Africa by Toto - Just Enjoy It

John Hopton By John Hopton, 18th Nov 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Reviews>Music>Rock

American writer Steve Almond thinks the song 'Africa' by Toto is so laughably contemptible that he felt the need to get up on stage and talk about it. I discuss, in an open letter to him, why I think he should use his time more wisely (especially his time on stage), and not be so musically and intellectually superior.

A critique of a critique

Author and essayist Steve Almond has received a lot of praise for his critique ( of the song 'Africa' by Toto. I think the praise is largely undeserved, and so I thought I'd tell him why:

Hi Steve,

Regarding Africa by Toto...

I hope you don’t mind me writing to you, you’re entitled to your opinion without strangers disagreeing – obviously debate is important but if everyone directly disagreed with everything they heard on the internet there would be no time for things like showering or eating. However, I have the day off today and a couple of hours to spare, so I felt like responding to your observations about Africa by Toto.

I should start by saying that I don’t even like the song that much, but I do dislike intellectual and musical snobbery.

I often dissect lyrics for fun, because it is indeed fun. How many times must a man look up, before he can see the sky – once. How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry – one. Listen or take in? Probably the same answer, but Dylan makes mockery even easier with his lazy phrasing. Not that I would ever dream of challenging Desolation Row, nonsense or not.

Because I enjoy dissecting lyrics for fun, I was surprised to find your pulling apart of Africa a bit disappointing. I’ll start general and get more specific.

As I say, pulling apart lyrics for laughs is thoroughly enjoyable. But I feel like you were doing more than enjoying yourself, although that was part of it. I have to say that seeing your ‘Will work for books’ t-shirt didn't help. It immediately gave me the impression that your agenda was ‘I see things other people don’t.’ Everyone likes books Steve. You don’t have to tell people you like books any more than you have to tell them you like it when you've needed a shit for an hour then find a pristine toilet.

I also think you were making general points about music that I happen to disagree with. There is presently an increasing divide between music snobs and perceived music idiots. I am nostalgic for a time when lyrical hyperbole, metaphor, cliché and vagueness (to mean being open, and not esoteric or contrived) were universal appeals that brought people together, as they did in so much of folk, blues and soul (just like the accessible melodies did). Nowadays, though, those things are often seen as inferior – a subject of disdain for the collective, erroneously possessed by otherwise liberal and collectivist types of people.

Now onto the specifics. Obviously Africa is populist stuff. Even if that is a problem, why do you pick on that song in particular? I suspect because a lot of people you think should know better guiltily like it, possibly including yourself, in spite of your sneering irony. The main reason they like it is because it has a bloody great melody. Okay, mentioning the word Africa sort of conjures up exoticism which has its own appeal, but if the melody was crap that wouldn't matter. Are you a musician? If you were, you would definitely have wanted to write that melody, even if you didn't necessarily want to frame it with a Toto-esque over-produced sound.

As regards that exoticism, I don’t think thinking Africa sounds cool without knowing much about it is a hangover from colonialism (let’s avoid the often misused term post-colonialism). Africa is exotic: it sounds Christing amazing to me, and I've travelled a lot, to a lot of out of the way places. Your assertion that poverty and war must always be a factor in people talking about, or indeed being ignorant of, Africa is stereotyping in itself. You don’t have to work for the UN and know all about Africa’s myriad problems to have an impression of it.

I'm now going to listen to your speech and go line by line (skipping some, you’ll be pleased to hear!) on my iPhone which is made using coltan which Congolese kids probably died for and continue writing this essay on my laptop which uses coltan which Congolese kids probably died for in order to send you this message which you can read on your computer, same applies, about your lecture which used loads of electronics, same applies.

Oh, I forgot to mention why I originally just liked the melody but then actually liked the lyrics when I listened to them properly. I think rather than Africa being in some way related to him trying to lay the girl on the plane, he is saying that something greater than sex and even love – travel – is pulling him away. I have felt like that all my life, whether love of girls or my family and friends. Possibly I'm guilty of hearing in lyrics what I happen to be feeling at the time, but it seems plausible, and if that is their meaning then it is a fairly interesting one, I think.

Okay onto the lecture. ‘It’s waiting there for YOU.’ It doesn't mean they (ancient melodies, wild drums etc…) were created for HIM, only that from his perspective they are waiting.

