As lead singer of Genesis, Peter Gabriel was never an overtly political songwriter. If he touched on it at all, it was usually couched in fanciful language and scenarios. But on his third solo record, he delivered an impassioned tribute to the fallen anti-apartheid leader Stephen Biko.
Gabriel did his research, reading three biographies as well as a book of Biko’s own writings. Even so, he said he felt more like a reporter than an insider. “It’s a white, middle-class, ex-public schoolboy, domesticated, English person observing his own reactions from afar,” he said. “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."
“Biko” reached #38 on the UK charts, and for years was a powerful sing-a-long closer to Gabriel’s live set. The song has been covered by Joan Baez, Simple Minds, and Paul Simon.
On September 12, 1977, Stephen Biko, an influential leader in South Africa’s “Black Consciousness” movement, died while in police detention. He was 30 years old.
Biko was born in South Africa in 1946, two years before apartheid—enforced racial segregation—was made an official policy of his native country. While studying medicine in college, Biko became active in the anti-apartheid movement. In 1968, he set up the South African Students’ Organization and was elected its first president the year after. By 1972, Biko’s full-time activism got him expelled from medical school, and brought him under scrutiny by the government. They even tried to impose a kind of restraining order on him, preventing him from leaving his hometown. But Biko’s fervor spread, as he set up clinics and community groups to help political prisoners and to assist black students.
Like Martin Luther King, Jr. before him, he was charismatic and eloquent, inspiring his followers to work for peaceful change. And like King, he made a lot of enemies.
When Biko was taken into custody in August 1977, it was the latest in a string of arrests. He was never convicted of a crime, nor accused of inciting violence, but the South African government considered him a growing threat to their regime.
The government’s official line on the cause of Biko’s death was that he starved himself while in prison. But an autopsy revealed that he had been tortured and beaten, and died from massive head injuries. Donald Woods, a journalist and close friend of Biko’s, photographed the body in the morgue and exposed the truth of the police brutality.
There was a trial, but the South African Attorney General said that he would not prosecute any of the officers involved with the arrest. Biko’s injuries were explained away as the self-inflicted wounds of a suicide attempt. Ultimately, the judge dismissed the murder charge because there were no witnesses. After the trial, the police claimed that they had documents proving that he was a terrorist who had been planning sabotage, murder, and riots.
Biko’s death raised world consciousness of the apartheid issue, and laid the foundation for a long, slow march toward the democratic elections and integration that finally took root in South Africa in the early 1990s. In 1987, Stephen Biko’s story was brought to the screen in Cry Freedom, starring Denzel Washington.