Organized by former E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt in response to artists performing at the resort and casino Sun City, which was located in one of the black “homelands” within South Africa. Proprietor Sol Kernzer had chosen to open his hotel in Bophuthatswana because gambling and topless dancing was banned in white South Africa and Sun City would be an easy weekend escape for white South Africans living just a couple of hours away in Johannesburg. (Quick footnote, Kernzer would later go on to open the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut and the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas.)
Instead of publicly naming and shaming bands that had played at Sun City, Little Steven decided to bring musicians together to declare, “I ain’t gonna play Sun City.” Artists such Run DMC, Ringo Starr, George Clinton, Bono, Peter Gabriel, Kurtis Blow, Pete Townshend, Lou Reed, Fat Boys, John Oates, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Keith Richards, Melle Mel, Bonnie Raitt, Pat Benatar, Bruce Springsteen, Joey Ramone, Daryl Hall, Afrika Bambaataa, Herbie Hancock and dozens more contributed into what would grow to be a full album release.
Unfortunately, the song only ever reached number #38 on the Billboard’s Hot 100, because a large contingent of US radio stations would not play the single due to the lyrics:
Our government tells us we’re doing all we can,
Constructive Engagement is Ronald Reagan’s plan.
Meanwhile people are dying and giving up hope,
This quiet diplomacy ain’t nothing but a joke.
“Constructive engagement” was actually rather unpopular in the US, and Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 was eventually overridden by the Congress. (Remember when Rep. Dick Cheney called Nelson Mandela a terrorist? And defended his vote against the resolution for the US to recognize the African National Congress? For decades later?)
As we gear up for the World Cup, it is amazing to think that 25 years ago South Africa did not have a team competing in the FIFA held games, and hasn’t in decades, even with the disastrous proposal for an all-white team in 1966 and then all-black team in 1970. That protests had gone on in sports, (Arthur Ash successfully getting South Africa banned from the Davis Cup in 1970 comes to mind), for decades and their ban from the IOC and cricket was an incredible embarrassment to the country until apartheid was finally lifted in 1994.
Music echoed the desire for the change, songs like “Sun City” and “Biko” reminded everybody to look up from their New Coke and remember there were bigger problems than cola syrup. “Sun City” was everything that pop protest music was and still should be, (if people actually bothered with protest songs anymore, I fear we have become far to cynical for the genre); strong, catchy and with a clear message of why there must be change.
Mention “Sun City” to anyone above the age of 34 and they’ll sing the refrain, “I ain’t gonna play Sun City.”