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The Super Bowl And Musician Protests Of The Past

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Maroon 5, along with rappers Big Boi and Travis Scott, will be performing at this year's Super Bowl halftime show. And they face a lot of criticism and pressure to back out. Numerous artists reportedly passed on the opportunity to perform to signal solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and other players who have taken the knee during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice. All this got us thinking about musician protests of the past, so we're joined by our friends of the show and legendary DJs Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia for a little bit of history. Hey there, guys.

ROBERT GARCIA, BYLINE: Hello.

ADRIAN BARTOS, BYLINE: Hello. Hello. Hello.

CORNISH: Hey. Bobbito, you've been thinking about anti-apartheid protests from the mid-'80s.

GARCIA: Yes.

CORNISH: So for the context here, the U.N. had called for a cultural and economic boycott of South Africa because of its white rule and official policy of racial segregation. First of all, tons of musicians actually ignored the boycott, right? Like, they played South Africa anyway.

GARCIA: Yes, they did. They crossed the line of the boycott for personal gain. You know, the whole thing was really a mess, right? Because, I mean, you had artists from South Africa exiled from the country having expressed disdain for the political system there. And then you had other artists who could perform to make the decision against it. And there were artists who boycotted.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUN CITY")

ARTISTS UNITED AGAINST APARTHEID: (Singing) Ain't gonna play Sun City.

CORNISH: And the focus comes to fall on Sun City, a whites-only resort during apartheid. And this becomes, in a way, a kind of symbol, right?

GARCIA: Yes. Steven Van Zandt, who is a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, corralled a phenomenal amount of support - Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen. I mean, we're talking about as American as you can get when it comes to creating rock. He also did something kind of against the grain in pop and rock music at the time which was he enlisted the help of Run D.M.C., which were, you know, as major as one could imagine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUN CITY")

ARTISTS UNITED AGAINST APARTHEID: (Rapping) We're rockers and rappers, united and strong. We're here to talk about South Africa. We don't like what's going on.

BARTOS: The co-producer of the record was Arthur Baker, one of the most important producers of electro and early hip-hop. You know, Steve might be the more recognizable character out of the production crew, but Arthur Baker is equally as important.

CORNISH: Bobbito, for you, when you listen back to this song and you think about it in the context of what kind of statement it's trying to make at the time, how strong was that statement? How significant was that moment?

GARCIA: This protest song against Sun City was not only a statement for the artists, but it came at a moment when MTV was at its zenith in terms of reach to an audience that was completely emerging and new - high school and college students. But, you know, this song was a cog in a ginormous - it's a national shift because in 1994, apartheid ended.

CORNISH: I want to stay with this period of time because there's a song I remember very much from 1985, which is "We Are The World."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE THE WORLD")

CYNDI LAUPER: (Singing) Well, well, well, let's realize...

CORNISH: And that was a song that brought together artists - essentially, I guess - to raise money and awareness for the famine in Ethiopia. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE THE WORLD")

USA FOR AFRICA: (Singing) We are the world. We are the children.

GARCIA: Stretch, should we hold hands?

(LAUGHTER)

BARTOS: Hold on. I need a lighter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE THE WORLD")

USA FOR AFRICA: (Singing) So let's start giving.

GARCIA: Wait. Is that Audie singing backup?

BARTOS: (Laughter).

CORNISH: Listen. It might as well have been because I think the thing that was remarkable about this song is everyone and their mother was in it, right? Can you talk about, again, this as a political moment? Is that how it was remembered? Because now it has a little bit of a schlocky reputation.

BARTOS: I felt "Sun City" was, you know, more about getting active and being aware, whereas "We Are The World" felt a little bit - kind of just a feel-good dressing.

CORNISH: Yeah. It's also easier to be against famine maybe than, at the time, it was to be against racism. I don't know.

BARTOS: Sure. "We Are The World" just asked you to feel something, whereas "Sun City" is asking you maybe to take a stance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUN CITY")

ARTISTS UNITED AGAINST APARTHEID: (Singing) Relocation to phony homelands. Separation of families, I can't understand.

CORNISH: Bobbito, do you think artists today have more or less of a platform for politics than the moments we were talking about?

GARCIA: Well, in our modern era, artists have an incredible reach on a daily basis in their followers' minds and hearts. I think it's every artist's responsibility, once they get that platform, if they have a consciousness about what is righteous and what is not, to express that.

I think the power of seeing Bob Dylan with Run D.M.C. and Gil Scott-Heron and Miles Davis - and I can't escape the idea of being on my hand-me-down couch in my living room watching these videos for the first time. And I hope that artists can have the vision that perhaps not only can they make a change in our modern era, but they can be an inspiration for artists 20, 30 years from now in the way that these artists were back then.

GARCIA: That's Bobbito Garcia and Stretch Armstrong. Thank you both for talking about this with us.

BARTOS: Thanks, Audie.

GARCIA: Why, thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.