Paul Simon and Cultural Appropriation

paulsimonSins in Blue is my novel about an old, Depression-era bluesman. The story explores themes involving the problem of cultural appropriation—the inappropriate adoption of customs or ideas of one people by members of a more dominant people.

The 1987 Grammy Award for best album of the year went to Paul Simon for Graceland. The album was a departure for Simon, who had slipped in popularity. Simon had a relatively free hand in the project. Original tracks were recorded in Johannesburg at the height of apartheid. Simon wrote lyrics later, jamming with the original tracks. When the finished songs were rerecorded, Simon flew South African musicians to New York to complete the project. Simon’s music introduced Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a South African group, to a wider audience.

The initial controversy over the album had to do with breaking the cultural boycott against an apartheid regime. Simon sought the advice of other American artists like Harry Belafonte—advice he subsequently ignored. Simon felt that the cooperation between black and white musicians made a more powerful anti-apartheid statement, adding that “when there are radical transfers of power on either the left or the right, the artists always get screwed.”[i] The finished album was supported by the United Nations Anti-Apartheid Committee for promoting South African artists without supporting the South African regime.

But additional controversies plagued the album, possibly because it became a high-profile commercial success. For the duet “Under African Skies,” Simon enlisted the aid of longtime friend Linda Ronstadt. The choice was criticized because Ronstadt had performed in South Africa three years earlier. (In live concerts, Ronstadt was replaced by Miriam Makeba, one of a number of black South African musicians who toured with Simon.)

Some criticized the album for being “colonial,” accusing Simon of appropriating music to market to a global audience. As Tris Mccall asked in the Star-Ledger:

Does it complicate matters to realize that these musicians were second-class citizens in their own country, one groaning under the weight of apartheid? How could Simon approach them as equal partners when their own government demanded that they treat him as a superior?[ii]

It’s worth noting that Simon paid South African musicians as much as triple the union wage, offering songwriting royalties to those who made a contribution to his songs—something a number of modern artists would never consider.

South African jazz artist Joseph Gwangwa criticized the notion that Simon’s album had helped popularize South African music, stating, “So, it has taken another white man to discover my people?”[iii]

And here is where I will leave the argument. Those looking for a quick and definitive answer to the questions raised should listen to the album. (I’ve provided a video of one live performance.) For a more detailed response, read Sins in Blue.

(This post features original art from Wade Dillon.)


[i] Denselow, Robin. “Paul Simon’s Graceland: The acclaim and the outrage.” The Guardian. 19 Apr. 2012. Guardian News and Media. 10 Oct. 2019 <>.

[ii] Mccall, Tris. “Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ boxed set revisits controversial and brilliant album.” Nj. 03 June 2012. 10 Oct. 2019 <>.

[iii] Denselow, Robin. “Paul Simon’s Graceland: The acclaim and the outrage.” The Guardian. 19 Apr. 2012. Guardian News and Media. 10 Oct. 2019 <>.


About Brian C. Kaufman

Author, educator, cook. Given a tilt of fate, that might have been lead guitarist, pro wrestler, radio evangelist. You never know.
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