March 18, 2019 / 12:51 PM

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Stevie Wonder and 5 Other Artists Banned in Apartheid South Africa: The Beatles, Pink Floyd and More


Stevie Wonder was a political lighting rod during 1985, and most of it was tied to politics in another nation: The pianist was arrested during a South African Apartheid protest outside of Congress and later would dedicate his Best Original Song Oscar (which he won for "I Just Called to Say I Love You" from The Woman in Red) to Nelson Mandela, who remained imprisoned at Pollsmoor Prison. That action led the South African government to ban all of Wonder's music across the board. He wasn't the first musician to deal with censorship from the paranoid Apartheid government however. Here are five other acts, including Pink Floyd and The Beatles, that got banned.

The Beatles

Not all of the censorship in South Africa was tied to its controversial Apartheid behavior. Many songs were banned for the same reasons they were banned in the United States and elsewhere: they could potentially inspire deviant behavior among the youth. John Lennon caught the wrong end of the government when he declared that his band had grown to be "more popular than Jesus." South African authorities interpreted this as being an anti-religious statement (as did many Christian conservatives elsewhere) and thus banned the world's biggest band as a whole. The music was re-allowed following The Beatles' disbandment during 1970 (was the logic that it couldn't tear down the church if they weren't together anymore?), but Lennon's solo material was still banned, proving that South Africa was definitely on Team McCartney.


Sixto Rodriguez, better known for performing under only his last name, found his fame elevated during 2012 when the documentary Searching For Sugar Man, about two South African fans who had heard rumors of the folk artist's death and sought to see if it was true (spoiler alert: It wasn't). Although Rodriguez hadn't been a huge sensation in his American homeland but somehow his music became a smash in South Africa. The first single from his 1970 album Cold Fact, "Sugar Man" wasn't banned for any political reason, but rather because the "sugar man" was clearly a drug dealer based on lyrical context. Black South Africans interpreted it another way however: "Sugar man, won't you hurry / Cause I'm tired of these scenes / For a blue coin won't you bring back / All those colors to my dreams" wasn't a call for was a call for freedom.

Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd, in case you were wondering, was very against despotic rule and racism. If it wasn't obvious. The ban of its 1980 hit "The Wall" was completely secondhand however. Most realize that when the protagonist of the album The Wall, Pink, references building the title structure around him, he's attempting to separate himself from the rest of the world. Protestors in South Africa took it a different way, particularly the moment when a chorus of children famously sing "we don't need no education," using the "wall" as a metaphor for the difference in quality of education received by white students and black students. The song was quickly banned.

You might wonder how the state would handle censorship when it was just one song, not a whole album. Photos indicate that librarians and record store owners were required to use a nail or similar tool to ruin the grooves of the song in question. Compact discs would complicate the "problem."

Ray Phiri

If you look at the situation that Western musicians found themselves in, you can only imagine how tough it was to get by when you were a native South African performer. Ray Phiri was one of many who got a raw deal with his performance of jazz-fusion and Zulu-based Mbanqanga music. His music with both Stimela, his band, and solo were understandably revolutionary in mindset, with "Whispers in The Mind" being an obvious example. It seems odd that Paul Simon was criticized for recruiting performers such as Phiri and Ladysmith Black Mambazo for his classic album Graceland. Although many claimed he had bolstered the Apartheid regime by using South African musicians. How does it hurt to support native performers when their country wouldn't?

"Artists United Against Apartheid"

Bruce Springsteen was vocal in his opposition of the Apartheid government but his guitarist Steven Van Zandt delivered the best blow against the system. He recruited a massive number of performers to perform on "Sun City," a song where they declared they would never perform at the South African resort of the same name, despite the high fees it paid for concerts. The song featured big names such as U2, Peter Gabriel and Bob Dylan to perform, but more importantly invited artists from the burgeoning hip-hop scene to take part, including Run D.M.C., Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow and others. No kidding that it got banned in South Africa but it also brought new levels of attention to the problem for Western listeners.

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