Before Paul Simon even wrote a song for his 1987 Grammy-winning album, “Graceland” was already making headlines, but not in praise of its music. Instead, he got criticized for flying to South Africa at a time when the UN had a cultural boycott against the country’s apartheid regime. Twenty-five years later, the album was again in the news thanks to the documentary “Under African Skies,” which chronicled the controversy and Simon’s journey back to South Africa. The album was a pivotal moment in Simon’s life, marking an extension to a career that began when he was just a teen.
For many years, Simon’s musical career was intertwined with Art Garfunkel, whom he had first performed with in sixth grade. Simon played the White Rabbit and Art the Chesire Cat in the play, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Growing up blocks apart in Kew Gardens Hills, the pair saw they shared a passion for music and at 15 were performing as Tom and Jerry. Inspired by the Everly Brothers, they wrote “Hey, Schoolgirl,” which reached the Top 50. With no immediate follow-up they took a hiatus, with Simon attending Queens College and Garfunkel Columbia University. Later, the folk scene at Greenwich Village got them performing together again.
Soon after, they recorded the album, “Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m.” with the iconic, “The Sound of Silence,” as a track. In 2013, the song was one of 25 recordings selected to be preserved in the Library of Congress. It took a year but radio stations began playing the single which skyrocketed to No. 1. For the next few years, the duo gained notoriety for creating more story-telling literary songs such as “Mrs. Robinson,” which would become part of the soundtrack for the “The Graduate.” The last album before another break-up was the wildly popular, “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” ranked 48th on Rolling Stones’ 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Recording for the album came at a time when both musicians were exploring different creative outlets with Garfunkel venturing into acting and Simon experimenting more with world music.
His first solo album, “Paul Simon,” was the first of many. In spite of his success, by the time Simon traveled to Africa, he was at a low point in life, dealing with a failed movie, album and divorce, as he told The New York Times in 1990. “By then, I thought, well, I just love this music and I’m probably not going to have any more hits anyway, so what’s the difference? During that time I fell in love with music again,” he said. The resulting album made people fall in love with Simon again.
Despite groups such as the African National Congress opposing his flight, the musicians he worked with were the ones that welcomed him and ultimately gained from the exposure. In the documentary of Simon’s visit, he reconciles with the ANC’s leader but sticks to his view. “The power of art lasts,” he says. “The political dispute has gone, but the music still lasts.”