This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #346: Biko by Peter Gabriel.
When I was growing up on Cape Breton Island as a young man, I had no real understanding of the political atmosphere in South Africa. In those pre-Internet days, information was more difficult to come by. What I knew about South Africa came mainly from magazines like National Geographic that came to our house and from what was written in the set of Encyclopedia Britannica that I used for my school work. Conversely, in those pre-Internet days, it wasn’t always easy to get information out to the world if you had something to say. With the mainstream media sources being radio, television and newspapers and, with those sources often owned by companies that factored political considerations into what issues were covered and how, an activist could toil away in anonymity for a lifetime and never be heard outside of their own, immediate area. So, like many, the first time I ever heard the name Steven Biko was when his death at the hands of South African police was announced one evening on the CBC news. There was no follow-up coverage or in-depth probing of his death by reporters. His death was simply noted. The anchorman moved on to the next story and that was it. It wasn’t until I had left Cape Breton and moved to Toronto for university in 1982 that I heard Peter Gabriel sing the haunting song “Biko” for the first time. That’s when I started to understand more about what was happening in South Africa and what had happened, specifically to Steven Biko. That is when I started to grow up.
South Africa had been functioning under a government sanctioned set of policies known as Apartheid or “Apart-ness”. These were policies that governed every aspect of life for all citizens of South Africa. The thing about Apartheid was that the policies enacted by the ruling National Party were aimed at helping white South Africans maintain a favoured status within the country. By extension, it meant that all black South Africans (the entirety of the native population) were forced to accept rules that restricted regarding where they could live, where they could work, the amount of political organizing they could do, how much of their culture and history were permitted to be displayed and much, much more. The rules of Apartheid were inherently unfair. That was the whole point of those policies. Needless to say, most black South Africans detested Apartheid and looked for ways to fight back. One of those who tried to affect change was a young student activist named Steven Biko. Biko was a writer, speaker and organizer who worked for an alliance of student groups across South Africa. The ruling government viewed him as a threat to the status quo and sought to silence him by forbidding him to publish his writing, meet with more than one person at a time or to travel beyond the borders of his small, homeland area. Biko refused to be gagged in such a way and continued to speak out. In time he was arrested. In the course of being interrogated, he was beaten and left for dead in his jail cell. Steven Biko died on September 12, 1977.
Like me, Peter Gabriel heard of Steven Biko for the first time when his death was announced. But, unlike me, Peter Gabriel was already a worldly adult when Steven Biko was killed. At that time, Gabriel was preparing to write the songs that would become his third solo album. Previously, Peter Gabriel had been the lead singer of the original incarnation of the band “Genesis”. Gabriel would go on to have a very successful solo career filled with hit songs such as “Solsbury Hill”, “Games Without Frontiers”, “I Don’t Remember”, “Shock the Monkey”, “Sledgehammer”, “In Your Eyes”, “Don’t Give Up (with Kate Bush), “Red Rain” and so on. But it was “Biko” that launched Peter Gabriel into the stratosphere of cultural recognition and political activism.
“Biko” is a musical eulogy that tells the story of Steven Biko’s life and his death at the hands of South African police. It honours his legacy and makes a public vow to not forget who he was and why his work was important. “Biko” begins with a sample of a song sung in the South African language of Xhosa. All throughout the song, there is a sombre, forceful drum beat (heart beat). There also are synthesized bagpipes (of all things) that really act to raise the spirits of those listening, almost as if it was a battle cry. In the course of the song, Gabriel talks about how he has been affected by what he has learned and about how the whole world is now aware of South Africa’s dirty little secret of Apartheid and the injustice and hardship those policies had caused. The song ends with an actual Xhosa song that was sung at Biko’s real funeral.
Because of this song, many people in the world became aware of what was going on in South Africa. Other artists, like Steve Van Zandt (of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band) helped organize a boycott by artists of a Whites-only resort called Sun City. Soon pressure was applied internationally by governments from around the word in the form of economic sanctions against the ruling South African Government. As is often the case, money talks. Not long afterwards, a long-time political prisoner and activist named Nelson Mandela was freed after being imprisoned for 27 years on Robben Island. Free elections were held and Mandela’s Party came to power thus, ending the policy of Apartheid in South Africa. It is probably not correct to credit the song “Biko” with ending Apartheid in South Africa. Life is more nuanced and complicated than that. However, Peter Gabriel’s song did play a significant part in shining a spotlight for the world to see and understand how an entire race or group of people could be legally and systemically oppressed. It also helped many understand our own complicity in propping up such regimes because of our willingness to remain ignorant as to what was really going on. In addition, this song made our continued economic support of such a regime indefensible. I have said it before and I will say it again, in times of darkness it is often the poets and singers and artists of the world that lead the way into the light. Peter Gabriel did that by honouring a brave man who spoke out for those at a time when few were listening. Steven Biko paid for his courage with his life. May he always be remembered as a symbol, not only for South Africans but, also for people everywhere who find themselves under the thumbs of oppressors. In a perfect world, life should be fair and just. #215.
The link to the official website for Peter Gabriel can be found here.
The link to the official website for Amnesty International…an organization decimated to advocating for political prisoners all around the world can be found here.
thanks to Rolling Stone Magazine for helping to inspire the writing of this post. The link to their website can be found here.
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