Published January 13, 2015
Will Smith charmed the crowd, Amy Winehouse wowed them just by showing up — but Nelson Mandela proved to be the biggest star of all at a concert Friday in honor of the South African statesman's 90th birthday.
Acts including Queen, Razorlight, Leona Lewis and a host of African stars joined more than 40,000 music fans for the outdoor show in London's Hyde Park, hosted by movie star Smith and held to mark Mandela's birthday on July 18.
Josh Groban and the Soweto Gospel Choir also performed at the event, which comes 20 years after a 70th birthday concert for an absent Mandela at London's Wembley Stadium. Mandela, an anti-aparthied activist, had at that point been imprisoned in South Africa for 25 years. He told Friday's crowd that that concert made a big difference in his eventual release and the fight against the racist system, which was dismantled in the early 1990s.
"Your voices carried across the water to inspire us in our prison cells far away," said Mandela, who received the biggest cheers of the night. "We are honored to be back in London for this wonderful celebration.
"But even as we celebrate, let us remind ourselves that our work is far from complete."
Mandela was released from prison in 1990 after spending 27 years behind bars. He was elected South Africa's first black president in 1994 and retired from politics in 1999. He has since campaigned to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Proceeds from the show — for which there were 46,664 tickets — are going to 46664, the AIDS charity named for the number Mandela wore in prison.
Mandela looked frail and leaned on a cane as he was helped onto the stage by his wife, Graca Machel. But his brief speech brought thunderous applause.
"Where there is poverty and sickness including AIDS, where human beings are being oppressed, there is more work to be done," Mandela said. "Our work is for freedom for all.
"We say tonight after nearly 90 years of life, it is time for new hands to lift the burdens. It is in your hands now."
Also on the lineup were Annie Lennox, reggae singer Eddy Grant, girl group Sugababes and African artists including Emmanuel Jal, Johnny Clegg and Papa Wemba.
One of the biggest stars was Winehouse, whose participation looked doubtful after she collapsed at home last week and was hospitalized. Winehouse spent several days in a London hospital undergoing tests. Her father said she had developed the lung disease emphysema from smoking cigarettes and crack cocaine, although her spokeswoman later said Winehouse only had pre-emphysema symptoms.
Despite her troubles, Winehouse made it. Looking composed if slightly unsteady — and buoyed by the crowd and her excellent band — the beleaguered singer performed two of her best-known songs, "Rehab" and "Valerie."
She returned at the end of the show to lead the artists in a rendition of The Specials' 1984 hit "Free Nelson Mandela."
One of the past century's most admired political figures, Mandela attracted a sense of respect approaching reverence from concertgoers and performers alike.
Leona Lewis dedicated her global chart-topper "Bleeding Love" to him, saying that when she was a child her aunt and grandmother told her stories "about this incredible, wonderful and great man, Nelson Mandela."
"Happy birthday. Thank you so much for everything," she said.
Many who turned out on a cool, blustery London evening said they had come to see the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Mandela rather than any particular act.
"Ever since I was at university, 35 years ago and I learned about the injustices in South Africa I have wanted to meet Nelson Mandela," said London primary-school tutor Sheelagh Leith, 51. "I have always wanted to be in his presence."
Singer Jim Kerr of Scottish band Simple Minds, which played the 1988 show and performed again Friday, said the mood was very different 20 years on.
"I was angry the last time," Kerr said. "It was very much a protest concert. This is a joyful occasion."
Mandela, a frequent visitor to London, has been in the city since Monday for a week of birthday events. At a star-studded dinner on Wednesday, he criticized Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, saying there had been a "tragic failure of leadership" in the southern African country. Zimbabwe's opposition pulled out of Friday's presidential election runoff, citing state-sponsored violence, leaving Mugabe the only candidate.