Jerry Dammers wrote "Nelson Mandela" in hopes of getting people interested in the imprisoned anti-apartheid leader. But it was actually Nelson Mandela who got me interested in The Specials.
I didn't know much about ska that predated The Mighty Mighty Bosstones when I read Nick Hornby's music nerd novel High Fidelity. The protagonist mentioned getting an excellent response to playing "Nelson Mandela" at a party, and being interested in both Nelson Mandela--my cool older cousin had insisted that I read Long Walk to Freedom--and in ways that music could get people to like me more, I checked out The Specials' The Singles Collection at my favorite used record store. I heard the song that Sublime had stolen without credit ("A Message to You, Rudy,") the one that Bob Dylan wrote ("Maggie's Farm") and the one that occasionally appeared in crime movies ("Ghost Town.") It all came into place for me.
Even with its cheerful horns and skanking bounce, plus Americans' history of misinterpreting protest songs ("Fortunate Son," "Born in the U.S.A.," "Rockin' in the Free World,") it's hard to imagine anyone missing the message in that three word chorus. Rather than preach to the activists who were already counting on The Clash to alert them to their next cause, The Specials found the kids on the dance floor and got them to sing about Nelson Mandela. Who knows how many of them did anything about it, but I like how The Specials made activism look cool and sound fun. I'd hate to think of how many people are hesitant to get active for fear of working on a team of Jello Biafras.
A few decades after Mandela's release, The Specials sound a little dated. No one will play this song to at a rally to free anyone other than Nelson Mandela, and with ska now in its nth wave and a generation of Ras Trents inhabiting it, I'm rarely inspired to revisit The Singles Collection. But when I do, it sounds more politically blunt than anything by Bob Marley or Bruce Springsteen.