Among televised live rock concerts, Live Aid in 1985 is remembered clearly and discussed frequently, but the next big one, the anti-apartheid benefit in June 1988, also at Wembley Stadium, London, around the time of Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday, is now often forgotten.
Partly perhaps because there were other high profile TV concerts focussed on Mandela. One at Wembley Stadium on Easter Monday 1990 to celebrate his release from prison, at which he spoke; another, a smaller musical event at Trafalgar Square in 1996, where he again spoke. As the political battle of which these concerts were part has long ago been won, they tend to blur together in the memory.
One of the significant musical elements of the 1988 event was a varied white/black/ African performance line-up, which contrasted doubly with Live Aid in giving attention to less famous artists and providing music other than British/American pop and rock.
Most of the established white acts who did take part at the Mandela event had already shown public support for social and political issues, like Sting, Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds, George Michael, the Specials and UB40, and they mostly played songs which had a particular relevance to the day’s purpose rather than merely being greatest hits. Among the black artists, Tracy Chapman gave a performance which sustained her career for years afterwards, and was followed later by Whitney Houston, officially second on the bill after Dire Straits, and impromptu guest Stevie Wonder.
The event was more politically contentious than Live Aid, as demonstrated by the fact that it was billed as the Freedom Fest for the more sensitive US TV networks. On the day, I remember being rather annoyed to hear pro-Mandela comments inserted somewhat clumsily between or within songs – until I later learned that this was a deliberate strategy by artists to ensure their expressions of political support were less easy to censor. The day was not totally free of celebrity self-indulgence and back-patting, but seeing the above poster displayed in the Manchester People’s Museum brought back happy memories of a good musical day, and a period both of clearer political ideals and a more engaged popular music industry.