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The Nelson Mandela Playlist: A Life In Music

Our Nelson Mandela music playlist includes music by Mandela's favourite artists, J.P. Mohapeloa, Makeba and Tchaikovsky plus songs inspired by anti-Apartheid struggle

Nelson Mandela inspired countless musical tributes. This playlist includes tracks by some of Mandela's favourite artists; songs composed with Mandela in mind as a freedom fighter and as a President; struggle songs; and a few that for us, capture the global fight against injustice. The range of artists represented — from Abdullah Ibrahim to Peter Tosh to Miriam Makeba to Tchaikovsky – is a testament to Mandela's importance as a radical politician and to the solidarity the struggle inspired in people across the world.

​1. Miriam Makeba – "Khawuleza"

When Miriam Makeba died in 2008 Nelson Mandela paid the singer and activist a poignant tribute calling her "the mother of our struggle" and "South Africa's First Lady of song." Performing here in Sweden in 1966, Makeba's "Khawuleza" title translates as "come quickly" — a reminder of the call children made to their mothers as police arrived to terrorize the townships.

2. The Specials - "Free Nelson Mandela"

In March 1984, Mandela wrote on his desk calendar in which he kept notes from inside his Robben Island cell: "Madiba records sell well. Record calling for the release of NM has made big impression on pop charts after only one week. 'Free NM' by the Specials - a multi-racial group - is no.4 on Capitol Radio charts & no. 65 on the national charts". Madiba was right, the song written by Jeffrey Dammers, who became aware of Mandela during a 1983 anti-apartheid concert, continued to do well on charts internationally.

​3. J.P. Mohapeloa


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When Zeni Mandela wrote lyrics from an Elvis song on the back of a letter she sent her father in prison, he replied with a list of musicians he thought she should be listening to. Among them was Lesotho-born folk composer J.P. Mohapeloa.

4. Paul Robeson "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho"

Mandela also recommended that his daughter listen to African American renaissance man — actor, musician, Civil Rights activist — Paul Robeson. Old time spiritual "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" is a reminder of the inequity of power which defined Struggle.

5. "Umkhonto we Sizwe"

In Long Walk to Freedom Mandela outlines the thinking that led to the creation of the ANC component Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation): "[at] the Treason Trial...we had contended that for the ANC nonviolence was an inviolate principle, not a tactic to be changed as conditions warranted. I myself believed precisely the opposite: that nonviolence was a tactic that should be abandoned when it no longer worked."

6. Peter Tosh "Apartheid"

Former Wailer Peter Tosh's "Apartheid" begins with a reference to an issue close to Mandela's heart: land and housing. In a handwritten note dated 14th May/Feb 1993 Mandela wrote "Priority is commitment to oppressed. Will fall or rise depending on our success or failure to address their needs, to accommodate their aspirations. Specifically we must get them houses and put an end to informal settlement; end unemployment, school crisis, lack of medical facilities."

7. Bob Marley "WAR"

First recorded with the Wailers in 1976, "WAR" refashions the a speech Haile Selassie I gave to the United Nations in 1936. In that speech, Selassie speaks of an end to "the ignoble and unhappy regime that holds our brothers in South Africa... inside human bondage," and consequently war and resistance until the end to that came. In one performance, Bob Marley explicitly calls out the Apartheid government, voicing support for Struggle.

​8. Miriam Makeba "Soweto Blues" (1988)

Makeba performed "Soweto Blues" for Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday concert, which was actually held a month before his birthday, on 11 June 1988 in London– a showcase of music intended to raise Mandela's profile. The song's ironic refrain "Just a little atrocity, down in the city" refers to the kind of understated language that devalued black life in South African and global media reporting of apartheid-era violence.

9. Abdullah Ibrahim aka Dollar Brand "Mannenberg"

One of Mandela's lawyers smuggled jazz pianist and opponent of the apartheid regime Abdullah Ibrahim's track "Mannenberg" into prison and played it to him in a control room. According to a Voice of America interview, when Mandela heard the music he said "liberation is near."

10. Miles Davis "Full Nelson"

Miles Davis 1986 album Tutu was named in tribute to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to whom the first track was also dedicated. But "Full Nelson", the last track on the album, was for Mandela and its upbeat experimental funk seems to look forward to a new political moment for South Africa. Listen too to the more melancholic "Amandla," also dedicated to Madiba.

11. Tchaikovsky "Funeral March for Hamlet"

Mandela maintained that Tchaikovsky was one of his favourite composers, even encouraging his daughter to listen to his and Handel's oeuvre.

​​12. Brenda Fassie "Black President"

No list would be complete without Brenda Fassie, and if you've never heard her sing "oh Madiba's, Madiba's freedom!" then you need get to hit play on "Black President" immediately.

​13. Brenda Fassie "Vulindlela"

We just had to include this live performance of "Vulindlela" in which Fassie dances barefoot across the stage, jumps into a full split and generally tears up the stage. Look out for the shots of Nelson Mandela chair-dancing in the audience, and the awkward moment when he gets passed the mic.

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