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David Stewart rocks out for Mandela Day

Image: Nelson Mandela
From bottom left, Dave Stewart, Nelson Mandela and Ms. Dynamite with, top left, Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen, at the 46664 Concert in 2003 in Cape Town, South Africa. Courtesy of 46664 Limited
/ Source: NBC News

Question: What is Mandela Day?

Stewart: Mandela Day is really recognizing the greatness of somebody like Nelson Mandela, who’s giving 67 years of his life fighting for human rights. It’s recognizing that. The imprint that he’s made on the world and trying to inspire people that, “OK, anybody at one point in their life can decide to stand up to something and make an imprint too.”

My relationship goes back many years ago, starting with the very first Free Nelson Mandela Concert [in 1988] and then Nelson Mandela’s Concert in Wembley Stadium years ago. Then, he asked me if I would help with the concept that he had a prisoner number 46664, which was the most negative number in his life, and he wanted to turn into the most positive. I thought that was a brilliant thing, to make it a number that people could get information and awareness about the AIDS epidemic. So, it was myself who started to go about creating that number into a cell phone number that people would call. Then I wrote songs with Bono and Paul McCartney and many people and they would hear these songs just on the phone and while they were listening they were donating into the 46664 Foundation, which actually then helped launch it.

Then I helped create a concert in South Africa and brought Beyonce and Bono and many other artists, and Oprah Winfrey came. It launched in Cape Town. It was huge, 60,000, sort of football stadium concert to launch the whole Nelson Mandela Foundation, 46664, which has then turned into all sorts of events that happen around the world and ways in which to bring awareness to the AIDS epidemic.

Last year they had a concert on Nelson Mandela’s birthday that was such a success in London that they thought, “Well, lets make every birthday of Nelson Mandela a happening or an event that will remind people of who he was and who he is and what a great man he is and how that could help empower other individuals to make an imprint on the world.”

Q: What is your role in the organization and how did you get involved?

Stewart: I was one of the first ambassadors. Mandela contacted me years ago about the idea of how to, in a novel way, launch 46664 as a way in which to raise awareness about the AIDS epidemic. So I worked very closely with him. Flew to Africa and was in his house and talked to him all the time. Then I brought in my friends Queen, Roger Taylor and then I contacted Bono and I wrote songs with him and then I wrote songs with Joe Strummer and then with McCartney. At the very beginning, it was very skeletal. It was me and about two other people. Then I brought in contact Richard Branson and Bob Geldoff and Branson then said he would lend the planes to fly the artists to South Africa. I’ve had lots and lots of conversations with Nelson Mandela and in those conversations realized what an amazing person he is.

Image: Dave Stewart with French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy
Dave Stewart with French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy

Q: Have you had a moving experience while working with this organization that stands out in your mind?

Stewart: Well, many. One of the most moving experiences was I wrote this song with Bono and Joe Strummer called "46664." Just after we performed it, backstage, while we were performing, Mandela was getting ready with his prison uniform with his number on it, 46664. He came out with me on one side and Bono on the other and stood in front of the crowd wearing his prison uniform and made a great speech about turning this number into a positive movement and had most people in tears.

Q: What do you hope Mandela Day will accomplish this year and going forward?

Stewart: I think there’s so many negative things being bombarded at us every day in TV and the news, when somebody has spent their whole life overcoming the fact that they were imprisoned for 27 years and then devoting the rest of his life to help empower people and fight for human rights. And to celebrate somebody who is a real spirit and meaningful person. It actually makes you as an individual feel like you want to do something positive. I think its kind of a positivity mark in the calendar.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Stewart: Well, I’m excited to play. I’m playing with [French first lady] Carla Bruni-Sarkozy at the concert at Radio City Music Hall. I’ve known Carla since about 1999 and she’s a really great songwriter in French. So we’re going to perform one of her songs called “Quelqu'un m'a dit” [Someone Told Me] — one of the songs she wrote on her first album that was a huge hit and it’s a great atmospheric song, very empty. Then we’re going to sing a Bob Dylan song after that, using myself and the choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I think that’s going to be quite a special moment.