Album: Sun City (1985)
Charted: 21 38
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Songfacts®:

  • Sun City was a resort in South Africa that catered to wealthy white tourists. Many famous entertainers performed there despite the racist apartheid policy. Artists United Against Apartheid was organized by "Little Steven" Van Zandt, who discovered Sun City when he traveled to Africa after leaving Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band in 1985.
  • Van Zandt considered naming artists who played the Sun City resort in the song, but decided not to. He asked them to participate in the project instead.
  • Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Run-D.M.C., Lou Reed, Bonnie Raitt, Bono, Melle Mel, Keith Richards, Jackson Browne, and George Clinton are some of the 54 artists who contributed to the song. A mix of music styles, including rap, rock, and jazz were incorporated.
  • This was one of the first collaborations among major recording stars to support a political, rather than a social cause. The project raised over $1 million dollars for anti-apartheid efforts.
  • Hip-hop pioneer Kurtis Blow was one of the musicians who performed on this collaboration. He told Songfacts about the experience: "That was a blessing, just incredible. Stevie calls everybody together. He calls me up and says, 'Hey I want you to do this song about the plight in South Africa. We're not going to play Sun City and we want everybody to know about the injustices that are going on down there. We need to let everyone know that we're not happy and we're not going to play in South Africa until things are changed over there.' Stevie Van Zandt was united in this thing. We jumped at the chance to be a part of it. It was too strong a cause for us to turn down. Then you have this white cat who's doing it, this is really what America stands for. A lot of people opened their eyes when that song came out."
  • This was recorded at a series of sessions in four cities as artists would come by and contribute what they could, often improvising in their own styles. While most of the musicians didn't record together, many of them got together for the video, which was shot in different places around New York City.
  • The project was originally going to be one song, but some of the musicians contributed other pieces, making it into a full length album.
  • Most radio stations refused to play this because it did not fit a specific format and was politically sensitive.
  • The legacy of this song is that it helped expose apartheid, a system of forced discrimination in South Africa. Apartheid ended there in 1990 when Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
  • Backed by Simple Minds, Van Zandt played this song at the Free Nelson Mandela Concert at Wembley Stadium on June 11, 1988, where he was joined on stage by Peter Gabriel, Jackson Browne, Meat Loaf and Youssou N'Dour. In 1990, two months after Mandela was freed from prison, another concert was held in Wembley, this one dubbed Nelson Mandela: An International Tribute for a Free South Africa. Once again, Van Zandt did "Sun City," this time joined by Gabriel, N'Dour, Lou Reed, Chrissie Hynde, Patti LaBelle, Bonnie Raitt, Terence Trent D'Arby, Billy Bragg and Neneh Cherry.
  • Steven Van Zandt told Mojo the story of the song and how it became an entire album:

    "On my list of things to investigate, one of the many issues the US was engaged in was South Africa. I went down there to do research in '84, to see it firsthand. It was so shocking that I said, 'This needs to be its own song, but it's not going to be just another song on my third album (1987's) Freedom - No Compromise. I need this to be its own thing and get some attention. I was gonna maybe have five or six artists on it, then it turned into 50 artists. I only had the one song written. We were trying to talk people into coming in to record, in all different hours of the night.

    Miles Davis came in - we had a log drum throughout the song for five, six minutes, and he just improvised to this log drum for five minutes! Then he did more with the mute. In the song, I was using him for six seconds in the intro, then another five seconds in the middle - so I need him for 11 seconds, and I have five minutes, I'm like, 'No f--- king way am I leaving Miles Davis on the floor,' so we bought in Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams and Ron Carter, who have played with him in the old days, and they improvised to what he had improvised.

    Peter Gabriel started ad-libbing these orchestral vocal things out of nowhere. So we put drums on top of that and that became a cool thing in itself. So before you know it, we had an album, and it became quite a thing."

Comments: 7

  • James from South AfricaVan Zandt didn't know "the truth".
    For these rich, pampered people, speaking about South Africa and Apartheid was a trend, something for them to posture about from Beverly Hills, and not have to actually get involved, or actually know what they were actually singing about
    I wonder how many of the performers on "Sun City" could have found Sun City on a map, or South Africa for that matter.
    And none of them ever spoke out against racism or injustice in other areas of the world, including their own country.
  • Gavin Londt from South AfricaAll those that contributed to this project should come back here to see how things are now. White farmers are being murdered daily. Land invasions are taking place daily. Murder and crime occurring daily. And in the meantime they are ignoring the s--t going down in their own back yards. Rich happy people that in fact don't give a s--t except for lining their own pockets. Hypocrites the lot.
  • Bobl from Sun CitrusYawn. So Sun City is obviously a white-free paradise. How many of these above mentioned esteemed freedom fighters venture to Sun City to give free concerts free the nobles? Cmon, you keep moaning and wailing about how money can't buy you love, that love is all you need. How come you don't give a $%$#5 about the situation in the free and east paradise you so modestly created?
  • Ken from Philadelphia, PaVery powerful song. Who says music can't change the world?!

    Before you jump down my throat, yes, I realize (and I think Little Steven would agree) that many, many, many people helped end aparthied in South Africa, and most of them gave a LOT more than a few minutes of their time to record a song... in fact, thousands if not millions gave their lives. Even so, this song had a huge impact. Prior to this song, most people were vaguely aware of what was happening in South Africa, but very few really did or said anything about it. In fact, Sun City, in and of itself, was a fairly minor thing. It was just a white resort that would overpay famous entertainment acts to come and play for rich white South Africans so they could kid themselves that their system and their government was just fine. Well, thanks to Steven Van Zandt and this song, that ended. Oh Sun City continued to exist as did South African apartheid, but never again could rich entertainers go and play Sun City for obscene payoffs and play dumb about where the money came from. In one more small way, the rest of the world, told South Africa that they did not approve and this must end. Soon, thanks in no small part to this song, the pressure began to grow. Many universities (often after student protests) and other organizations forbid their pension plans from investing in companies who did work in or for South Africa. As a result, many large multinational companies pulled out of South Africa and the nation rapidly found itself more and more isolated. By 1994, less than 10 years after this song was released, a truly democratic government was elected.











  • Jenny from Lima, Peruwell i just wanna say that the apartheid in S.A still ! I WAS IN SUN CITY PRISON AND IN THERE LIFE IS HARD FOR WHITE PEOPLE..
  • Theo from Johannesburg, South Africaactually, apartheid in SA ended in '94 when the first democratic government was established. ironically, Sun City is now slang for Johannesburg Central Prison!
  • Don from Newmarket, CanadaA brilliant, powerful call to arms. Little Steven rallied some of the greatest voices in popular music to help him deliver this stinging broadside.
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