the Black Con­scious­ness Move­ment to advo­cate “self-aware­ness and self-reliance for Black peo­ple,” writes Mohammed Elnaiem at JSTOR Dai­ly. It was a move­ment to cen­ter the expe­ri­ences of Black South Africans. Yet as Biko under­stood the term, “Black” was a polit­i­cal class: his was “a move­ment for peo­ple who are oppressed,” he said, includ­ing so-called “col­ored” and Indi­an South Africans. “We believe,” says Biko in the inter­view above, “in a non-racial soci­ety.”

The gov­ern­ment “soon real­ized,” Karon writes, “the rad­i­cal move­ment was a threat to racial hier­ar­chy in the coun­try,” with its legal divi­sions of caste and class. They could not stop Biko’s mes­sage from res­onat­ing around the world. News of his arrest and death spread quick­ly and remained a pow­er­ful sym­bol of the regime’s bru­tal­i­ty. In the music world, the news took the form of Peter Gabriel’s “Biko.” Released in 1980, the song became a major hit. It was, wrote crit­ic Phil Sut­cliffe, “so hon­est you might even risk call­ing it truth.” Gabriel him­self, on the 40th anniver­sary of Biko’s death, wrote that “both music and lyric are sim­ple but writ­ten to be direct and emo­tion­al.”

He did not need to embell­ish, espe­cial­ly in the song’s final line: “the eyes of the world are watch­ing now, watch­ing now.” Indeed, they were, as they are now, even in our states of pan­dem­ic iso­la­tion, watch­ing the con­tin­ued police bru­tal­i­ty of gov­ern­ments built on racism, colo­nial­ism, slav­ery, apartheid, and exclu­sion. It’s an ide­al time for Gabriel to re-release “Biko,” and re-record it with Play­ing for Change, the orga­ni­za­tion gath­er­ing famous and non-famous musi­cians around the world in remote col­lab­o­ra­tive cov­ers of famous songs with uni­ver­sal res­o­nance. “Biko” belongs in their com­pa­ny.

At the top, you can see the per­for­mance, which opens with the stun­ning voic­es of The Cape Town Ensem­ble choral group. Then bassist Meshell Nde­geo­ce­lo, Beni­nese singer Angélique Kid­jo, and cel­list Yo-Yo Ma join in with a Japan­ese per­cus­sion group and oth­er musi­cians as Gabriel deliv­ers the lyrics with as much con­vic­tion as he did over forty years ago. Just above, see a mov­ing live per­for­mance of “Biko” from 1987, in a video direct­ed by Lol Creme. Intro­duc­ing the song, Gabriel calls the activist “a man who preached non­vi­o­lence in a state that has racism enshrined in its con­sti­tu­tion.” Or as the lyrics put it in their dev­as­tat­ing­ly direct way: “It was busi­ness as usu­al / in police room 619.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Grate­ful Dead’s “Rip­ple” Played By Musi­cians Around the World (with Cameos by David Cros­by, Jim­my Buf­fett & Bill Kreutz­mann)

Musi­cians Around the World Play The Band’s Clas­sic Song, “The Weight,” with Help from Rob­bie Robert­son and Ringo Starr

Musi­cians Around the World Play “Lean on Me,” the Uplift­ing Song by Bill With­ers (RIP)


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