Why do you think the old man is African? I didn't get that impression. Maybe just so you can make the point that we have a stereotype of African being mysterious and ancient. It is. There is loads of modern stuff too. It is extremely varied, but I don’t think a set of lyrics have to say, poetically or otherwise: ‘I wish to experience the ancient melodies of African music, whilst acknowledging that many areas of Africa have a hi-tech economy and are extremely contemporary.’ You can just want the old melodies. Same as you don’t have to encompass the multifaceted nature of the entire US any time you mention something about the country in a song, like we’re all omniscient anthropologists and historians all the time (as western liberals tend to like to think of themselves, especially in relation to the poor old third world).

Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti. Your point about a mountain rising like another mountain, I did laugh at that! And I agree that it is basically impossible to see Kilimanjaro from the Serengeti, but it’s not that far that it really matters, once artistic licence is granted. And technically Kilimanjaro is ‘above’ the Serengeti. He didn't say ‘over’ the Serengeti. Technically Everest is above the Serengeti. While we're on geographical snobbery, though, you refer to the Serengeti as a desert. Are you sure you're not getting mixed up with the Sahara? Wikipedia defines a desert as: '...a barren area of land where little precipitation occurs and consequently living conditions are hostile for plant and animal life.' Does that sound like the incredibly varied and teeming Serengeti to you?

All the points about grammar like ‘DO the things we never HAD.’ Being that snobbishly pedantic about grammar is the last desperate intellectual sword swings of a person who has nothing else to offer. It’s not noble. It really isn't. I stopped when I was about 22. I'm not saying you have nothing to offer, I'm sure you have, but that’s the impression created by such pedantry.
Note: my example of mocking Dylan wasn't mocking his grammar, it was mocking his simplified idealism.

Mentioning tits at the end to seem like you’re not a bookish pedant but actually an adroit and well-rounded individual who only makes his point about Toto because it’s important. A bit transparent.

African rains: as alluded to above, African rains might just be cool to think of, and are not necessarily related to the stereotype of African drought. I know you mention the guy from Toto talking about seeing problems on TV being an influence for the song, and I agree he’s probably a deluded egomaniac. But people can like the lyrics regardless of their author’s original intent or motivation, and it’s not like Toto have consistently presented the song as an alternative to Do They Know It’s Christmas?

Solitary company is because he is by himself (having abandoned the girl on the plane in search of other experiences, as discussed), a lone offering to the dogs in their desire for company (basically a shit line but not worth getting up on stage for. Unless you’re trying to prove your intellectual superiority over the masses whom, I suspect, you root for when it comes to, say, healthcare - I hope so, anyway).

100 men/militia. Militia? You can’t get the Africa stereotypes out of head can you? Forget the Toto man - that might be true of him too but at least he has a belting voice. You’re only concerned with the context.

That the author needed a hundred men – exaggeration in art? Worth getting up on a stage to dismiss?

‘I continue for another 143 seconds to bless the rain down in Africa.’ It’s called a refrain. The whole of music does it.

Did you get paid for that lecture? I bloody well hope not!

But I hope you do make a living from that kind of analysis, it’s a good thing, generally, and I feel like I might enjoy and agree with you on other subjects, I'm gonna investigate later. Please don’t waste your time on what is basically just people having fun though! And if you’re worried about misconceptions about Africa there is A LOT more you could be channelling your energy into.

Oh – Ellington (your idol)/Musak (your hell). A lot of young people see them as the same now: lift or hotel lobby music. They’re wrong, in my opinion. But when it comes to art, if they’re right, they’re right. It’s all just a matter of perspective. Which is why it shouldn't be analysed so dryly. Not when you could be lecturing people about the coltan situation, anyway.

All the best,



80S, 80S Music, Africa, Music, Pop, Rock, Steve Almond, Toto

Meet the author

author avatar John Hopton
I am a freelance writer from the UK. My special interests are history, current affairs, politics, sport and music.

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author avatar Mark Gordon Brown
18th Nov 2013 (#)

Great write up. That song is sort of a guilty pleasure, kind of a silly song but yet you feel good listening to it.

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author avatar John Hopton
18th Nov 2013 (#)

Thanks. Yeah it is a feel good sort of song, and I don't think people should tell each other not to feel like that about songs, really. Especially just because of the idea that we might somehow be being unkind to Africa by mentioning it in a pop song without making the lyrics a balanced and comprehensive essay on the continent!

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author avatar Fern Mc Costigan
18th Nov 2013 (#)

Good song and great one by Toto,Nice post

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author avatar John Hopton
18th Nov 2013 (#)

Thanks, please share if you wouldn't mind

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2nd Dec 2013 (#)

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