It has long been debated whether you can change the world with a song. If it’s not possible, one band came incredibly close.
The Specials (or The Special AKA) rose to prominence in England in the late 1970s and achieved international fame in the early 1980s. Their sound fused the music of Jamaican immigrants with that of long-established working-class English punks, as did the members of the band.
We called it ska, or two-tone ska, to distinguish it from the ska that originated decades earlier in Jamaica.
This music essentially calmed racial tensions, which were very common in England at that time, by getting people to dance together. The beat was that infectious.
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The Specials’ 1984 hit Nelson Mandela was banned in South Africa. It became an anthem for social change, as one of many songs in support of the anti-apartheid movement.
While Mandela was imprisoned for his political activities in South Africa in 1963, his struggle wasn’t a common topic among the youth of my generation until we began hearing the lyrics “Free Nelson Mandela. Free, free, free Nelson Mandela” over our radios.
Since we were gripped by the rhythm, the song became a joyful battle cry in our quest for a more just and equitable world.
Several years after the song was released, Mandela was freed from prison. He had been imprisoned for 27 years. The government of South Africa extended democratic rights to all residents, regardless of race.
Mandela ultimately became the president of the country and one of the world’s most respected statesmen.
By taking a wider view of the power of cultural fusion, as exemplified in bands like the Specials and the fall of apartheid, the worst and the best of humanity come into clear focus.
Critics of apartheid often forget that the colonial governments of the British, French, Belgians and other powers were very similar to the government of South Africa that imprisoned Mandela.
Pass systems forbidding blacks from entering certain neighbourhoods in their own countries were common all over Africa, and similar laws existed elsewhere. Laws that only allowed white people to participate in government, practise certain professions or achieve higher levels of education were also the norm.
Colonialism embraced racism and it had a devastating impact – not only on Africa but on the entire world. It has left deep wounds in the fabric of humanity.
Though colonialism’s promoters claim its intentions were benevolent, the truth is that the primary motive of colonization was to promote the concept of empire and to enrich the wealthy. The religious ideals used to justify it were nothing more than a bastardization of the message of Jesus Christ.
An unintentional impact of colonialism, however, is that it brought people from various ethnic groups together. As colonial powers lost their strength, the flow of populations shifted and people from former colonies freely chose to immigrate to the mother country and to other former colonies.
The ensuing diversity caused changes that are still resisted by certain elements of society. But they are primarily a source of cultural enrichment. Bands like the Specials are but one small example.
A universal magnetism draws people together. Many have used ideology, force and violence to try to keep people apart. They succeed temporarily, though at great cost. Some still try to hold people apart using these archaic tactics.
All we really need, however, is a great song to remind us that we belong together. We can change the world through art, science, sports and anything else that celebrates the human spirit.
Though it may take generations, prejudicial structures will always collapse. One can’t go against the grain of a universal spirit that calls us and moves us to be together in celebration of our common humanity.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.
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