"Sun City" is a 1985 protest song written by Steven Van Zandt, produced by Van Zandt and Arthur Baker and recorded by Artists United Against Apartheid to convey opposition to the South African policy of apartheid. The primary means of that opposition is to declare that all the artists involved would refuse any and all offers to perform at Sun City, a resort which was located within the bantustan of Bophuthatswana, one of a number of internationally unrecognized states created by the South African government to forcibly relocate its black population.
Van Zandt was interested in writing a song about South Africa's Sun City casino resort, to make parallels with the plight of Native Americans. Danny Schechter, a journalist who was then working with ABC News' 20/20, suggested turning the song into a different kind of "We Are the World", or as Schechter explains, "a song about change not charity, freedom not famine."
As Van Zandt was writing it, Schechter suggested that he include the names of the artists who had played Sun City in defiance of a United Nations-sanctioned cultural boycott. "I was probably still thinking of 20/20's exposé of conservative Africanists 15 years earlier," says Schechter. References to specific performers who had played in Sun City appeared in the demo but were omitted from the final version of the song.
Musically speaking, the song combines elements of hip-hop (which was beginning to achieve mainstream popularity at the time), R&B, and hard rock. The main hook is multiple successive artists singing "I, I, I, I, I, I", followed by all the artists together singing "ain't gonna play Sun City!"
When Van Zandt was finished writing "Sun City", he, Baker and Schechter spent the next several months searching for artists to participate in recording it. Van Zandt initially declined to invite Bruce Springsteen, not wanting to take advantage of their friendship, but Schechter had no problem asking himself; Springsteen accepted the invitation. Van Zandt also had reservations about inviting legendary jazz musician Miles Davis, whom Schechter also contacted; with minimal persuasion, Davis also accepted. Eventually, Van Zandt, Baker and Schechter would gather a wide array of artists, including Kool DJ Herc, Grandmaster Melle Mel, The Fat Boys, Rubén Blades, Bob Dylan, Herbie Hancock, Ringo Starr and his son Zak Starkey, Lou Reed, Run DMC, Peter Gabriel, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Darlene Love, Bobby Womack, Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, Jackson Browne and then-girlfriend Daryl Hannah, U2, George Clinton, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Peter Wolf, Bonnie Raitt, Hall & Oates, Jimmy Cliff, Big Youth, Michael Monroe, Peter Garrett, Ron Carter, Ray Barretto, Gil-Scott Heron, Nona Hendryx, Pete Townshend, Pat Benatar, Clarence Clemons, Stiv Bators and Joey Ramone.
303 tracks were mixed-down to create "Sun City." A music video directed by Jonathan Demme with Godley and Creme was also produced.
"Sun City" only reached #38 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in December 1985. Only about half of American radio stations played "Sun City". Some stations objecting to the lyrics' explicit criticism of President Ronald Reagan's policy of "constructive engagement." Singer Joey Ramone's lines in the song "Our government tells us - We're doing all we can - Constructive engagement is - Ronald Reagan's plan" criticizes Reagan. Ramone also expressed open discontent and criticism towards him with the Ramones song "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg". "Sun City" was banned in Apartheid South Africa itself.
The song did somewhat better overseas, reaching #21 on the UK Singles Chart, #4 in Australia and achieving chart action in a number of other European countries, becoming a substantial hit in The Netherlands. It was also a top ten single in Canada in December 1985 and January 1986.
"Sun City" was picked as record of the year by many of the most influential music critics, topping the prestigious international Pazz & Jop Critics Poll for best single of the year.
Van Zandt and Schechter also struggled to get the documentary seen. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) refused to broadcast the non-profit film "The Making of Sun City" even though it won the International Documentary Association's top honors in 1986; PBS claimed the featured artists were also involved in making the film and were therefore "self-promoting." (In contrast, PBS chose to broadcast The Making of "Raiders of the Lost Ark", which was made as a promotional exercise by the for-profit Paramount Pictures and Lucasfilm Ltd.) In 1987, WNYC-TV, the New York City-owned public television station, aired an updated version of the documentary, produced by filmmaker Bill Lichtenstein along with Schechter. The film included updates about the Sun City resort and apartheid as well as the success of the Sun City video. In addition to airing the documentary, WNYC-TV made the film available over the PBS system to public television stations across the country for broadcast.
The album and single raised more than a million U.S. dollars for anti-apartheid projects. It premiered at the United Nations, thanks to the Special Committee Against Apartheid and UN officers such as Aracelly Santana.
The record never achieved the financial success of "We Are the World," although Oliver Tambo and the ANC's school in Tanzania "was sure happy when we gave them a big check," according to Schechter.
In South Africa, "Sun City" would later inspire musician Johnny Clegg to create a local organization similar to Van Zandt's, and "Sun City" also became the catalyst for the South Africa Now TV series. Since the end of the apartheid era, the song is rarely played on the radio.