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.