How Steven Van Zandt Organized the Sun City Boycott and Helped Catalyze the Anti-Apartheid Movement (1985)

Actor and musi­cian Steven Van Zandt — known to Spring­steen fans as E Street Band gui­tarist Lit­tle Steven — played the steady voice of rea­son Sil­vio Dante on The Sopra­nos. With­out his guid­ing hand and sense of style, Tony would not have made it as far as he did. How much of Steven Van Zandt was in Sil­vio? Maybe a lot. As Van Zandt told Vice in a 2019 inter­view, he invent­ed the char­ac­ter and gave it to David Chase, who turned his vision of “big bands, cho­rus girls, Jew­ish Catskills comics” into the Bada Bing, a “strip club for the fam­i­ly.”

It’s not hard to imag­ine Sil­vio in his shiny suits get­ting onstage with the Boss, but he would nev­er have played Van Zandt’s role as an anti-racist activist. After leav­ing the E Street Band in 1984, Van Zandt start­ed orga­niz­ing musi­cians against apartheid for what would become an unprece­dent­ed action against Sun City, “a ritzy, whites only resort in South Africa,” Josh Haskell writes at ABC News, “that Van Zandt and his group Artists Unit­ed Against Apartheid decid­ed to boy­cott.”

Van Zandt and leg­endary hip hop pro­duc­er Arthur Bak­er brought togeth­er what rock crit­ic Dave Marsh calls “the most diverse line up of pop­u­lar musi­cians ever assem­bled for a sin­gle ses­sion” to record “Sun City,” a song that “raised aware­ness about apartheid,” says Haskell, “dur­ing a time in the 1980s when many Amer­i­cans weren’t aware of what was hap­pen­ing.” It wasn’t dif­fi­cult to bury the news pre-inter­net. Since the South African gov­ern­ment received tac­it sup­port from U.S. cor­po­ra­tions and the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion, there was hard­ly a rush to char­ac­ter­ize the coun­try too neg­a­tive­ly in the media.

Van Zandt him­self remem­bered being “shocked to find real­ly slav­ery going on and this very bril­liant but evil strat­e­gy called apartheid,” he said in 2013. “At the time, it was quite coura­geous for the artists to be on this record. We crossed a line from social con­cerns to polit­i­cal con­cerns.” The list of famous artists involved in the record­ing ses­sions and video is too long to repro­duce, but it notably includ­ed hip-hop and rock roy­al­ty like Bruce Spring­steen, DJ Kool Herc, Bob Dylan, Pat Benatar, Ringo Starr, Lou Reed, Run D.M.C., Peter Gabriel, Kur­tis Blow, Bono, Kei­th Richards, Bon­nie Raitt, Joey Ramone, Gil Scott-Heron, and Bob Geld­of.

As with oth­er occa­sion­al super­groups assem­bled at the time (by Geld­of) to raise funds and/or aware­ness for glob­al caus­es, there’s a too-many-cooks feel to the results, but the music is sec­ondary to the mes­sage. Even so, “Sun City” turned out to be a pio­neer­ing crossover track: “too black for white radio and too white for black radio,” says Van Zandt. Instead, it hit its stride on tele­vi­sion in the ear­ly days of MTV and BET: “They real­ly embraced it and played it a lot. Con­gress­men and sen­a­tors’ chil­dren were com­ing up to them and telling them about apartheid and what they saw hap­pen­ing in South Africa. That put us over the edge.”

When pop, punk, rock, and hip-hop artists linked arms, it “re-ener­gized the whole anti-apartheid move­ment, says Van Zandt, which had kind of hit a wall at that point and was not get­ting much trac­tion.” Unlike oth­er super­group protest songs, “Sun City” also gave its lis­ten­ers an inci­sive polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion, sum­ming up the sit­u­a­tion in the lyrics. You can see a 1985 doc­u­men­tary on the mak­ing of the song just above. “The refrain of ‘I ain’t gonna play Sun City’ is a sim­ple one,” notes the Zinn Edu­ca­tion Project, “but the issues raised in the song and film are not.” See the lyrics (along with the artists who sang the lines) here, and learn more about the his­to­ry of South African apartheid at the Zinn Ed Project.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

When South Africa Banned Pink Floyd’s The Wall After Stu­dents Chant­ed “We Don’t Need No Edu­ca­tion” to Protest the Apartheid School Sys­tem (1980)

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

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Robben Island Where Nel­son Man­dela and Oth­er Apartheid Oppo­nents Were Jailed

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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