He was arrested on August 21 at a police checkpoint under Terrorism Act No 83 which allowed the government to detain any citizen for an indefinite period of time without trial and without the requirement to release any detainee’s name.
He was beaten repeatedly for 20 days until September 11th when, close to death, he was stripped naked and tossed into the back of a Land Rover and driven 1500km to a prison with hospital facilities.
He died on September 12. He was a law student; a leader of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement
His name was Stephen Bantu Biko.
I was a white teenager trotting home to my lily-white neighborhood with Peter Gabriel’s third solo album under my arms. From the earliest I can remember, Gabriel’s music had been a kind of obsession and I was always first in line for whatever new offerings he served up.
When I got home, I ran up to my room, tossed in a fresh dip of Copenhagen, dropped the needle on Peter Gabriel III, and jumped back onto my big sloshy hand-me-down-from-my-brother water bed to sink into the music.
I heard two tracks that altered my consciousness forever: Family Snapshot and Biko.
Family Snapshot tells the story of an assassination from the point-of-view of the assassin. Gabriel mixed Kennedy-esque imagery and motifs with the internal thoughts and musings of Arthur Bremer, recorded in The Assassin’s Diary. The book outlines Bremer’s quest to assassinate Richard Nixon and then, when Nixon proved too difficult to shoot, George Wallace (which left Wallace alive and paralyzed and Bremer in prison until 2007). Bremer was also fixated on losing his virginity and the two are completely mixed in his thoughts and writings, and (I would argue) in Gabriel’s song. When Bremer writes that using his gun to make “a statement of my manhood for the world to see” one wonders just how much confusion he had about manhood and what constitutes a statement.
The other track–the last track on side 2–was Biko. I had never heard of world music or of Steve Biko; I doubt I had heard of Apartheid. But as I heard Gabriel belt out his story, I was up already up at the encyclopedia, and then library to read all I could about this person, this man.
I would eventually find Biko’s writings, and those of Frantz Fanon and others one might loosely collect under the words of liberation movements. And I would find the Clash, and Oi! bands like the Angelic Upstarts, and protest music. But I was long way from a social or political consciousness in 1980. If anything, I was a teenager confused about what it means to be a man and surging with unconscionable levels of testosterone and my attitude and world view quite likely resembled Bremer’s more than Biko’s in more way than I would wish to admit.
It was in that room, in that lily-white midwestern suburb, on that goofy slosh-arama water bed, that Peter Gabriel presented to me differing versions of self-identity, differing versions of what it might mean to be alive outside the spiritual anesthesia of the middle class.
Every fall, sometime around September 12th, I return to Peter Gabriel III (aka Melt) and the life of Stephen Biko, and let the lines and rhythms just wash over me.