"Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me," Nelson Mandela wrote in his 1994 autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

In talking about principles such as freedom and about replacing racial hatred with love, Mandela was able to attract the attention of a generation of idealists. His sophisticated message, delivered in simple and powerful language, and his dynamic leadership in the years he served as president made him a darling among artists.

Actors, singers, writers and other artists were at the forefront of anti-apartheid movements and in the campaign to get Mandela released from prison — he was first incarcerated in 1962 and served time until 1990.

'We discovered also that Mandela himself loved to sing... even when he was at Robben Island, Mandela would hold Christmas concerts where he would literally sing to the fellow prisoners' - Filmmaker Jason Bourque

Vancouver-based documentary maker Jason Bourque is working on the upcoming documentary Music for Mandela.

"We discovered also that Mandela himself loved to sing. Of course he used music politically to get across his message, he also used it ... even when he was at Robben Island, Mandela would hold Christmas concerts where he would literally sing to the fellow prisoners," Bourque told CBC News.

"All the musicians we interviewed, from street musicians to musicians like B.B. King and Estelle and a few of the bigger names ... they were all touched by Mandela and they all had this need to, I guess, to pay tribute to him. They were all touched by his journey as well as what he stands for. In that sense it's incredible to see this body of work that's been created, a musical legacy formed by Nelson Mandela either directly or indirectly."

During the years he was president, artists remained firm supporters of both his campaign for reconciliation and his calls for an African renaissance. In the years since his presidency, he had worked with celebrities to raise AIDS awareness and promote the work of his Nelson Mandela Foundation, especially its aims of educating young people.

Artists against apartheid

Artists were at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movements, with actors such as Vanessa Redgrave appearing at a rally calling for his release in 1963, just a year after Mandela was put behind bars. She wrote and performed the song Hanging on a Tree during that rally, saying in her autobiography that she was aware that Mandela faced the death penalty in his upcoming trial. 

South African singer Miriam Makeba and American Harry Belafonte were early activists in the anti-apartheid movement, long before it was fashionable. Makeba, who worked for years to raise awareness of the problems in South Africa's townships, was barred from her homeland for decades.

Songs inspired by Mandela

  • 46664 (Mandela's prison number)/ retitled American Prayer by U2
  • Mandela Day by Simple Minds
  • Free Nelson Mandela by Jerry Dammers
  • Gimme Hope Jo'anna by Eddy Grant

Mandela at the movies

  • Mandela (1987)
  • Mandela and De Klerk (1997)
  • Goodbye Bafana (2007)
  • Endgame (2009)
  • Invictus (2009)
  • Winnie (2011)
  • Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

Mandela's books

  • Long Walk to Freedom (1994) by Nelson Mandela. Describes his early life and time in prison, as well as his central philosophies
  • Conversations with Myself (2010). A literary album, containing snippets of Mandela's diaries, calendars, letters, and also transcripts from the Mandela tapes.
  • Mandela: An Illustrated Autobiography. Text adapted from Long Walk to Freedom, with 200 photographs.
  • A Prisoner in the Garden by the Mandela Foundation. A record of the nearly two decades Nelson Mandela spent incarcerated in Robben Island Prison.
  • In his Own Words. A collection of some of the most historic and inspirational addresses by Mandela.

"I look at an ant and l see myself: a native South African, endowed by nature with a strength much greater than my size so I might cope with the weight of a racism that crushes my spirit," the great African singer said.

Sun City

Civil rights activists, many of them artists, put pressure on governments to isolate South Africa politically and economically until it ended its system of racial segregation.

By the 1980s, the world of popular music had joined in. Actor and singer Steven Van Zandt formed Artists United Against Apartheid in 1985 and singers such as Jackson Browne, Jimmy Cliff, Miles Davis, Peter Gabriel and Run-D.M.C. joined in the track Sun City, a protest song about South Africa's white casino resort of the same name.

All the artists involved committed to turning down requests to play at Sun City and expressed solidarity with Mandela in prison. The song was a chart-maker in Canada and Australia, but only half of U.S. radio stations agreed to play it, so it never achieved the popular status of 1985 charity song We Are The World.

In 1985, Stevie Wonder dedicated his Oscar for the song I Just Called to Say I Love You to the imprisoned Mandela.

