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.
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.”