This song is about the South African anti-apartheid veteran Steve Biko, who in 1977 was killed by police officers while in custody for related political reasons. Gabriel took note of the killing and began studying Biko, reading three biographies about him.
For this song, instead of telling the story from Biko's perspective, Gabriel takes a third person observer approach. He explained in an interview with Sound to promote the album: "It's a white, middle-class, ex-public schoolboy, domesticated, English person observing his own reactions from afar. It seemed impossible to me that the South Africans had let him be killed when there had been so much international publicity about his imprisonment. He was very intelligent, well reasoned and not full of hate. His writings seemed very solid in a way that polarized politics often doesn't."
When Gabriel sings "yihla moja," he's singing in Xhosa, which is a language spoken in South Africa, notably by activist Nelson Mandela.
This song was released as a single but flopped on the charts. Recording the song had a profound effect on Gabriel, however, and it led to his commitment to World Music and to various political causes. He called the song, "a calling card announcing I was interested and prepared to get involved."
The song had an impact on other musicians as well: Steve Van Zandt heard it in a Los Angeles movie theater in 1980 and began wondering what he could do to help the cause, which led to him organizing "Sun City
." Bono of U2 asked Gabriel to join the Amnesty International Conspiracy Of Hope tour in 1986, which played six shows and raised $2.6 million.
Gabriel told Mojo magazine April 2010 about the inspirations for this song: "The musical side of the song 'Biko' was inspired by hearing a shortwave Dutch radio station playing the soundtrack to a not very good Stanley Baker epic called Dingaka. There were elements in the choir and grooves which made me want to explore further. I started to listen to various bits of African music, and Anthony Moore (formerly of Slapp Happy) introduced me to Dollar Brand, as he was then known (now Abdullah Ibrahim), and he was an influence. So there were a few feelers out in that area."
It wasn't until 1990 that this song was first played on South African TV and radio stations. The early '90s marked the end of the apartheid era in the country.
The bagpipe sounds on this track were unusual on a song with tribal rhythms about an African. Gabriel found out that bagpipes had their origin in the Far East, and was not distinctive to Scotland, so he decided to incorporate it into the song. He didn't use actual bagpipes, but instead generated them with a synthesizer. On a later track, "Come Talk To Me
," he did use real bagpipes.
The beginning and end of the song were based on traditional South African funeral music.
This was Gabriel's first major venture into World Music, which he would embrace. In 1982 he started the WOMAD (World Of Music And Dance) festival to showcase these sounds.
Simple Minds recorded a cover of this song on their album Street Fighting Years
The finale chorus of the song on the album is sung by everybody available around the mobile studio, including Gabriel, the musicians, technicians, cooks, etc. - except Larry Fast (keyboards) who had to make sure the part was being recorded. Producers Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham were also singing.
A live version was used on the soundtrack to Cry Freedom, a movie about Stephen Biko by Sir Richard Attenborough.
In 1988, Gabriel performed this song at Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday tribute at Wembley Stadium in London, a high-profile event that made a major push to free Mandela. In 1990, two months after Mandela was freed, a similar event was held in Wembley to celebrate, this time with Mandela himself delivering a speech. Gabriel once again performed "Biko," this time with the Ugandan musician Geoffrey Oryema. At both events, Gabriel took the stage when "Sun City" was performed.
When Paul Simon recorded his Graceland album in 1985, he traveled to South Africa to record with local musicians. The political situation there was still very tense, and Simon considered writing a song similar to "Biko," which he loved, to bring attention to apartheid. When he started working with the South African musicians, he learned that their songs were joyful melodies - nothing political. Graceland became a pop album, and while the circumstances of Simon's visit were highly politicized, the songs weren't.
Peter Gabriel said in the Under African Skies documentary: "'Biko' was a more overt political song than the work of Graceland, but Graceland introduced millions of people around the world to what was wonderful about South African music. It made people feel good, want to dance - there were so many positives in Africa, yet most of us still have this image of a child surrounded by flies or Africa as a basket case that needs help. Graceland helped people around the world see that there was much more to Africa than suffering."
Gabreils played this at the second Woodstock festival in 1994.