Freedomfest at Wembley

By 1988, more of the music community and the world had rallied behind the anti-apartheid fight. Freedomfest, the June 11, 1988, concert at U.K.'s Wembley Stadium featuring close to 100 artists was broadcast in 67 countries and credited with raising worldwide awareness of Mandela's imprisonment.

Belafonte paid tribute to Mandela in a speech that reached 600 million via satellite TV: "We are here to honour a great man — that man is Nelson Mandela," he said, praising the apartheid fighter, then still in prison, as a sterling example of great courage and peaceful resistance.

Dire Straits, Simple Minds, Whitney Houston, the Bee Gees and Eric Clapton were among the names on stage. Jerry Dammers played Free Nelson Mandela, Peter Gabriel sang Biko, his song about the young activist killed in prison, and Sting performed They Dance Alone. Simple Minds wrote the song Mandela Day for the event.

The Wembley concert helped counter the label of terrorist given to Mandela by his own country and repeated among conservative circles where black rule in South Africa was feared.

Mandela acknowledged the debt he had to musicians and particularly the Wembley concert by attending an epic pop show in his honour in London in 1990, soon after his release. He revealed that he often sang or listened to music while in prison and it helped relieve his stress.

Long Walk to Freedom

Mandela began his term as South Africa's first black president in 1994, setting out to heal his fractured country with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that allowed black people to speak about injustice and forced white residents to listen.

His autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, describing his youth and his years in prison, came out the year he took the reins of government.

The book was greeted with critical acclaim, not just for its outline of a life, but because of Mandela's evident drive and determination and his overall optimism that he could instill a spirit of love in his countrymen.

"I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people," he wrote in Long Walk to Freedom.

"There was no particular day on which I said, Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise."

Part of the memoir was written in secret, while Mandela was still in prison. Part was based on a series of tapes he made in the first years after his release, when a publisher asked Rick Stengel, now the managing editor of Time magazine, to work with him on his autobiography.

Stengel observed that, for Mandela, "the single most important message that he wanted to send after his release: that he was a man without bitterness."

Long Walk to Freedom would be the basis of much further art and writing about Mandela. Although he promised a sequel, much of the books in his name since then have been collections of speeches and writings.

The figure he presented — of a man imprisoned for his beliefs and committed to righting injustice — made him a role model among young people. A series of comic books about his life was developed for South African children and later published in North America.

Springboks rugby

Mandela is also a key figure in British-born journalist John Carlin's Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, the book that was the basis for the 2009 film Invictus.

Carlin's book tells the story of how Mandela got his divided nation to rally behind the Springboks rugby team, which was set to play in the 1995 Rugby World Cup in Johannesburg.

After stepping down from office, Mandela took part in some prominent AIDS fundraisers, including the 46664 concerts played in South Africa, Spain, Norway and London.  Bob Geldof, Beyoncé Knowles, Robert Plant and the Eurythmics took part, with a strong representation by African musicians including Angelique Kidjo and the Soweto Gospel Choir. Mandela was embraced by U2 frontman Bono as he came to the stage.

A living legend

As he approached 90, the focus of artists turned to honouring a man whose heroism in the face of injustice was now accepted wisdom.

His 90th birthday tribute in London's Hyde Park in 2008 was a fundraiser for AIDS charities hosted by Will and Jada Smith and featuring Annie Lennox, Peter Gabriel, Oliver Jones and Sipho (Hotstix) Mabuse.

Mandela Celebrities Artists

American actor and singer Harry Belafonte and his wife Julie pose with Nelson Mandela in Pretoria, South Africa in 1999. (Themba Hadebe/The Associated Press)

His work with the Nelson Mandela Foundation also focused attention on social justice issues around the world and had Mandela travelling extensively. He was photographed with celebrities as diverse as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Whoopi Goldberg, Michael Jackson and Oprah Winfrey.

Actor and former California governor Schwarzenegger talked about his meeting with Mandela during an interview on the George Stroumboulopoulos Show.

"I'm fascinated how he was able to go out, out of prison, and the first thing to go and have lunch with the widow of the man that put him behind bars for all those years," Schwarzenegger recalled.

"And I asked him, I said, 'How could you do that?' And he was just talking about how important it is not to think about revenge at that time, not to think about your own pain that you experienced, but to think about the good of the whole country. And it became very clear to him that in order to heal the country he had to go and show tolerance and inclusion and forgiveness."