Why fighting apartheid with music might be Steven Van Zandt’s proudest moment

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Steven Van Zandt sees himself as a lot of things. He is an accomplished singer, songwriter and producer who is widely recognized for his musical achievements. He also has acting credits, most famous as Silvio Dante in The Sopranos.

But it wasn’t until a young German asked him a question in 1980 that he saw himself as something else: an American.

“He stopped me in the park and he said, ‘Tell me something: why are you putting missiles in our country?’ And I really had no idea what he was talking about [about],” he said The streamis Matt Galloway.

Van Zandt, right, and Bruce Springsteen perform in 2012. Van Zandt was with the Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band when he got his political awakening in 1980. (Rick Diamond / Getty Images)

Van Zandt was on tour in Western Europe with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

At the time, Van Zandt was not interested in politics. But the question bothered him for days.

“I finally came to the conclusion… ‘This kid doesn’t look at me like a guitarist, a factory worker, a Republican or a Democrat. He looks at me like an American,” he said. “And I’m embarrassed to say that it had never even occurred to me before.”

This realization prompted Van Zandt to do some research. He bought all the books he could find on American foreign policy after World War II and studied the work of academics like Noam Chomsky.

It was a political awakening for the 30-year-old at the time.

“I [wondered] what else am I doing. I [wondered] what other obligations and responsibilities I have as a US citizen, ”he said.

He details this trip in his new memoirs, Unrequited enthusiasm.

Fight bullies

That summer, Van Zandt was approached by EMI-America with a recording deal. This led to the creation of his intermittent group known as Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul.

At the time, Van Zandt had never had a career as a solo artist or as a leader in a group. But this allowed the musician to have his say on the part of his new political awakening that was going to be implemented in his art.

WATCH: Why Steve Van Zandt prefers to perform in groups rather than solo

Groups talk about friendship, family and community: Steven Van Zandt

American singer-songwriter Steven Van Zandt explains to The Current host Matt Galloway why he prefers to perform in groups rather than playing solo. His new memoir Unrequited Infatuations has now been released. 3:12

Each of Van Zandt’s first five albums addresses one section of a cycle of political concepts in five parts: the individual, the family, the state, the economy and religion.

The general theme of his 1984 album, Voice of America, was the opposition to American foreign policy during the time of Ronald Reagan.

“I hate bullies, always have. So I’m more drawn to fighting them whenever possible,” he said.

Bring down an apartheid government

One of Van Zandt’s proudest fights was against apartheid in South Africa.

“I had made two trips to South Africa because I was doing research,” he said. “And at that point, I was about to go from artist-journalist … to artist-journalist-activist.”

On his second trip, Van Zandt visited the township of Soweto, a largely black part of the country. When Van Zandt arrived he found the area blocked off by the military – and protests took place inside the township walls.

These scenes, along with his talks with black South Africans and the liberation movement known as the Azanian People’s Organization, encouraged Van Zandt to help the oppressed people topple the regime.

“It’s not very often that you sit down and say, ‘OK, how can I bring down a government?'” He said.

You never saw an oil company there, you never saw an auto company helping anyone, “he said.” It was always us.-Steve Van Zandt

Although Van Zandt could not get involved militarily, he found a way to contribute to the resistance through music: by attacking the Sun City Resort.

In December 1980, the United Nations imposed a cultural boycott on South Africa. This boycott called on artists, academics, philosophers and cultural practitioners to refuse to participate in any activity in the country.

To get around the boycott, the regime declared some places as separate countries unrecognized by the international community. According to Van Zandt, regime officials or independent businessmen overpaid artists to perform in these fields.

One of those places was the Sun City Resort in Bophuthatswana territory. The venue hosted notable artists during the boycott, including Frank Sinatra, Elton John and Queen.

Meanwhile, the apartheid regime forced black South Africans into these non-existent countries under the pretext of returning them to their tribal lands, then brought them back as “immigrant workers,” according to Van Zandt.

It was “a brilliantly evil plan,” he said.

Van Zandt chose the station as the subject of his own artistic boycott. He turned to music industry activist group Artists United Against Apartheid to produce the song. City of the sun in 1985, which exposed what was happening in the station.

Forty-nine artists have collaborated on the song, including big names like Springsteen, U2 and Bob Dylan. They also pledged never to perform at the complex.

But for Van Zandt, it was never about collaborating with as many famous artists as possible.

“The people we choose to be with City of the sun were not because they were the most famous, “he said.”[It’s] because of what they said with their work and were engaged in some sort of social activity, social conscience or political conscience. “

The song had modest success. But more importantly, Van Zandt believes he played a key role in informing Americans of what was happening inside the borders of the apartheid country.

I don’t think we’ll ever see such total success again in our lifetime.

In doing so, Van Zandt hoped that American politicians would be prompted to oppose any veto exercised by then-US President Ronald Reagan on an economic sanctions bill.

The plan apparently worked. In 1986, after Reagan vetoed a bill to impose sanctions on South Africa, Congress overturned the veto. It was the first time that the US Congress has overturned a presidential veto on foreign policy.

“In this case, it had the ultimate impact,” Van Zandt said. “I don’t think we’ll ever see such total success again in our lifetime.”

The power of music

Van Zandt says his new memories Unrequited enthusiasm “is not a typical rock biography. “

“I wanted the book to look like a detective story; like a Dan Brown book, where you don’t know what’s coming next,” he said.

WATCH: Playing live is the ‘fun part of life’: Van Zandt.

Steven Van Zandt on the fun side of live

Some people can get nervous when they perform in front of tens of thousands of people. But singer-songwriter Steven Van Zandt says performing live is “the fun part of life.” 2:40

Van Zandt said he was proud of his work as an activist and the work of other artists in the entertainment industry to address social issues and call for change.

He believes that’s the real message of art – and why it’s powerful enough to overthrow regimes.

“You have never seen an oil company there, you have never seen an auto company helping anyone,” he said. “It was always us.”


Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.


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