Today marks the great Nelson Mandela’s birthday- July 18th, now to be known as Mandela Day. Several months have passed since his death and 20 years since the day he first assumed the presidency of South Africa, yet Madiba’s impression on the global community is as strong as ever. Many people will spend the day volunteering, donating to charity, or attending events in his honor. The government has issued a call to action around cleaning up the environment and the foundation that holds Mandela’s name has rededicated themselves to food security, education, and literacy initiatives.
Whatever the forum, though, today there will be music. Mandela once said: “Music is a great blessing. It has the power to elevate and liberate us. It sets people free to dream. It can unite us to sing with one voice. Such is the value of music” (BBC). In events and concerts throughout 126 countries on this bittersweet day, music will set the backdrop as it has before and will undoubtedly do again for the world as they continue to celebrate Nelson Mandela.
While freedom songs and other music heavily influenced his time in prison, it was 1988 when music first changed the way the global community looked at Mandela. That year he was celebrating his 70th birthday and there are few other global music events that are better remembered by the 600 million that witnessed it that day. As we think of him today, it’s difficult, even painful to believe that just a few decades ago Madiba was perceived widely as a terrorist. It was American producer Tony Hollingsworth, the man behind the 70th birthday concert, and his vision that changed the minds of the media and the world. Using music and beloved musicians, Hollingsworth brought Mandela’s cause and in many ways Mandela himself to the forefront of the world’s collective consciousness.
Many credit the massive concert with raising more awareness around Mandela and South Africa’s struggle with racism than any other campaign. Hollingsworth himself said “Things were moving, the world was changing and that system of racism could no longer be tolerated. There was a post-imperial cultural recognition that there was a beautiful world out there to be embraced” (Al Jazeera). Part of that beautiful world and the thread that appeared so often in Mandela’s life continues even after his death.
Music is often tied up in both celebrations and in memorials, but there is something more with this special man. And as the world ponders Nelson Mandela’s legacy on this emotional day, whether it’s a traditional South African choral piece, jazz that gets us dancing, or a rousing political anthem, his life shows that music has and will continue to be an important part of the lifeblood of social change and of those who do the changing. Mandela lives on in music and today all songs for him.
By: Molly Dow