Nelson Mandela, Jerry Dammers, and JA History


Since the death of Nelson Mandela on December 5th, I wanted to turn discussion to the connection between Mandela and Jamaican and ska culture.


Most ska fans will remember the glorious ska tune penned by Jerry Dammers of The Specials, “Free Nelson Mandela,” recorded by The Special A.K.A. whose lyrics are listed above. I always liked this song, but I also like the Chicken Song and I think the two remind me of each other a tad. The song charted at number nine in March 1984 and led to an awareness of the South African leader. It brought attention to a hero who was previously considered a terrorist by the Tory government in England. Dammers wrote the song after attending a 65th birthday concert at Alexandria Palace in 1983. The song was produced by Elvis Costello and The Beat’s Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger sang backup vocals, along with other vocalists.

One of those artists, Rhoda Dakar of The Bodysnatchers, The Special AKA, and Skaville UK, recalled her memories of recording this song in an interview on marcoonthebass.blogspot.com. She says that she had fond memories of “recording ‘Mandela’ with Elvis Costello. I’m a huge fan of his and could barely speak to him, I was so starstruck. . . I am, of course, immensely proud of ‘Mandela’.”

Dammers helped to organize Artists Against Apartheid and was asked to head up a festival by Dali Tambo, the son of Oliver Tambo who was, at the time, the leader of the African National Congress in South Africa. The first concert, called Freedom Beat, took place on Clapham Common in London in 1986. Artists such as Peter Gabriel, Sting, Sade, The Smiths, and Big Audio Dynamite, Mick Jones’s new band since the breakup of The Clash, performed. Some 250,000 people attended the concert which was preceded by a march to the concert grounds. After the success of Freedom Beat, a much bigger concert was organized to celebrate Mandela’s 70th birthday, and so on June 11, 1988 a massive concert took place at Wembley Stadium. Some 72,000 people attended live at Wembley Stadium and more than 600 million people from 60 countries watched the broadcast on television. An enormous list of artists performed, including Stevie Wonder, Sly & Robbie, UB40, Harry Belafonte, Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, and Chrissie Hynde. Numerous celebrities attended and lent their support.

BBC News has run a fantastic article on Jerry Dammers and his role in Nelson Mandela’s fight for freedom. Of course in true Jerry Dammers’ style, he claims that “there was little awareness of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment before his song,” but that is debatable. Here is the article: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-coventry-warwickshire-23064733

I want to post the lyrics here because I think they are tremendously important:

Free Nelson Mandela / Free, Free, Free, Nelson Mandela/ Free Nelson Mandela/ Twenty-one years in captivity/ His shoes too small to fit his feet/ His body abused but his mind is still free/ Are you so blind that you cannot see/  I say Free Nelson Mandela / I’m begging you/ Free Nelson Mandela / He pleaded the causes of the ANC/ Only one man in a large army/ Are you so blind that you cannot see/ Are you so deaf that you cannot hear his plea/  Free Nelson Mandela / I’m begging you Free Nelson Mandela/  Twenty-one years in captivity/ Are you so blind that you cannot see/ Are you so deaf that you cannot hear / Are you so dumb that you cannot speak/ I say Free Nelson Mandela/ I’m begging you/ Oh free Nelson Mandela, free/ Nelson Mandela I’m begging you begging you / Please free Nelson Mandela/ free Nelson Mandela/ I’m telling you, you’ve got to free Nelson Mandela.

Here is footage of “Free Nelson Mandela” performed on Top of the Pops:


Nelson Mandela first visited Jamaica on July 24, 1991. There was obviously great excitement about his visit and before he departed, Mandela visited National Heroes Park in Kingston where he laid wreaths at the shrines of Marcus Garvey, Sir Alexander Bustamante, and Norman Manley. The headline of the Daily Gleaner on July 25th stated, “Emotionally charged J’cans greet Mandelas.” The article stated, “Yesterday’s crowds in Kingston and the outpouring of emotion drew comparisons to the visit by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1967 [sic. Selassie actually visited on April 21, 1966]. People from all walks of life took whatever vantage points they could—tops of trees or buildings—to catch a glimpse of the Mandelas but heavy security and sometimes confusion over routes to be used left many disappointed though caught up in the moment of the historic visit. Thousands ringed Heroes Circle from about mid-afternoon even while Mr. Mandela was at Vale Royal for lunch and waited for more than three hours to see them. A crowd had gone to the National Stadium from as early as noon with hundreds taking water bottles and food and vendors camped around the ground as people marked out their positions. All the car parks were full spilling over onto neighbouring streets backing up hundreds of yards. To Rex Nettleford’s ears the people on the streets were paying their tribute by saying ‘Mandela’ as ‘Man de ya’ or ‘The man is here.’”

The article later says that poet and historian, Lorna Goodison, sister to musicologists Bunny and Kingsley Goodison, read a poem to the Mandelas. “It was tears at the Pegasus Hotel luncheon when Lorna Goodison read ‘The Bedspread,’ a poem about South African police taking into custody Mrs. Mandela’s bedspread which was in the colour of the ANC. Miss Goodison went through the poem with her eves closed and her face pained. At its end she burst into tears and was hugged thrice by the wife of the ANC leader who later spilled a tear,” read the article.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Senator David Coore who organized the visit said, “Nelson Mandela is a man who has become a symbol of resistance to oppression, a man who has symbolized the fight against the cruel injustice of apartheid, and a man whose courage and example has been an inspiration to the whole world. It is our way as a people in Jamaica and the Caribbean of saying to him that we appreciate and recognise what he has accomplished: that we have always stood with him and the black people of South Africa — the non-white people of South Africa — in their struggle against apartheid, and to let them know that that support continues and will continue until apartheid is totally abolished.”

Tommy McCook recorded a fantastic homage to Nelson Mandela in 1981 with his “Mandella” [sic. Mandela] and numerous reggae artists like Sugar Minott, Carlene Davis, Danny Dread, Jah Wally Stars, and Rupie Culture also paid their respects to the great freedom fighter and leader.


On another note, Music Producer and Island Records Founder Chris Blackwell, who launched the careers of Millie Small and Bob Marley, among others, hosted a screening of his new Island Pictures film Mandela at his Strawberry Hill property in January 1997. The film tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s struggle against the tyranny of Apartheid in South Africa and creates an important link between Jamaica and South Africa. Historian Rex Nettleford said that “Nelson Mandela’s story encapsulates a spirit not unknown to the Jamaican people which must have prompted Chris Blackwell to want to tell the story of this great man, no doubt with the echoes of ‘One Love, one heart, let’s get together and feel alright.’”

The film is available on Netflix. Here is an NPR story featuring Chris Blackwell that ran on the Mandela documentary in 2006: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5565131

3 thoughts on “Nelson Mandela, Jerry Dammers, and JA History”

    1. I agree, Charles–I like seeing Elvis Costello in the background on this footage! Doesn’t that little horn ditty before the vocals remind you of the Chicken Song? Makes me want to do the chicken dance–disrespectful? Maybe, but fun, yes!


      1. Yeah, it does have that Yakity Sax/Benny Hill feel to it. But the drumming makes up for it! And did Dave Wakling have an inexhaustible collection of strange 80s outfits?


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