Biko/Playing For Change


You’ve got to listen for Yo-Yo Ma’s solo at 3:23, he’s wailing, and if you know the original record it will resonate and transcend.

Atlantic Records believed so much in Peter Gabriel’s third LP…that the company refused to release it. It ended up coming out on Mercury, which is like BMW rejecting a model and having it be produced by Yugo.

Peter Gabriel was a cult item. Genesis didn’t break through to huge success until after he left the band. The initial solo LP contained the now-classic “Solsbury Hill,” but it did not dominate FM airwaves back in 1977, it was a cult item. And the second solo LP…was even less successful, it contained less obvious tracks, it suffered from being produced by Robert Fripp, who is a master, but obvious commerciality is not in his wheelhouse, better to get him to play, one of his notes can make a track, as it did with Blondie’s “Fade Away and Radiate.” But, the third album was produced by Steve Lillywhite, before he became famous for working with U2, when his name on an album didn’t automatically attract interest, and it’s this third album that true fans consider Gabriel’s best, then and now. Sure, “So” has the commercial success, with “Sledgehammer” and its famous video, but there was nothing to sell the third album other than word of mouth, MTV didn’t exist and stations were thick in the midst of the controlled playlist corporate rock era, Peter Gabriel did not fit their format, so his album was not played. But if you listened to it…

In retrospect the third album seems so obvious, with “I Don’t Remember” and “Games Without Frontiers,” but the truth is they were just album tracks to those who purchased the album, as was the finale, “Biko.”

Americans are ignorant. They’ve really got no idea what is going on in the rest of the world. And today, with so many avenues of information available they may have heard word, but chances are they’ve got it wrong, institutions are seen as bogus, untrustworthy, and we live in a nation held together by a thread. Which means… Educated people were aware of apartheid, if not how to pronounce it, but what was going on in South Africa flew over the heads of almost everybody in the U.S. Sure, in years to come you were told you couldn’t play Sun City, but Little Steven’s song with that moniker didn’t come out until 1985, and “Biko” was released in 1980.

“September ’77

Port Elizabeth weather fine

It was business as usual

In police room 619”

The specific resonates. The more personal you write it, the more people are attracted to it. Many tell you to generalize, to appeal to the widest swath of potential customers, but this is a mistake, the smaller, the more intimate it is, the greater the chance it will speak to people, hook them, have them internalize it and never forget it, never mind testify about it.

“You can blow out a candle

But you can’t blow out a fire

Once the flames begin to catch

The wind will blow it higher”

This mantra never changes, it’s about the power of the individual. It only takes one, but most don’t have the courage to step outside their lives, to risk what they’ve got for what they believe in, to make things better. We get mobs, of unthinking unified people, but individuals… That’s what America was built upon, the honest individual throwing the long pass and not backing down. We’ve lost that. To our detriment. Maybe we’ve still got Elon Musk, we had Steve Jobs before him, but back in the twentieth century it was all about artists, mostly musicians, Jobs lionized Bob Dylan, he wanted to know which way the wind blew.


Now when you first pull up this YouTube clip you might want to shut it down, what is it, a cover, images matched to the Peter Gabriel original? But then Meshell Ndegeocello appears playing her bass in a field and you’re shocked, she seems to be making no concession to commerciality whatsoever, she’s not styled to the max, and unlike Billie Eilish her baggy clothes are not a fashion statement, you believe this is who Meshell truly is. And thank god they label her and all the players, because otherwise most people wouldn’t have any idea who they are.

And then, not long after a minute into it, Peter Gabriel appears. And he looks like he’s aged, but not that he’s old. He’s not denying who he is, he’s embracing it, and this is appealing in a world where all the old rock stars are trying to look young when they’re not. And you’re asking yourself…DOES HE STILL HAVE IT? And you’re not sure, but as the video plays out, as the song amps up, it turns out he still does, and you yearn to hear new stuff from him, because he always pushes the boundaries, but maybe he’s tired, he’s accomplished so much, maybe he’s lost the motivation, let’s hope not.

