Before Nelson Mandela celebrated his birthdays with UN declarations and millions of singing children, he spent 27 years in prison, 18 of them on South Africa’s infamous Robben Island. In spite of his confinement and disappearance from the world stage (the apartheid government even banned his image), Mandela inspired a generation of activists and artists inside and outside of South Africa.
On the former South African president and anti-apartheid leader’s 95th birthday, let’s revisit some of the songs that helped put—and keep—Mandela in the minds of millions.
1. The Special AKA: “Nelson Mandela”
This super-popular and catchy protest song was released in 1984, when Mandela was nearly 20 years into his life sentence. Here it’s performed with a little backup from Elvis Costello and the English Beat’s Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling.
2. Hugh Masekela, “Mandela (Bring Him Back Home)”
Masekela’s wish to see the imprisoned Mandela “walking down the street” was all the more poignant considering that the South African trumpeter had been living in exile in the United States since the early ’60s.
3. Brenda Fassie, “Black President”
Fassie, a South African pop sensation who died in 2004, sang this tribute in 1990, four years before Mandela was elected South Africa’s first black (and democratically elected) president.
4. Johnny Clegg & Savuka, “Asimbonanga”
Mandela’s absence was also lamented in the South African singer’s 1986 hit, whose title and chorus means “we have not seen him” in Zulu.
5. Salif Keita, “Mandela”
“You shed tears for others,” sings the Malian star in this 1995 tribute.
6. Vusi Mahlasela, “When You Come Back”
Before it was used to promote the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Mahlasela’s 1994 song alluded both to Mandela and Vuyisile Mini, an African National Congress activist and songwriter who was executed in 1964.
7. Miriam Makeba, “Ndodemnyama (Beware, Verwoerd)”
This 1950s song written by Mini doesn’t mention Mandela, but it warns Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, of the struggle to come.
8. Artists United Against Apartheid, “Sun City”
Mandela gets a quick visual shout-out in this ’80s-tastic video. (And see if you can spot Run D.M.C., Lou Reed, and Keith Richards among the many musical celebrities crammed into this single penned by Little Steven Van Zandt.)
9. Dishonorable mention: Nickelback, “If Everyone Cared”
There have been some crummy songs about Mandela, too. This one has nothing to say about Mandela (or anything for that matter), but it does shamelessly include him in its video.