Graceland: Still Perfect After All These Years

Paul Simon released his masterpiece 30 years ago today. Here’s why its message remains as important as ever.

And I may be obliged to defend 
 Every love, every ending 
 Or maybe there’s no obligations now 
 Maybe I’ve a reason to believe 
 We all will be received 
 In Graceland
- Paul Simon, “Graceland”

I can still picture myself at six or seven, small, slim, checkered flannel-wearing and flailing manically to the African polyrhythmic grooves of Paul Simon’s album Graceland. I was mesmerized by the syncopated guitar licks that shimmered like beach glass in the sun, captivated by buoyant basslines that darted and popped like bubbles just out of my reach. And as I grew older, I became entranced by Simon’s craft as a lyricist, his stories of life, love, loss, and truth weaving together intricately and unfolding outwards with profound precision and clarity like a roadmap to the horizon.

When I spent a semester abroad in South Africa, the place where Graceland was brought into existence, the stylistic sensibilities and cross-cultural genre bending I had absorbed through myriad listens became manifest; walking the streets of Johannesburg and Cape Town, I was exposed firsthand to the music and atmosphere in which the album was steeped. I experienced a culture brimming with passion, light, and hope, but also bore witness to the frustration and heartbreak inherent in the residual effects of colonial imperialism and Apartheid. And as I learned teaching poetry and storytelling in a rural South African community, art can be a powerful tool for establishing human connection and causing social change.

Simon traveled to South Africa to record Graceland in 1985, during the height of Apartheid, after becoming fascinated with the rich, vivacious music brimming from urban townships like Soweto. Upon the release of the album, which prominently featured and was directly inspired by black and coloured African performers, the widespread public was granted a crucial lens into the myriad human rights offenses perpetrated by the South African Apartheid state. The result was a heightened awareness amongst the global community concerning this ongoing oppression and injustice, and Apartheid was formally abolished several years after the album’s 1986 release. But while the context of the album may have been largely political, the subject matter was anything but.

Graceland is the musical expression of Simon’s spiritual journey, a pure and elegant articulation of his identity at that point in time. Stasis in his personal and artistic life led him to the impassioned rawness of South Africa, where in its vibrancy and color he found “angels in the architecture,” as he sings in “You Can Call Me Al.” And thus, with a reinvigorated voice and re-inspired vision, Graceland emerged: with effervescence, with grace, and with a universal richness intrinsic in the music layered in global influences, adding to the power of the stories he sung. “Amen!” he shouts at the end of the verse, “and Hallelujah!”

“Graceland,” the album’s title track, begins with a road trip to Memphis, Tennessee, ostensibly a journey to the legendary home of Elvis Presley. But by the end of the song we realize we aren’t merely traveling to the physical location of Graceland; we’ve traveling towards the higher ground of real, soulful, unmitigated truth. Where our voices will be heard and our souls seen. Beauty and blemishes all. In other words, perfection.

Together with his South African bandmates and brothers, Paul Simon created Graceland at a time when the world truly needed it. But as with any classic work of art, its lessons will never go out of style. Shining through the verses, the rhythms of Graceland are timeless messages of community, openness, self-discovery, authenticity, and hope, all joyously articulated through the transcendent power of music.

Now listen to the album all the way through. I guarantee you’ll hear it, too.