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Thursday, February 20, 2020

February 20, 2020: Non-Favorite Studying: “Africa” and Graceland

[I try to keep this blog pretty positive, as befitting a critical optimist perspective, but once a year it’s time to air some grievances. Leading up to one of my favorite crowd-sourced posts of the year, so share your own non-favorites, please!]
On more obvious and more subtle acts of cultural and continental appropriation in pop music.
Back when I regularly taught the 1980s-focused Introduction to American Studies course I co-created at Fitchburg State, one of the more interesting days was when we collectively analyzed USA for Africa’s “We are the World” (1985). Even if we ignore that random and deeply awkard Dan Aykroyd cameo, there are a lot of obvious ways to critique the song, from its on-the-nose and blissfully naïve lyrics (“Send them your heart so they’ll know that someone cares/And their lives will be stronger and free”) to the forced community and camaraderie of its who’s who of 80s pop artists (Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, and Kim Carnes for the win!). But at the same time, the song and video existed for one clear and compelling reason—to raise awareness and money for the battle against African poverty and hunger, a battle that the organization has continued to wage for the 30 years since the song’s release—and we have to make sure not to lose sight of that crucial fact amidst the 80s excess and clichés.
The same can’t be said for two other engagements with—or, more accurately, cultural appropriations of—Africa in 1980s American pop music. The much more obviously appropriative of the two is Toto’s “Africa” (1982), which creates a literal embodiment of the Magical Negro in its African “old man” who says to our speaker, about his search for “salvation” in Africa’s “old forgotten words or ancient melodies,” “Hurry boy, it’s waiting there for you.” That speaker wouldn’t be the first white man to journey to Mt. Kiliminjaro or into the depths of Africa in an effort to find himself (and, yes, leave behind his lady friend), of course—but the song’s use of that cliché only amplifies just how much Toto has given in to those stereotypical images of the continent of Africa as a blank slate against which non-Africans can measure their own identities. It’s got a catchy tune, does “Africa,” but I’m not sure the best melody ever written could ameliorate lines like “I bless the rains down in Africa” and “The wild dogs cry out in the night/As they grow restless, longing for some solitary company.” I think both the rains and the dogs were doing just fine without you, buddy.
Allow me to be very clear from the outset of this paragraph that I’m not trying to equate “Africa” with Paul Simon’s magisterial album Graceland (1986). Simon has been one of America’s most talented and interesting songwriters for decades, and Graceland represents an artist at the peak of his powers, inspired by new influences and sounds to make some of the best music of his career. But how he found those new influences and sounds, well, that’s a bit more troubling. At a career and personal crossroads, perhaps “seek[ing] to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing [he’d] become” (those are quotes from “Africa,” natch), Simon journeyed to, you guessed it, Africa. South Africa in particular, where the nation’s rhythms and the music of artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo combined to provide the inspiration that led to Graceland. Because South Africa was still under Apartheid, and thus still the subject of an artistic and cultural embargo, Simon’s visit caused a great deal of controversy; but even if we leave aside that particular issue (arguing, for example, that he was supporting black South Africans, not the regime), he was still in many ways the white Westerner traveling to Africa for personal salvation, and focusing on his own issues in the process (Graceland doesn’t have much at all to do with African politics or societies). Not my favorite move, regardless of the quality of the work it produced.
Last non-favorite tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other non-favorites you’d share?

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