There are countless talented African artists out there who reflect and document the African experience, but many aren’t known in wide circles outside the continent. Meanwhile, many international stars have also turned their attention to the continent, and taken it upon themselves to write and sing about Africa in one way or another. Whether you love or hate them, here are some of the best known songs about Africa by non-African musicians.
Sources: MetroLyrics.com, Toto99.com, MusicForTravel.com, TheGuardian.com, MadeMan.com, TheConMag.co.za, YouTube.com, NYTimes.com, SongMeanings.com, Grantland
Released in 1982, Toto’s “Africa” remains one of the band’s most recognizable songs. The initial idea came from David Paich, who wanted to tell the story of a white boy trying to write a song about Africa, but had never been there. The song’s catchy beat backs up memorable lyrics — “I bless the rains down in Africa” — and shows the writer’s desire to visit one day: “Hurry boy, it’s waiting there for you!”
After listening to a tape of The Boyoyo Boys, a South African band that was introduced to him by Linda Ronstadt, Paul Simon was inspired to create his album, “Graceland.” The album was controversial, as Simon traveled to South Africa in 1985 to record the instrumental tracks, in direct violation of the United Nations cultural boycott of the apartheid state. “Under African Skies” focuses not on the political controversy, but on the similarities of places as disparate as Tucson, Arizona, and those in Africa.
The little-known British band Latin Quarter reached chart success with its 1985 single, “Radio Africa.” The somewhat light tone of the melody does not hide the political nature of the song that talks about “hearing only bad news from Radio Africa,” as the band goes on to mention a variety of conflicts from the continent, ranging from war to famine, to oppression by Robert Mugabe to foreign investment and colonization.
Kanye West recorded “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” in 2005 to document the plight of children in West Africa with regard to conflict diamonds. He recorded a remix to the song that featured a closing verse by Jay-Z and further elaboration of the conflict in Sierra Leone, rapping, “Good Morning! This ain’t Vietnam. Still, people lose hands, legs, arms for real. Little was known of Sierra Leone, and how it connect to the diamonds we own.”
Source: MTV Networks
Generally known as one of the most condescending songs of all time, Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” was a collaborative effort in 1984 to raise awareness and funds for the famine in Ethiopia at the time. Written by Irish singer Bob Geldorf and Ultravox’s Midge Ure, the song featured some of the biggest names in music at the time: Duran Duran, Culture Club, U2, Kool and the Gang, Sting, and countless others. But lines such as, “And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time, the greatest gift they’ll get this year is life,” along with, “You ain’t gotta feel guilt just selfless, give a little help to the helpless” demonstrated a fairly offensive bias and sense of Western superiority.
British rock musician Peter Gabriel released “Biko” in 1980 as a protest against the arrest and subsequent killing of South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. On the album, the song is bookended by the South African song, “Senzeni Na?” and “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” which were sung at Biko’s funeral. In concerts, Gabriel often played “Biko” at the end of the show and encouraged the audience to sing along, eventually leaving the drummer on the stage to close.
Graham Nash wrote “Marrakesh Express” following his trip through Morocco, in which he traveled by train from Casablanca to Marrakesh. Nash sings about the trip, with “Ducks and pigs and chickens call, animal carpet wall to wall,” and “Colored cottons hang in the air, charming cobras in the square, striped djellabas we can wear at home.” He had initially written the song while a member of his band, The Hollies, but it was rejected. It found new life with Crosby, Stills and Nash in 1969.
For the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Colombian-born Shakira released “Waka Waka,” featuring the South African band Freshlyground. Part of the song was adapted from the Cameroonian band Golden Sounds’ 1986 song, “Zangaléwa.” Initially it generated controversy because many felt that an African artist should have been selected to sing the World Cup anthem. Regardless, the song was an international success and peaked at No. 1 on record charts in numerous countries around the world.
Johnny Wakelin released “In Zaire” in 1976 about the Rumble in the Jungle boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Ali won by knockout, and the event was quickly labeled the “greatest sporting event of the 20th century.” Wakelin was inspired by the bout to write “In Zaire,” focusing on the excitement that was building in Zaire that night (now the Democratic Republic of Congo): “Hundred thousand people there in Zaire, all those people gathered there in Zaire, to see the rumble in the jungle there in Zaire.”
Source: SongMeanings.com, Grantland
Following the success of “Do They Know it’s Christmas,” Michael Jackson was inspired to co-write “We Are the World” with Lionel Richie to raise further funds for African famine relief. The song was released on March 7, 1985, and boasted an even more impressive star-studded roster for the tune, with the likes of Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, Smokey Robinson, and Stevie Wonder contributing. The song received numerous honors, including three Grammy Awards. Despite controversy about the somewhat self-aggrandizing lyrics (“We are the world, we are the children, we are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving, there’s a choice we’re making, we’re saving our own lives, it’s true we’ll make a better day, just you and me”), the song raised more than $63 million for humanitarian aid in Africa and the U.S.