Defend Truth


A note on my breaking the cultural boycott against South Africa


Janis Ian is an American singer-songwriter who was most commercially successful in the 1960s and 1970s. Her signature songs are the 1966/67 hit ‘Society's Child’ and 1975 Top Ten single ‘At Seventeen’, from her LP ‘Between the Lines’.

A response to Ryland Fisher’s ‘cancel culture conundrum’ column in Daily Maverick.

Thank you for a balanced and nuanced article on the problem of wanting artists to be “perfect”. (And I’m very glad you’re clear that “perfect” is subjective, or at least, I thought you were.) 

One note on my breaking the cultural boycott against South Africa in the 1980s. I have given, and gave, the matter of cultural boycotts a great deal of thought over the course of my life. When the initial offer was made, I looked at lists of other artists who’d played in South Africa, many of them non-white. 

I noted that almost all the artists breaking the boycott played in Sun City and other segregated venues. Accordingly, my contract specified integrated venues, hotels, travel etc. The one time a venue tried to get around it (by putting a rope down the centre of the seating area), we refused to unpack until it was fixed and set a guard to watch for further instances that night.

I did not play Sun City, of course. I also offered my band the choice of going with me, or passing, and assured them their jobs would be safe when I returned and played other countries. I’m noting that because my drummer was, in fact, a black American, and he wanted very badly to visit South Africa to see for himself, to discover whether he felt any sense of kinship with the black population there, to find out whether he had any roots in Africa that could be meaningful to him. The rest of the band and crew were white, and I believe between us we had five different religions (which came into play when I decided to tour in Israel around the same time.)

I also wanted to note that I was, afterwards, banned by the UN from working with any artists who belonged to the various unions I was part of. I could not work on television, or radio, for a long time. It was difficult to even work in the studio because of the ban. The UN offered me an alternative, by the way — I was told if I said I hadn’t known about apartheid, they would let it slide. I refused.

I’m not aware of any black artists from the US or England who played segregated venues and were banned for it, though it’s certainly possible there were some. I remember, at the time, thinking how odd that was.

Johnny Clegg was also banned for breaking the cultural boycott, despite being South African and playing with a band comprised of (mainly, I believe) black South Africans.

These many years later, I still get feedback from South African fans who saw me then. Some say it was the first time they’d ever seen blacks and whites on stage together, or seen them interacting as equals. Some say it changed their minds about apartheid as they sat next to people of a different colour.

I apologise for the length of this, but after such a good article, I did want to bring up these other issues. The question of separating the artist from their art is one that comes up regularly on my own Facebook page, whenever I quote certain people. (The comments are often in caps, and have nothing to do with the quote. But I do take a lot of flak for my friendship with Orson Scott Card, or my admiration for Ezra Pound’s editorial skills.) DM


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  • Rolando MacJones says:

    Thank you for this. The 80’s and early 90’s were a very exciting time in South Africa.

    Despite your impressions that the designated races never mixed in South Africa, in fact I was a student from the mid 80’s and mixed freely with both whities and those designated ‘black’.

    I’m super surprised that most saffers who watched your concerts had never experienced mixed races on stage. Obviously they’d never visited the local jazz clubs or mixed genre venues. Juluka ffs!

    So funk the self-righteous. Apartheid collapsed from within. It’s time was done and Afrikaners as a whole had achieved their goal of transition from uneducated Boers to mostly middle class.

    Now you made your choices too. Contraversial and perhaps inexcusable to some.

    Funk that. Spread the joy. Thank you for your honesty.

    • Rolando MacJones says:

      I forgive you in other words.

      At the time it was trendy to be hardcore. I’m older now and far more forgiving.

      I am well aware of my youthful idiocy. It’s nice that you are also coming to terms actively with your choices. Thanks again.

    • Carsten Rasch says:

      I object to your use of the word ‘funk’ as a substitute for the obvious expletive. Why not say ‘fick’ or ‘feck’? Funk is a form of groove that allows the body to engage in movements otherwise impossible to execute, or even think of executing, and deserves to be remembered for that. Funk music is – and has been from the start – performed by bands and individuals of exceptional talent, and the idea to substitute it for a cheap expletive smacks of ignorance, and is rejected with the contempt it deserves (to paraphrase a comment popular with local politicians). Let’s call a spade a spade. Use it again, and funk may well boycott you, and limit you to the music that spawned pogoing and headbanging.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Insistence on non segregated venues and having a so-called mixed band, was an important part of the process of changing mindsets. Thankyou.

  • Bryan Shepstone says:

    I was there at the Collosseum and I remember loving the show (it was raining I seem to remember? 🤔) The only thing I don’t remember was what colour the crowd was! 😁 Thanks for having the courage to go against the storm Janis, you are still one of my all-time favourites!

  • André van Niekerk says:

    Thank you for that response. The fact that you considered it important and worthwhile to respond, confirms to me the view I have always had of you – that of a courageous, honest and hyper-talented poet and musician. Your Between the Lines album will stay as one of my top 5 favourite choices of album of all time. At Seventeen and Water Colours sensitised me as a teenage boy to the insensitive and unfair (gender-based) actions that played out amongst uncaring teenagers, without considering the feelings of others. That album is a sentinel for the true meaning of feminism.
    I also respect that you acted in a manner true to your convictions, and still do.
    My only regret is not having had the opportunity to see and hear you perform.
    So how about a return-visit!

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