This is the tune that launched Sinead O'Conner's pop career, but who the fuck knows what she is going on about? The opening lines: "I'm dancing the seven veils/Want you to pick up my scarf/See how the black moon fades/Soon I can give you my heart/I don't know no shame/I feel no pain/I can't see the flame/But I do know Man-din-ka/I do know Man-din-ka/I do know Man-din-ka/I do..." The Mandinkas are an ethnic group in West Africa. Most of them believe in the God of Islam. In the past, many were captured and sent to America to work for nothing under the rule of European farmers. O'Connor apparently learned about Mandinkas in Alex Haley's book Roots: "Mandinkas are an African tribe. They're mentioned in a book called Roots by Alex Haley, which is what the song is about. In order to understand it, you must read the book" (according to Wikipedia). Really, the dance of the seven veils is also in Roots? I thought the dance is in the Bible, where, as the story goes, it cost John the Baptist his head. Then there's the strange business about the scarf, the black moon (O'Connor must think Africa has black moons because it has black people), her lack of shame and pain, and her blindness to fire. But what does all of this have to do with the Mandinka people? My guess? She loved filling her mouth with the word: Mandinka. There's nothing more to it than that.
First, I want to give UB40 props for two excellent albums: their first, Signing Off, and their second, Present Arms. The first gave us one of the most beautiful reggae tunes of the '80s, "Food for Thought," the second, the classic protest tune "One in Ten." That said, let's turn to the anti-apartheid hit "Sing Our Own Song," which was dropped in 1986. Now, no one is going to disagree with UB40's denouncement of institutionalized racism in South Africa. We are with them on that. But here is the problem: Ali Campbell is singing the song from the point of view of an oppressed black South African: "When the ancient drum rhythms ring/The voice of our forefathers sings/Forward Africa run/Our day of freedom has come/For me and for you Amandla Ngawethu" ("Amandla Ngawethu" means "Power to the People" in Xhosa, one of the black African languages in South Africa). What's wrong with this? Campbell is white. What's wrong with a white man singing like he is a black African who is oppressed by white men? Please ask yourself that question again. At least the Special AKA did not make UB40's mistake; they had a black man (Stan Campbell) sing about black African problems ("Free Nelson Mandela").
Hugh Mundell, like so many of his Jamaican countrymen, has a fine voice. But this reggae tune is as flat as a pancake. Also, why 1983? "Africa must be free by the year 1983/We have worked too hard for the white men/In the blazing sun, oh..." Why not 1984 or 1982 or, best of all, the year the song was recorded, 1978? Why is Mundell fixated with that particular year? It must be a Rasta thing we could never understand.
Juluka, a multiracial band that dominated South African pop in the early '80s, had a string of hits that ranged from great, "Woza Friday," to regrettable, "Scatterlings of Africa." A sample of "Scatterlings": "They are the scatterlings of Africa/Each uprooted one/On the road to Phelamanga/Where the world began/I love the scatterlings of Africa/Each and every one/In their hearts a burning hunger/Beneath the copper sun/Ancient bones from Olduvai/Echoes of the very first cry/Who made me here and why/Beneath the copper sun?" Whenever it's time for a white person to sing about Africa, it's time to get mystical: Moons are black, suns are copper, drums and bones are ancient, and forefathers have all of this wisdom. But Africa is no older than Europe or America. And the sun you see in Ireland is exactly the same one you see in Soweto.
Yes, Egypt is in Africa. Yes, this is a terrible tune. Yes, you have the right to kill me if this song is now stuck in your head.
The music for this tune, which is on Duck Rock, is fucking amazing. Also amazing are the track's black African backup singers; they fearlessly, gracefully, masterfully ride its pounding chaos of echoed drums. So what's wrong with "Soweto"? Go to YouTube and watch the video, which was filmed in apartheid Soweto. What's wrong with the video? Do you see what Malcolm McLaren is doing? He is ordering a group of black men to dance in this way and that: "Move backwards/Get down, on your hands and knees go forward/Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap!/Move your legs from side to side/Like an animal with nowhere to hide." You can't see what's wrong with this? Just think about it for a moment: White men are always giving blacks orders at work (move this, pick up that, you'd better come on time or else), and now we have to watch a white man giving blacks orders for dancing. What's wrong with these people? Do white men know no other happiness, no other joy than giving orders?
Also, there is a rumor that McLaren, who died not too long ago, didn't pay his musicians. He recorded the music, hit the road, and made millions all for himself. Such a rumor does not hang over Paul Simon's head; he paid the African musicians on Graceland. Indeed, we respect Simon's work (he doesn't try to be a black man singing about how white people are oppressing him—he mostly sings about white American problems: "My traveling companion is 9 years old/He is the child of my first marriage"), and the fact that he gave Africans money and not orders.
"This is the story of how we begin to remember/This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein/After the dream of falling and calling your name out/These are the roots of rhythm/And the roots of rhythm remain..." Even the great Paul Simon could not escape the trap of bad poetry when he wrote about Africa.
The story behind this song is so fucking sad. Solomon Popoli Linda, a very poor black South African singer, received only two bucks (in today's money) for composing one of the most famous pop tunes of the 20th century. Two bucks! White people sometimes.
For a long time, I thought Toto was a band from a country somewhere near Malawi, Tanzania, and Kenya. For some reason, I never bothered to find this country on a map, but simply judged from the tune that it was small and had a huge game park and lots of farms owned by white Africans, some of whom formed the band Toto. Who else but rugged white Africans could sing so passionately about the beauty and wonders of the continent their forefathers colonized. Only recently did I discover that no such country existed and that Toto is a white American rock band. Also—and this truly surprised me—its members had never been to Africa when they wrote and recorded this song.
Why did I mistake these guys for white Africans from some unknown African country? Because they took that misty, mystical, magical poetry to another level of badness. You see, an American like Paul Simon could only go some of the way; white Africans, as I imagined Toto to be, had the kind of pride and ideological zeal to go all the way: "I hear the drums echoing tonight/But she hears only whispers of some quiet conversation/She's coming in, 12:30 flight/The moonlit wings reflect the stars that guide me toward salvation/I stopped an old man along the way/Hoping to find some long forgotten words or ancient melodies..."
It's telling that Stetsasonic's "A.F.R.I.C.A." has none of the mystical nonsense in Toto's "Africa." The track, which was dropped in the late '80s, is completely sober, grounded, political, and, most importantly, contains the names of real African countries—Zambia, Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe. With Stetsasonic, we got black American men rapping about real black African problems.
Bono sings: "Well, tonight thank God/It's them instead of you/And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime/The greatest gift they'll get this year is life/Where nothing ever grows/No rain or rivers flow/Do they know it's Christmas time at all?" I can tell you what these Africans know for sure: This is cold cultural imperialism. Is Christmas the only time you should not be hungry? And why should black Africans know it's Christmastime anyway? Christmas has nothing to do with our culture or history. It's really incredible that Sting, Freddie Mercury, Duran Duran, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, George Michael, Jody Watley(!?!), U2, and Boy George—just to name a few—failed to stop for just one minute and give some thought to what the fuck they were singing.