One of the most fervent and forceful political statements to emerge from Eighties pop music, Sun City didn't achieve the sales or wide radio airplay of other "cause" records like We Are the World. Nevertheless, the single and the accompanying album managed to achieve their primary goals: to draw attention to South Africa's racist policy of apartheid and to support a cultural boycott of the country.
"It was completely successful, and that's such a rare thing," says Sun City organizer and coproducer Steve "Little Steven" Van Zandt, who rallied dozens of top rock, funk, rap and jazz acts to work on the project. "Issue-oriented events and records can be very frustrating, because you really don't see the results, whether it's feeding people in Ethiopia or raising money for AIDS research. Our goal was to stop performers from going there, and to this day no major artists of any integrity have played Sun City."
Van Zandt, a former member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, was sitting in a Los Angeles movie theater waiting for a film to start when he got the original inspiration for the project. The theater's PA system was playing Peter Gabriel's "Biko," which eulogizes the murdered South African human-rights activist, and Van Zandt was captivated by the song's message. He started examining the apartheid situation and began to write an anthem about the entertainment resort called Sun City for his third solo album.
A Vegas-style recreation center with glamorous hotels, gambling casinos, showrooms and spas, Sun City is located in Bophuthatswana, one of South Africa's so-called "homeland" regions, where Zulus were relocated without their consent. In efforts to legitimize the area, Sun City has offered vast sums to entertainers to perform there. Some of the acts that have done so in years past include Rod Stewart, Queen and Linda Ronstadt. Although executives at the resort frequently try to downplay the realities of apartheid, the Sun City complex has become a symbol of the opulence that whites enjoy at the expense of the country's black natives.
Rethinking his initial approach to the project, Van Zandt decided to release the tune as a single for maximum effectiveness. Rather than performing the song himself, however, he considered using artists from various genres to sing one verse each, hoping to break down musical separatism in the United States as well as apartheid in South Africa. The idea took on a life of its own, and more than fifty musicians eventually wound up contributing their talents, including Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Gil Scott-Heron, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Bonnie Raitt, Lou Reed, David Ruffin, Run-D.M.C., Ringo Starr, Pete Townshend and Bobby Womack.
The embarrassment of riches evolved into different versions of "Sun City" for single release and an entire album of outtakes. "Peter Gabriel had a basic log-drum part he did with a chant for about seven minutes, and I didn't have a place for it on the single, so it became an album track," says Van Zandt. "The same thing happened with Miles Davis. I had a part for him on the intro, just a few seconds, but he played for seven minutes. There I was using five seconds on the song, and I thought, 'I can't leave six minutes of Miles on the floor!' So we got Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Ron Carter and put together a jazz version."
In addition to the jazz number and the "Sun City" single, Davis also appeared on several other of the album's tracks, including the galvanizing rap collage "Let Me See Your I.D." A stark, harrowing glimpse of South Africa's totalitarian regime, which restricts free movement and forces blacks to carry identification papers, the song is centered on improvised lyrics by Scott-Heron and also features rapper Grandmaster Melle Mel; the Malopoets, a South African vocal group; and Peter Garrett, lead singer of Midnight Oil.
Less than forty-eight hours before the album was to be mastered, U2's Bono made a surprise appearance at the studio where Van Zandt and coproducer Arthur Baker were working on the final mix. Bono brought tapes of a newly recorded number, "Silver and Gold"; too good to pass up, the song was tacked onto the completed album, although the title never made it onto the original cover credits because the artwork was already finished.
"It's kind of a country-blues song," Bono said at the time, adding he was "inspired" to write it after spending the night with the Rolling Stones. Keith Richards and Ron Wood helped Bono record the track, which the U2 singer called "a gift" to Van Zandt. Bono said his involvement in Sun City was humanistically rather than politically motivated. "People try to put it across as propaganda, that it's the left or the right," said Bono. "This is apolitical. It doesn't matter what side you're on — this is common sense."
For whatever reason, the single never became a radio hit. Some chalked it up to timid radio programmers who were afraid to broadcast the song's strong message. Others believed it was due to the track's aggressive rap attack, which didn't fit neatly into the Top Forty format. Van Zandt is inclined to agree with the latter explanation. "There we were with an African chant and Zulu rhythms, Miles Davis playing in his style and a very danceable hip-hop rhythm with a rock guitar on top," Van Zandt says. "It was a very, very wild combination of things, but I realized then and I realize now that it's not a typical hit-single formula record."
Fortunately, the lack of radio airplay didn't stop "Sun City" from reaching the public. Thanks to a spectacular video clip, directed by Godley and Creme, Jonathan Demme and Hart Perry, the antiapartheid message was heard and seen around the world. More a minidocumentary than a music video, the visually inventive clip featured all the performers on the anthem and also crosscut recent footage of South African unrest with scenes of the Sixties civil-rights struggle in America. Vigorously championed by MTV and other cable outlets, the video raised both consciousnesses and record sales. Several months later, Van Zandt, Baker and others involved with Sun City were able to donate more than a half million dollars to causes supporting the antiapartheid struggle.
Perhaps more important than the money earned, the album threw an effective political punch: Not only did it discourage musicians from playing the South African resort city, but it also helped spread the word about new sounds like rap. "The Sun City project is about informing and motivating people," said a Rolling Stone review of the album in 1985. "That we can dance while we're organizing is this record's greatest triumph."