Yacht rock or slave ship rock?

Once we're done talking about its viral quality, is Toto's "Africa" a song about the continent with the same name, or a song about how millions of enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas?

A still from the music video Toto's music video for "Africa."

In February 2018, the American music magazine, “Billboard,” published an oral history of the song “Toto” by the California soft rock band, Toto. The song, heralded as “the internet’s favorite song” (that is a meme in itself), has often been derided for its ridiculous lyrics, leading to all kinds of deconstructions of its meanings.  In an interview with Billboard, the critic Carl Wilson made this remark: “… it’s too dumb for anybody to insult their own intelligence by mounting a serious critique of [the song]. Like, you’d be the biggest fun-killer in the world with your politics if you were like, ‘I want to seriously talk about Toto’s ‘Africa’ now.’”

The problem is we need to seriously talk about Toto’s “Africa.”

At the end of January 2019, the American pop group Weezer released an album of cover songs (the “Teal Album”). The tracks on “The Teal Album” includes, of course, “Africa,” which among the other covers has gotten the most attention. Months earlier, when Weezer released the “Africa” cover as a single, it climbed to the top of the Billboard charts in the United States. Then the band choose to parody themselves when they invited parody-singer Weird Al Yancovic to lip synch the lyrics in the music video of the cover. (At last count, that video has been viewed nearly 9 million times on YouTube alone.)

The original “Africa” was first released by Toto in 1982 and has been covered by a range of groups and artists since; even GZA and MadlibNas and Xzibit have sampled the song. But it is the Weezer version that has had most cultural significance. How the cover version came about is also a story at once strange and befitting the social media age: the result of a teenage girl’s imagination. Mary, a 14 year old girl from Cleveland, set up a Twitter account demanding that Weezer, her favorite band, cover her new favorite song “Africa.” It wasn’t entirely organic. It took mainstream music writers to help make Mary’s request viral.

The most obvious thing to say about Weezer’s “Africa” is that the cover version brings nothing new to the table, only switching the trademark percussions in the original for subtle barbed wired (yet somehow tame) guitars in the new version. And even worse, it becomes clear that the lyrics only pinch a figment of most people’s imaginations.

How did Toto come up with the song “Africa” in the first place? None of the band members had been to the continent when the song was made. As drummer Jeff Porcaro, is quoted (on Wikipedia): “… a white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he’s never been there, he can only tell what he’s seen on TV or remembers in the past.”

The only thing (we hope) the band knew about Africa was that their ancestors violently took man power, culture, and perhaps most visibly, music from the continent.

The biggest problem with “Africa” is that “the whole weird history of American culture is in this song somewhere,” as Rob Sheffield writes in Rolling Stone. Sheffield doesn’t say exactly what this history of American culture is. We assume he means the fact that the slave trade is an important, yet gruesome part of that history.

The song maintains a dance between black and white, both literally since all walks of life have danced to it, and metaphorically since the song has been covered by all kinds of people. The band were practically outsiders in the record business when they recorded it, and the song is embraced by both low and high culture. The way in which the song has a “brave” but indeed grimy sense of nobility towards Africa as a continent hammers the point even further. Most importantly, the ridiculous lyrics mean so much more than what they seemingly say.

When Toto made “Africa,” Toto were hipsters. Toto members got their start as session musicians for Steely Dan, the eminent California via New York hipsters. Toto was basically a kind of Steely Dan on steroids. Later yacht rock, of which Steely Dan and Toto are two of the biggest exponents from the late 1970s and early 1980s, was made a comeback by hipsters from the early 2000s.

After all the word “hip” comes straight from the word “hepi” in the still thriving Senegambian language Wolof. The vernacular word were first in use among the enslaved in the plantations in the colonies, before it became common in pop culture hundreds of years later. The word means something in the vein of “to open one’s eyes” in Wolof.

