Talkin’ Bout A Revolution… It Sounds Like A Whisper

Published 10 years ago
Talkin’ Bout A Revolution…  It Sounds Like A Whisper

On a snowy April day, Nelson Mandela was sipping tea in London, surrounded by his political entourage. This was minutes before he was to climb onto the stage for a concert to be broadcast to 600 million people in 67 countries: the biggest audience for a music concert. Just 54 days before, he had been a prisoner.

Mandela was still a marked man. British security forces feared a sniper would shoot him while he was on stage. Everywhere he went, police locked and unlocked behind him to make sure a gunman could not sneak a shot.

As Mandela climbed the narrow staircase to the stage, with the crowds chanting his name, alongside promoter Tony Hollingsworth, he asked to turn back to use the toilet. When Mandela and Hollingsworth had washed their hands, they found out, to their horror, that the police had, unwittingly, locked them in.


“They’ve taken all the entourage and Trevor [Huddleston] onto stage highly secured, and left me and Mandela, I thought ‘oh shit’. It’s a locked room and my bloody headset wasn’t on. So I couldn’t talk to anyone,” says Hollingsworth.

There was no time to waste. Hollingsworth went to bang on the glass.

“I could see into another room, which was where they were counting all the money. I patted in the door until somebody recognized me. They came and unlocked the door. We walked through the money room to a public area, down a public staircase in the stadium, into the backstage area, onto stage. And the security forces didn’t even know we had gone. They were all watching the audience,” he says.

Minutes later, Mandela strolled on stage as if nothing had happened.


“Thank you that you chose to care,” Mandela told the world.

“When Mandela came on stage, the audience erupted. What then ensued was this almost eight minute game, of this crowd cheering at him as he moved around waving his arms. The problem was that because he was unused to the power of the microphone. In his mind, he had to wait for people to be quiet before he spoke,” says Hollingsworth.

Mandela’s speech lasted 45 minutes, ridiculously long according to Hollingsworth. He paid an American consultant—to trail Mandela after his release—to teach him how to speak on television. The consultant didn’t get anywhere and gave up.

Hollingsworth sits across the table, in a Johannesburg hotel, lost in the memory of that day. The man sports a shock of grey hair. It was 25 years ago, to the day, that as a 30-year-old he produced the first of two concerts, both of which would go down in history.


Hollingsworth came from a musical family. He began his career building ejector-seats for jet airplanes, but quit after three months to study theories of ideology at the Open University. His cousin was the orgainzer of the world famous Glastonbury Festival and during a visit one summer Hollingsworth cut his teeth promoting a traveling Moroccan band.

He whet his appetite by staging concerts for the Greater London Council called ‘Jobs for Change’. His speciality became selling ‘issues’ on stage and when musician Jerry Dammers, the writer of the song Free Nelson Mandela, put forward the idea of an anti-apartheid concert, he was in.

Hollingsworth approached Archbishop Trevor Huddleston and Mike Terry, both anti-apartheid activists. It took some convincing.

“Fifty percent of the newspapers at that time reported Mandela as a black terrorist leader, that’s the label he had been given,” he says.


Hollingsworth went to conservative broadcasters with an idea of a concert for Mandela’s 70th birthday.

This was a time when Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of Britain, was calling the African National Congress (ANC) terrorists. The atmosphere was so charged that many of the performing artists asked for a clause in the contract to ensure that the money raised would not be used to buy guns. At that time, the ANC was embroiled in an armed struggle.

“The broadcasters asked, ‘Is it for the ANC?’ and I would say, ‘No.’ ‘The anti-apartheid movement?’ ‘No. I am doing it for Nelson Mandela’s birthday.’ Half of those people winked back. I had given them the legal solution… the other half went along in innocence.”

The media lapped it up. Especially once Dire Straits, the largest selling act in the world in 1988, signed up. In just four months the word terrorist disappeared from the news, says Hollingsworth, once broadcasters accepted that they were to air an 11-hour show about Mandela.


Then, came the crossfire.

“The ANC were furious that I was putting this event on without calling for sanctions or resistance. There was an intense, difficult time running up to it. Because they weren’t to know,” he says.

It all led up to June 1988 and a packed Wembley Stadium, where Mark Knopfler took the stage with his band Dire Straits. South Africa had banned Knopfler in 1979, after he channeled his profits from South African sales to Amnesty International.

“He was a very shy man… Mark had played a few numbers, and said to the audience, ‘Our records were banned in 1979. I am very pleased to say, this is for the man in question, this is the best birthday party we have ever been to, thanks for having us. This is the guy who launched it all for us,” says Hollingsworth.


Among the musicians on the night, was a lone, unknown, American with a guitar—Tracy Chapman.

“The song that she sang for the event, that worked completely. She sang Talkin’ Bout A Revolution. That’s what the event was like. All of the run up to it, to this trojan horse policy, to a man, that was the whisper,” says Hollingsworth.

Chapman played two sets on the night, the second by sheer luck.

The production manager ran up to Hollingsworth and shouted in his ear: “Stevie Wonder cannot go on. The equipment is gone.”

Hollingsworth didn’t even know what he was talking about. Wonder walked off the stage into the parking lot in tears because his music harddrive was lost. Hollingsworth was left with 23 minutes to fill.

“The only person who could go on stage, with no equipment was Tracy Chapman. I grabbed her manager Elliot Roberts, who discovered artists like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, and shouted in his ear, ‘Tracy must go back on.’ He was delighted.”

Roberts grabbed Chapman with one hand and her guitar in the other and walked her on stage without telling her what was going on. Chapman sold two million albums in the next two weeks.

“Tracy blew my mind. About 90% of people will remember her. When she came on and sang, it was like wow. She really captured the feeling in her songs. She was unforgettable,” recalls Nicholas Wolpe, who was 20 at the time.

Wolpe, the son of anti-apartheid activist Harold Wolpe, was given a ticket by the ANC.

Stevie Wonder did come back to play, without his harddrive, to a roaring crowd. He sang I Just Called To Say I Love You.

“I recall the people sitting next to me were not necessarily there for Nelson, but for the music. The principal was to highlight Nelson’s birthday, rather than imprisonment. But it achieved that. As more and more people came out on the stage to talk about Nelson, there was this gradual shift. I think people were swept up with the euphoria. It became an incredibly emotive day,” says Wolpe

Mandela was elected South Africa’s first black president in 1994. Hollingsworth, the man with whom he was locked in a toilet, produced more concerts around the world, including the 850th anniversary of Moscow’s Red Square, in 1997.

You can argue that these were merely two among the millions of lives changed by June 11, 1988.