It's 7:47 am. I have put a load of laundry in the washer and cleaned up after the dog.
Why Is The Sudden Resurgence Of The Song 'Africa,' by Toto, A Thing?
The song 'Africa,' by the pop-rock band Toto, has recently surged in popularity on the Internet. It has become a popular tune for musicans of all types to cover, and YouTube videos of the covers are shared frequently. However, some argue very effectively that the colonialist nature of its lyrics and ham-fisted attempts at echoing indigenious African music are insulting to Africans and their descendants. In this essay, I will argue that the recent embrace of the song 'Africa' shows us more about ourselves, via resitance to toxic masculinity, white fragility, and cultural imperialism, and embrace of new communication methods.
This essay assumes that the reader has basic familiarity with The Internet, the concept of memes, and the song "Africa" by Toto. We also assume that the reader is familiar with the popular music video which supported initial single and album sales. A full analysis of the video will be available at another time, upon request.
"Africa" reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on February 5, 1983. Though Toto has other top 5 hits, it remains as their most memorable song. The band was more attached to another hit song, "Rosanna," and in an interview with KROQ-FM, dismissed Africa as "an experiment" and "dumb," and said that it has used "placeholder" lyrics that stuck (such as Phil Collins' use of "Sususudio," or Trey Parker's use of "Shpadoinkle"). The lyrics used as placeholders aren't nonsense words, and they end up illustrating ideas that show a colonialist bent. On its surface, the song seems to be about a white man, who goes to Africa, expecting to find knowledge, spiritual fulfillment and romantic love. The explosive chorus of the song (listed in 2012 by NME magazinein 32nd place on its lost of "50 Most Explosive Choruses") implies not that he found any of these things, but that he "bless(es) the rains down in Africa." The implication that the narrator has the godlike power to bless a force of nature places him in a selfishly powerful position. The rain, in the cathartic chorus, is a release from the tension that the rest of the song sets up.
Embracing this song, with its colonialist attitude, implies that the next big meme probably should be Old Kentucky Home, with its original lyrics. The song doesn't seem to be shared by people of color. Though it's been recently covered by Weezer (their recording peaked at #3 on the US Adult Top 40), no R&B artist has covered it, no rap artist has sampled it. despite the fact that it would be very easy for someone like Kanye West to do so, it simply hasn't happened. The rap community samples, re-mixes and shares their work, at a higher rate of viral speed than other groups (citation needed), but a popular African American re-interpretation of it hasn't surfaced in the way other versions have. The covers of this song which have gained popularity have been voiced by men. Versions have been made popular by Family Guy, American Dad, South Park, and Jimmy Fallon. There hasn't been a version which grabbed the zeitgeist that is sung by a woman, or a non-binary and/or outwardly LGBT person. Essentially, it's a straight-white-male-hit. Is this song a secret white supremacist dog whistle? An anthem for the Brock Turners, Richard Spencers, and other rabid tiki-torch carriers? Though that interpretation, sadly, is valid, we need to examine this phenomenon more closely.
To start simply, let's look at the sharing of this meme. The website Know Your Meme details the inception and process of it being shared via YouTube. As of this writing, their charts show that its popularity as a meme is rising.
In 2010, working musician Mike Massé shared a video of his low-fi interpretation of the song. The performance was solely on guitar and bass, with no drums. It's a soulful, catchy, intimate video. Their choice to strip the song down and avoid drums left the possibilities of alternative musicianship in performing the song wide open. In 2013, the Angel City Chorale used the summer-camp game of making hand sounds to simulate the sound of a stirring and visceral rain storm in their YouTube performance. Angel City's mission is to promote tolerance and diversity in Los Angeles, so the colonialist nature of the song was brushed aside in favor of the musicianship of the explosive chorus. The popularity of the song allowed the choir to showcase its strengths, and garner over eleven million views.
In both cases, what we have here is the use of a popular, simple, song to allow musicians to show their strengths, via re-interpretation. A subreddit was created, challenging musicians to submit their alternative versions of the song. It's entirely possible that the subreddit may have been created by whatever record company owns the rights to the song. Unlike the Rickroll meme, in which the song "Never Gonna Give You Up" varied minimally, if at all, this meme required variations on a theme. The result was that musicians learned, re-interpreted, recorded, and published their versions of the song, and those publications were shared. People who share memes for the sake of sharing them shared it, along with people who actually care about the musician or the song. It has been popular among more than one generation. Essentially, the song is shared because it's shared. It's popular because it's popular.
What about the song itself? Does the "sharing to share" of this song mean that there's more racism going around than people would like to admit? Fine. Let's unpack these lyrics. You could go to Geniuslyrics dot com and look up other interpretations, but you're here, and you got this far. So, get yourself a fresh beverage and strap in, folks. Here's my interpretation of "Africa." For the purposes of brevity in this already too-long essay, and because of the song's resonance with young white men, we will refer to the narrator as a "he," though the gender of the narrator is never mentioned in the lyrics.
I hear the drums echoing tonight
We start with an unreliable narrator. His initial description of the world is drumbeats and darkness. We know that this is an oversimplified, cartoonish version of Africa, the continent. It is possible that the drums could be echoing from a neighbor's stereo system, or blood rushing in his ears from his own heartbeat, or any number of sources. However, at its essence, what we have here is drumbeats, darkness, and mystery.
