Steven Van Zandt on How 'Sun City' Carried Nelson Mandela's Message to the World

"I was shocked to find this ... evil strategy called apartheid," said Van Zandt.

ByABC News
December 11, 2013, 12:46 PM

Dec.11, 2013— -- As Nelson Mandela fought for freedom from his prison cell, his message was carried around the world by music. One of the musicians who took up Mandela's cause and fought for an end to apartheid was actor and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt, who brought together 50 musicians to record the protest song "Sun City."

"I was shocked to find really slavery going on and this very brilliant but evil strategy called apartheid," Van Zandt told

Sun City was a ritzy, whites only resort in South Africa that Van Zandt and his group Artists Against Apartheid decided to boycott. It became a song that raised awareness about apartheid during a time in the 1980s when many American's weren't aware of what was happening in South Africa.

"At the time, it was quite courageous for the artists to be on this record. We crossed a line from social concerns to political concerns," said Van Zandt.

Artists from every genre of music, from Run DMC to Miles Davis and Bono, sang on the track. Van Zandt says it took two weeks to mix and wasn't a break-out hit at first.

"We hit our own apartheid on radio. Radio felt it was too black for white radio and too white for black radio," said Van Zandt.

But, recorded in 1985 during the early days of MTV and BET, the music video of "Sun City" found a home on TV.

"They really embraced it and played it a lot. Congressmen and senators' children were coming up to them and telling them about apartheid and what they saw happening in South Africa. That put us over the edge."

The album and single ended up raising more than a million U.S. dollars for anti-apartheid projects.

"It completely re-energized the whole anti-apartheid movement, which had kind of hit the wall at that point and was not getting much traction," explained Van Zandt.

Van Zandt said he did not know if Nelson Mandela ever heard the song but said Mandela recognized that music was an extremely effective form of communication.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band will play its first concerts in South Africa early next year, and Van Zandt, who said he met Mandela twice, said they planned to recognize the former South African president and liberator during their shows.

"It was an honor to be on the planet at the same time as that cat."