And just shy of two minutes in, we get our first appearance from Yo-Yo Ma, and what he’s playing is not so extraordinary, but his reaction is, when he pulls his bow away, when he’s so INTO IT! That’s the power of music, whether you’re in rock, classical or whatever genre, when you’re so involved nothing else matters, when it’s the elixir of life, when you bond. It’s something you feel, not something you see, there’s no production necessary whatsoever, the music is enough.

And as the video continues, you see players from all over the world, especially percussionists, the Dynamic Music Collective, from my town, Los Angeles, who I’ve never heard of, bring the marching band sound to the track, with all of its attendant power.

“When I try to seep at night

I can only dream in red”

Whew! This is the Peter Gabriel we know, who impressed us, this is when we realize Gabriel, who never sold out, who believed first and foremost in credibility, has not lost a step.

The other surprise is Jason Tamba, all the way from Kinshasa, Congo. Isn’t that where they fought, isn’t that supposed to be backwoods and out of date? But Tamba is relaxed on a bench with his guitar and he’s generating a glorious noise that makes you believe that rock music is not dead, but still alive, just not on the radio airwaves.

And the truth is this version of “Biko” is inferior to the original recorded take, never mind Peter Gabriel’s commercially released live takes, all of which have more dynamics, more bottom, more edge. You keep waiting for transcendence watching the video, but it rarely reaches that level, except for the moments I’ve mentioned, and a couple more, it’s flatter.

But when it’s finished, you want to hear it again. How often do you get to see these people, Gabriel is essentially a hermit, a cipher. And with today’s technology you can record with people all over the world, and it’s interesting how all these different musical groups have been woven together in this song.

The song. You only have to hear it to remember…when you first heard it, when you played it over and over, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The impossible is possible. Come on, did you believe a black man could become president, that marijuana could be legal? That’s how far we’ve come, but never forget the forces of evil are trying to impede progress 24/7, they’re afraid of change, they want to keep you down in the hole they’re in.


So, this video was released over a month ago, I was just turned on to it today, by someone who thought everybody had already seen it, he was afraid of overburdening us. If this were thirty years ago, we’d all be aware of it, it would be on MTV, but now there’s so much in the channel that things get lost. People change direction believing they’re doing it wrong when the truth is the message just hasn’t reached enough people yet, it’s still percolating, word of mouth is slower than ever before, and that which is thrown in our face dies ever quicker, to last, you’ve got to be in it forever, the long haul, you’ve got to be true to your values, you’ve got to be Peter Gabriel.

And the truth is the song transcends the message here. I don’t mean the message of “Biko,” but the message of the organization that produced it, the charity Playing for Change. Music has been so insignificant for so long that the charity, the festival, the umbrella organization, usually supersedes the sound. But the sound, when done right, is everything.

And it turns out that people of different colors, from different backgrounds, even on different continents, can all resonate with the sound. They might not even understand the lyrics, but they can feel the message.

Music has power, but too often it is abdicated.

Music is enough, you don’t have to be a brand, you don’t need sponsorships to make enough dough.

But it’s harder than ever before, at least since the Beatles, because you’re competing not only against a plethora of music, but a plethora of messages from news, social media, gaming, television…everybody is overwhelmed, EVERYBODY! Which means if you want to reach more people, you must dig deep inside, it’s an internal game, you must find your inner tuning fork, you must forget the audience, and channel greatness. It’s always about truth. It always happens in a flash. Execution is key, but the more you polish, the more you risk sanding off the edges, and it’s the edges that hook people, and we’re all looking to be hooked.

I did not wake up thinking I was gonna write about “Biko,” but this one video brought back the original record, seeing Peter Gabriel at the Greek Theatre forty years ago, when he was passed amongst the audience, when he was the first to do this, when you had to be there to know. And going to the Capitol Records Swap Meet and buying a recording of the show on cassette. That’s how much the music meant to me.

It still means that much to me today.

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