Biko by Peter Gabriel



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Biko by Peter Gabriel

This song is about the South African anti-apartheid veteran Steve Biko, who in 1977 was killed by police officers while in custody for related political reasons. Gabriel took note of the killing and began studying Biko, reading three biographies about him. For this song, instead of telling the story from Biko's perspective, Gabriel takes a third person observer approach. He explained in an interview with Sound to promote the album: "It's a white, middle-class, ex-public schoolboy, domesticated, English person observing his own reactions from afar. It seemed impossible to me that the South Africans had let him be killed when there had been so much international publicity about his imprisonment. He was very intelligent, well reasoned and not full of hate. His writings seemed very solid in a way that polarized politics often doesn't."

When Gabriel sings "yihla moja," he's singing in Xhosa, which is a language spoken in South Africa, notably by activist Nelson Mandela.

This song was released as a single but flopped on the charts. Recording the song had a profound effect on Gabriel, however, and it led to his commitment to World Music and to various political causes. He called the song, "a calling card announcing I was interested and prepared to get involved."

The song had an impact on other musicians as well: Steve Van Zandt heard it in a Los Angeles movie theater in 1980 and began wondering what he could do to help the cause, which led to him organizing "Sun City" Bono of U2 asked Gabriel to join the Amnesty International Conspiracy Of Hope tour in 1986, which played 6 shows and raised $2.6 million.

It wasn't until 1990 that this song was first played on South African TV and radio stations. The early '90s marked the end of the apartheid era in the country.

The bagpipes on this track were unusual on a song with tribal rhythms about an African. Gabriel found out that bagpipes had their origin in the Far East, and was not distinctive to Scotland.

The beginning and end of the song were based on traditional South African funeral music.

The finale chorus of the song on the album is sung by everybody available around the mobile studio, including Gabriel, the musicians, technicians, cooks, etc. –

A live version was used on the soundtrack to Cry Freedom, a movie about Stephen Biko by Sir Richard Attenborough.

Gabriel performed this in 1988 at Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday tribute at Wembley Stadium in London. He also played it at the second Woodstock festival in 1994.

September '77

Port Elizabeth weather fine
It was business as usual
In police room 619
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
-The man is dead
When I try to sleep at night
I can only dream in red
The outside world is black and white
With only one colour dead
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
-The man is dead
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
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
-The man is dead

And the eyes of the world are watching now



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