In the lyrics to “Africa” a part of this unsung history becomes even more evident. This is not just about a white man longing for his faraway love as the visuals of the original music video (that its stereotypical images) suggests. When the chorus begins with: “It’s gonna take a lot to take me away from you” they’re talking about being taken away from Africa, aren’t they? And, of course, they are telling the tale from the perspective of an American black man, as white hipsters so often do.

So now we are starting to get to the core of the song, even if we have Carl Wilson’s comment about mounting a serious critique of “Africa” in the back of our heads. (Wilson’s little book, “A Journey To The End Of Taste,” in Bloomsbury’s 33 ⅓ series, was about Céline Dion’s “Let’s Talk About Love,” another album all music critics dislike, and tons of everyday people love.) Shouldn’t music criticism be about breaking with the consensus among critics? Shouldn’t we try to question what we already like?

Why shouldn’t we also try to make sense out of what we don’t understand? As such, this is not so much a critique as an attempt to make connections. “Why should a man deliberately plunge outside of history?,” a character in the late great Ralph Ellison’s monumental novel Invisible Man asks. When we take a trip out of American history, we will most likely see a more complete picture of that history when we return to it.

Here’s my take: The song “Africa” is about the United States of America, and it is that country’s history and not the continent that these songwriters hadn’t been to. “Africa” is probably more about the Atlantic slave trade than it is about Africa.

The slave trade was and continues to be central to American history, culture and identity. African-Americans invented musical intersections such as spirituals, blues, jazz, rock and hip hop. When we hear white American men sing about Africa, we must stop and think what they have earned from the continent. Their only direct experience with anything African is by far African-Americans, and the piece of culture that wasn’t taken away from the previously enslaved. So with lyrics depicting an imagined African life, like how “Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti,” some ancient melodies, an old man and a boy, some of these connections start to rise to the surface.

If the lyrics seem deceptively general, then the video is even more confounding. Close-ups of the doughy front man, David Paich, in an office littered with encyclopedias alternate with the band playing the song on a giant book simply titled “Africa.” Soon, the stereotypical paraphernalia make an appearance — zebra print background, random masks, a black arm is raised with a spear in hand, a taxidermy tiger head and some potted plants seem to pass off as dense African shrubbery. A sexy but befuddled black woman watches on in a swivel chair. The climax of the video is absurd as the spear pierces a wall, books topple, the weird lady’s glasses are crushed, and eventually a book (presumably the book called Africa) burns down to the crescendo of “I bless the rains,” “I bless the rains,” and on and on …

The closest readings of the song’s lyrics have been done by humorist Steve Almond, who down the lyrics in this video, and by musicologist Wayne Marshall, who wrote a long post about the “Africanness” of the actual tune. And mainstream critics, when they tried, have always been befuddled by the video. Pop culture essayist Chuck Klosterman probably has the funniest interpretation of the lyrics and the video:

Whenever I’d listen to Toto’s ‘Africa’, I always assumed the song was using Africa as a metaphor. However, this video suggests the song is literally about the continent itself (and maybe about an African American travel agent, although I can’t be sure), so now I’m confused. It definitely has a globe, though. Also, what does “Africa” have to do with the movie Fatal Attraction? I swore I just heard some VJ talking about that movie (and its relationship to Toto). I struggle.

The slave trade is central not only to American history but to all Western history to the point that even the small country of Norway where I come from was partaking in the spoils. Although very few people, let alone Norwegians, knows anything about Norway’s part in this history, it involves more than the benefits of sugar, cotton and gold. This summer, filmmaker, playwright and activist Ole Tellefsen starts shooting the dramatized documentary “Slaveskipet” (The Slave Ship) about a Norwegian slave ship, which sunk to the bottom of the sea just outside Arendal, a small town on the southern coast of Norway. The filmmaker reveals that he has many similar stories about other ships that were in action.

“It might be asked what has this or any fairy tale to do with a world stricken, starving, and half insane; or with the relations of Africa to Europe and America,” W.E.B. Dubois, the African-American political scientist and activist, asked in the 1950s. What’s “this” he talking about exactly? The question is ambitious and the answer is troubling. But if “Africa” is a fairy tale, then the answer is the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Further Reading