Happy Africans

Pharrell Williams's pop hit, "Happy," is infectious and feel good. But what is it all about really?

A still from Pharrell Williams' video for the song "Happy."

At 11am this morning, the American rapper and producer Pharrell Williams’ pop friendly and infectious song, “Happy,” had racked up 138,948,968 (that’s 138 million) views on Youtube. That’s what going viral looks like. Obviously making him and his record company a lot of money. It’s not enough that the song is playing on every commercial radio station (or in every department) store and is “the world’s first 24 hour music video” (who watches a music video that long?). ‘Happy” is also the subject of millions of homage or reaction videos in which people from all walks of life and regions of the world lip-synch the song’s lyrics.

And, like everyone else, Africans want in on the game. The fan-made videos that originate on the continent are mostly city-themed. This has been a great opportunity to get to know global cities in a new way, especially those whose images are rarely shared. The same goes for Africa and its cities.

So Lagosians made a bunch of videos (all claiming to represent the essence of the city); Cape Town has made a bunch of videos (probably the most racially and class stratified city on the continent, so that makes sense); Dakar; expats in Nairobi, and so and so on. We can’t front: The African fan videos are generally nice.

We’ve collected some of the “Happy” videos made in Africa in one playlist. Hopefully you can make it through listening to “Happy” 28 times back-to-back.

But what is it all about? Is this all sugary drinks and opium of the masses? For example, Popcrush.com asked about the “room without a roof” line: “… A roofless room has no boundaries and no limits, so your happiness can soar to new heights with no ceiling. However, when you are in a room without a roof and it’s raining, are you screwed?” We expected some political analysis, but nothing, not even being rained on, can put Pharrell off:

Here come bad news talking this and that, yeah

Well, give me all you got, and don’t hold back, yeah
Well, I should probably warn you I’ll be just fine, yeah
No offense to you, don’t waste your time
Here’s why.

Based on these lyrics, Pharrell would a good pitchman for a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil dictatorship.

Pharrell himself promotes a strange mix of self help psycho-babble mixed with bootstraps capitalism as his ideology and diet politics, what Pitchfork described, too nicely, as “Pharrell’s good nature, zen philosophizing, and ceaseless uplift.” Last month, he told USA Today, “It’s interesting to convey a message that people can use. It’s bigger than a music thing. It’s humbling, not scary.”

On cue, Mic.com, the website for the NGO-humanitarian left, declared “Happy,” in a bizarro take, as “…the Surprising Protest Song of Our Generation.” What? For Mic.com, it is “an unexpected global anthem for citizens living under troubled regimes” and that, “… It seems odd, at face value, that this totally innocuous song has taken on such significance. But “Happy” caters to the 21st-century protest. The pop songs dominating today’s charts may not be as politically charged as the music of the Vietnam War or the Civil Rights Era, but the beauty of contemporary pop music is its wide reach — ubiquitous, international and infinitely remixable. ‘Happy’ was a blank canvas, and the Internet turned it from Oscar nominee into the sound of rebellion and resilience, even in unrest.”

This is all too much. Earlier this month, Pharrell offered explanation of the song’s lyrics again, especially the roofless room: He tweeted,  “… It is metaphorical for one’s space w/out limit … This emotion can be infinite and achievable by all.”

For Pharrell, that space is capitalism. For sure. A while, The New York Times, reviewed an art book he designed: “… Mr. Williams’s art is capitalist collaboration. There are sections of his book devoted to his design team-ups with Louis Vuitton and Moncler, and some of the sharpest layouts are of the stores that sell his Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream clothing lines — especially one in Hong Kong where images of the lunar surface cover some of the floor.”

I don’t know who taught me that, but I can’t stand people that are too happy.

Further Reading

Stop selling out

Ugandan activist and politician Dr. Stella Nyanzi challenges a new generation of women to take up the struggle for political freedoms and revolution.

Soft targets

What was behind the assassinations in the 1980s of two key anti-apartheid figures: Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme, and senior ANC official, Dulcie September?