But she hears only whispers of some quiet conversation
She's coming in, 12:30 flight
The narrator is distanced from a "she." She is separated from him, by gender, flight, by the bubble of an airplane and the safety of quiet conversation.
The moonlit wings reflect the stars that guide me towards salvation
He years for some kind of spiritual fulfillment, reflected in her safe space in the flight, the quiet conversation. I interpret this symbol as the space that feminists and other progressives claim, to debate topics and make progress. It's distant from the narrator, and he knows it. By contrast, he has drumbeats and darkness. But, he wants to join that space.
I stopped an old man along the way
Hoping to find some long forgotten words or ancient melodies
The Magical Negro is a symbol that has infiltrated Western fiction for centuries. The lyrics don't say that this man is African, but we assume he is. In any case, the narrator assumes not only sagacity in the old man, but also that the old man is willing to dispense knowledge, like a vending machine.
He turned to me as if to say, "Hurry boy, it's waiting there for you"
The man doesn't say anything. He only turns to him and gives him a look, to get going. The sage doesn't provide a proverb for him. Or does he? is the adminition to shut up, stop overthinking, and get going, a message in itself? The listener is left to wonder.
It's gonna take a lot to take me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
We get the first version of this chorus. It is unclear if the "you" mentioned here is the aforementioned "she," or the nation of the song's title. Whatever this "you" is, it has become integral to the narrator's quest for knowledge and spirutual satisfaction.
I bless the rains down in Africa
How does the narrator have power to "bless" rain? He doesn't. He's not a god, his distance from spiritual fulfillment indicates so. Could "bless" be interpreted as a word for the expression of gratitude? If the lyric had been, "I thank the rains down in Africa," it wouldn't have scanned as well. In the 21st century, we experience heat and hurricanes like never before: rain can be a welcome gift, as well as a killer. To say "I thank the rains" oversimplifies the power that rain can have. To use the verb, "bless," rather than "thank," implies the deep spiritual relief that rain can provide, or the epic nature of the power of rain.
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had
The narrator knows that he needs patience and persistence to acheive his goals, but the lyric falls short of resolution. Like what has been called a "feminine ending" in Shakespeare's iambic pentameter, this lack of resolution shows the narrator's unreliability, and powelessness to finish his quest.
The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless, longing for some solitary company
Again, we have another cartoon-metaphor of Savage Africa: wild dogs, to go with the aforementioned drumbeats. However, feral dogs can exist anywhere, coyotes can be heard in Los Angeles. So far the only concrete evidence of the narrator's world is that it has drumbeats, darkness, and wild dogs howling. he described them as restless and lonely, not dangerous or hungry. The dogs are a metaphor for his own loneliness and restlessness.
I know that I must do what's right
As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
Kilimanjaro is nowhere near the Serengeti. Both are located in Tanzania, but they are 100 miles apart. This makes it clear that the narrator has only the thinnest understanding of what Africa is really like, and probably has never been there. He mentions Olympus. Whether he means the mythic, fictional Olympus, or the actual Olympus, in Greece, is unclear, and unimportant. He is taking an African geographic icon and understanding it by applying his own knowledge of icons important to the Western mind. In this sentence, he shows his own cultural weakness. This leads up to the most important line in this song (highlighted by the harmonizing backing vocals):
I seek to cure what's deep inside, frightened of this thing that I've become
The narrator acknowledges his own weakness, confusion, and unreliability, and wants it to be cured. After this line, the song's chorus repeats, with little change. This concept is as far as the narrator's understanding progresses. he knows that he doesn't like what he is, and wants to change it. He doesn't have a plan, or a totem to grab, just a bad state of mind that he wants to escape.
The "Africa" in the song is not the literal continent. It is a state of mind, where the narrator is ignorant of other cultures and mindsets, but hungers for understanding. He is in the dark, and can only populate that darkness with a few concepts he has been told about. His conflict remains unresolved. Let's go back to the fact that the narrator's gender is never mentioned: he's not even trying to hang onto a concept of manhood. In the traditional version of this song, the coda is a stripped-down, nearly emotionless version of the drumbeats from the opening of the song, implying that the narrator remains in this dark, lonely state.
Songwriter David Paich said (in an interview with The Guardian) that the lyrics came out of his childhood desire to see the world. He was fascinated with stories the priests at his Catholic boys' school told about missionary work. The minimal understanding of Africa in the song comes from his childhood's thin understanding of Africa as a continent. He also said that the biggest conflict the priests faced was the loneliness and celibacy. And, of course, sex sells pop records. The band has stated that they are uncomfortable with the overt meaning of this song's lyrics. As guitarist Steve Luthaker said to Paich, "Are you Jesus, man?" Though Paich didn't intend to write a song about toxic masculinity in conflict with nature and "other"-ness, the conflict is there.
It is entirely possible that young white men embrace this tune out of a desire for validation of colonialistic urges. However, as we see in this lyric breakdown, it could be the story of a guy who wants to break away from a closed-minded, dark, lonely state. The resurgence in popularity of this song can indicate a male desire for multiple interpretations, for participation in culture, and a need to be part of something greater than themselves. Whether or not the people who share this meme are aware of this or not, like the conflict in the song, is still a mystery.
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