(Telegraph) – When Nelson Mandela broke his long silence to denounce Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe on Wednesday, it only heightened the expectation and intrigue surrounding yesterday’s 90th birthday concert for him in Hyde Park.
The show itself promised to bring together a good number of the pop musicians whose protest against Mandela’s incarceration at a similar concert in 1988 was ultimately rewarded with his release two years later.
One performer, who was not present that day, but has been included this time around, is the author of a song, which many saw as the very anthem of apartheid’s demise. Eddy Grant’s “Gimme Hope Jo’anna” hit the UK top 10 in January 1988. More importantly, it was banned by South Africa’s government, and thus, with its gambolling African beat and incisive lyrical idealism, it achieved a huge popular resonance there, in the drive to end the regime.
His performance of it at yesterday’s bonanza doubtlessly prompted many people to ask: “Eddy Grant – whatever happened to him, eh?”
The singer last toured in this country 22 years ago. His big moment came in the early eighties, with massive hits such as “I Don’t Wanna Dance” and “Electric Avenue”, but some time after “Gimme Hope Jo’anna”, he slipped off the pop radar.
By coincidence, Eddy had long been planning a world tour this summer, to follow on from his 60th birthday in March. The Mandela concert came at a fortuitous time. By an even greater coincidence, he has been rehearsing for it in Johannesburg – the Jo’anna of the tune’s title.
He explained to the Telegraph how his search for a backing band led him here – to a group of newly unemployed musicians, who had served many years behind Lucky Dube, the South African reggae titan who was shot dead by carjackers in Johannesburg last October.
The unrest in Alexandra township, where black South Africans have been beating and killing immigrants and refugees from neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe, means that their nearby rehearsal studio is off limits.
The irony of discussing an anti-apartheid protest song, whose mission to “make Jo’anna see how everybody could a-live as one” could now be levelled at black-on-black aggressors in the city, clearly weighs heavily on Eddy‘s mind.
“Xenophobia is a big issue here,” he says, “but it’s not exclusive to South Africa. I’m not making excuses for South Africa, but I have come to understand the way the world works. I’ve been telling people here, ‘This thing will pass, just like apartheid passed.’“
Some might be surprised to hear Eddy speaking with such sage-like authority. In critical circles at least, he is dismissively remembered as an opportunist British answer to Bob Marley, a purveyor of “reggae-lite”.
That assessment is wide of the mark: his biggest hits had an electro-pop dimension, which was astonishingly forward-thinking for its time. It’s also a little-known fact that he wrote, performed, produced and released all of them himself, on his own label. In the mid-eighties, he shrewdly acquired the publishing rights to his back catalogue, with the result that, unlike the vast majority of artists, all the royalties for his work go to him.
In Guyana, where he was born, and lived until he was 12, Eddy is a national hero, a role model for self-advancement. His face has adorned four different postage stamps. He left there when his father, a jazz trumpeter, moved the family to a cramped basement in Kentish Town, north London. As a black immigrant in sixties Britain, Eddy was inspired by British pop, as well as James Brown, whose self-determination he later sought to emulate. He made his first sortie into music-making in the late sixties as lead guitarist with arguably Britain’s first inter-racial beat group, the Equals. He wrote their number one hit, “Baby Come Back”.
After three years of intensive touring, he suffered a heart attack and retreated from the limelight. In his newly-bought pile in Stamford Hill, he built Europe’s first black-owned recording studio, then, equally ground-breakingly, set up his own label, Ice Records, and even his own record-pressing plant.
“I wanted to own a black bank, too,” he adds, “because I couldn’t get the money to support my ideas.” When he came back as a solo artist in 1979 with “Living on the Front Line”, his empire was in place. He duly moved back to the Caribbean, not to Guyana, but to a historic plantation house in Barbados. There, he built another studio, and recorded his big album, 1981’s ‘Killer on the Rampage’, much of it charged with subtle political messages.
“‘I Don’t Wanna Dance’ can mean that you don’t want to go out on the dance floor,” he says, “or it could mean that you don’t want to go along with an idea. That’s how I try to write: you take it how you want, but I am basically a writer of protest.” In that light, the song was his farewell to Britain as a land of class and colour divisions. His run of UK hits was broken when “War Party” was denied airplay during the Falklands conflict. Thereafter, Eddy focused his efforts on his native region.
Ice Records began a programme of calypso re-issues, a beneficent gesture, which may have been funded by more businesslike ventures such as the bastardised version of “Gimme Hope Jo’anna” used on an advert for a yogurt drink.
Eddy continued to release his own music locally, and mentored a raft of young Caribbean artists, whom he has provided with a generic identity, Ringbang, and a strong capitalistic and cultural ethos. “If we’re going to sell ourselves to America,” he reasons, “our value to them is being who we are, not trying to be them. That’s why preserving the old music is important. The world is made up of many different people. If you were to put all their strengths together, then you might get a better world.”
At 60, Eddy is in fabulous shape (being teetotal has surely helped). He’s a tough cookie, certainly not shy of bigging himself up, and only rarely given to moments of expansive idealism.
It transpires that he has spent a fair amount of time in Africa, having set up a distribution deal there in the eighties. So, “Gimme Hope Jo’anna” was written out of experience, not airy-fairy political correctness.
Eddy also plays at Glastonbury Festival tomorrow. On Monday, his 10-date UK tour opens in Brighton, and ‘The Road to Reparation: The Very Best of Eddy Grant’ is released, through a one-off deal with Universal.