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Biko

by

Peter Gabriel



Songfacts®:  You can leave comments about the song at the bottom of the page.

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. (thanks, Fulu Thompho - limpopo, South Africa)
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 6 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 bagpipes 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.
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. (thanks, Tony - Kortrijk, Belgium)
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. (thanks, Dominique - Charleroi)
A live version was used on the soundtrack to Cry Freedom, a movie about Stephen Biko by Sir Richard Attenborough.
Gabriel performed this in 1988 at Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday tribute at Wembley Stadium in London. He also played it at the second Woodstock festival in 1994.
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."
Peter Gabriel
Peter Gabriel Artistfacts
More Peter Gabriel songs
More songs about political figures
More songs inspired by Nelson Mandela and Other Anti-Apartheid Campaigners
More songs about looking back on fond memories
More songs Phil Collins played on

Comments (18):

The Soweto Gospel Choir does a beautiful rendition of this song from their album, "Blessed".
- Eric, Seattle, WA
Biko was covered, very well I would say, in 1983 by Martin Simpson a british folk guitar maestro. For a time resident in the >USA. I guess 7 years.
- JOE SBOMMBO, LOS ANGELES, CA
Song Fact says the beginning/end were based on traditional south african funeral music, I heard it is actual audio from Biko's funeral.
- Tom, Appleton, WI
I remember when this song first came out (Free Nelson Mandela came soon afterward, if memory serves). I heard Donald Wood (who wrote _Cry Freedom_) talk about his relationship with Biko around 1988, and knowing more about the man has made this song even more meaningful, and it still brings tears to my eyes all these years later.
- Rick, Diamond Bar, CA
Further to the comment by - Pete, Toronto, Canada about the Miami Vice episode soundtrack, the first time this song was broadcast in South Africa (For many years banned) was in about 1981, early 82 on that episode of Miami Vice which was airing. I remember arriving at a friend's block of flats while it was on, and the whole block was pumping it! Heads apparently rolled at SABC (SA Broadcasting Corp) for airing the episode. At the time M-V had the best sound tracks, were known for it.
- rob, Cape Town, South Africa
Larry Fast talks about the recording of the song at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vdq3NUh9OzA
- Glenn, Austin,
He couldn't have written this song in 1976. Biko died in 1977!
- Daria, New York, NY
This song is terrific.
"You can blow out a candle, but you can't blow up a fire..."
- Pablo, Cambrigde, England
To respond to the bagpipe player from Cali, they're actually synthesized bagpipes and in my opinion when listening to the studio version i really have to strain to hear them.
- Ruben Rodriguez, miami, FL
this was used in the 2nd last episode of the first season of Miami Vice at the very end of an episode called "Evan" good episode and even greater song
- Pete, Toronto, Canada
Gabriel originally wrote the song in 1976. at the timehe was violently supportive of apartheid. I'd like to know what that version sounds like.
- lauren, Bensalem, PA
Oh, I cried when I saw the music video for this song! When I was younger and I listened to it I thought Biko was some type of monkey...
- Dani, Boston, MA
Yihla Moja means "Ascend Spirit"
- Mike, Chicago, IL
Peter Gabriel performed "Biko" as lead singer in october 1990's Amnesty International's concert "Desde Chile, Un Abrazo a la Esperanza", at the Estadio Nacional in Santiago, Chile, with Sting and Sting's band as support band, in front of 75000 people. They, plus Sinnead O'Connor instead of original Kate Bush, also performed then Gabriel's "Don't give up".
- AgustÃ?n, Santiago, Chile
Joan Baez does a cover version of Biko.
- lauren, Bensalem, PA
This song was the climax of Gabriel's live performances for many years.
- Eric, Lake Forest, CA
Phil Collins features on this track, playing the Surdu...
- Peter, Sydney, Australia
I play bagpipes, and I couldn't even tell that they were used in the song.
- Erik, Davis, CA
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