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“Silhouette Giraffe and tree line with orange sunrise-or-sunset horizon” by Jonatan Pie on Unsplash

A Pop Cultural History of Africa

Africa has long been a source of fascination, both good and bad, for the Western world, especially the U.S. I don’t think anyone needs a history lesson. And yet, Africa holds a romanticized place in our public imagination and inspires much of our popular culture. Some might call this appropriation; some might call it appreciation. Yet understanding Americans’ obsession with Africa requires a close look at some of Africa’s biggest pop culture moments.

“I Bless the Rains”: Toto’s Tribute to Africa:

While many people thought Toto’s infectious song was using Africa as a metaphor for a woman, the songwriter, David Paich, has said the song’s meaning is two-fold: firstly, he was moved by the sad images he saw on TV about Africa. Like many Americans, Paich saw late-night news and documentaries showing the suffering of people in Africa, often not distinguishing between nations or ethnic groups. The glossing over of vast cultural, historical, and political differences has led to the misconception of Africa as a unified entity, even a country. Indeed, Paich also says the song is about a man’s love for a continent. He’s said the lyrics tell the story of someone flying to Africa to meet a lonely missionary; this story was inspired by Paich’s Catholic upbringing, and indeed the chorus’ main lyric, “I bless the rains,” is a religious reference.

If it seems like the song was written by a white boy describing Africa as the TV and his Catholic schoolteachers described it to him, you’d be right. Drummer Jeff Porcaro, who was impressed by African drumming at the World Fair, said, “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.” To the band’s credit, they did use actual marimbas.

The song has been the punchline of jokes in countless memes and Tumblr posts.

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“Africa” played the role of “Toto” (get it?) in the Wizard of Oz-themed episode, of Scrubs, “My Way Home.” J.D. (Zach Braff) is playing it at the start of the episode on his iPod when he’s called in to the hospital, and at one point while trying to “get back home,” he waves the player and says “Toto and I are going home.”

Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard made a tribute video to “Africa” while vacationing. And you thought your vacations were special.

Going Ape-Crazy

Insert a giant and/or talking and/or mad ape into a movie and you’ve got summer blockbuster potential. It began with Mighty Joe Young (I omit King Kong because he is from Skull Island, not Africa) in 1949. The film, later remade with Charlize Theron, was produced by the same creative team as the original King Kong, but offered a more uplifting story.

In 1966, primatologist Dian Fossey arrived in the Congo to study gorillas. While the true story of her work, murder, and controversial actions is the topic for another essay, it suffices to say that Fossey not only inspired Americans’ fondness for gorillas and interest in their conservation, she helped counteract the fear that many people had of these creatures, which are quite large even if not Kong- or Joe-sized. Fossey’s 1983 book Gorillas in the Mist inspired a film starring Sigourney Weaver. Meanwhile, Koko of the San Francisco Zoo was winning hearts, and continued to make celebrity friends until her passing in July of this year.

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Dian Fossey in the field. Photo by Bob Campbell. Image courtesy the University of Florida Achives.

Of course, Michael Crichton, before he decided to spur Hollywood interest in prehistoric life, made gorillas the monsters of his novel/screenplay Congo, which is ostensibly about human corruption in the Congo, but at the end of the day is a scary-gorilla story. The story, which was written as a package deal into a novel and screenplay, resulted in a half-bad film in 1995 starring Dylan Walsh, Laura Linney, and Tim Curry.

Finally, the giant animal friend trope and the dangerous gorilla trope came together in the film Rampage. Based on a movie-monster video game, the film, like Mighty Joe Young, features a friendship between a human and a giant ape, except that in this case, the ape has been mutated by an experiment (those wacky scientists, you know).

Common elements of all these stories is that gorillas are often heavily symbolic of or linked to Africa, the gorillas have a human element, and poachers are always the bad guys.

And I didn’t forget to mention a certain Ape Named Ape…

“Watch Out for That Tree!”: Loincloth-Clad Men of the Jungle

The 1967 cartoon “George of the Jungle” riffed on Tarzan, a cultural figure too big to fully describe in this article. Both George and Tarzan reflected the gorilla-friend trope, but as gorillas are highly social, Tarzan had a bit more of a scientific approach to apes. For the 1997 film adaptation of GotJ, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop produced an ape named Ape and other jungle friends (some of whom actually live on the savannah in entirely different parts of Africa, the wildlife enthusiast in me notes).

Both stories are set in generic Africa (Disney’s film of GotJ offers the fictional Bukuvu) and feature scantily clad men who finally make contact with other humans after many years being raised by apes.

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All the yum.

Brendan Fraser got famously ripped to play the live-action George. Now, as a trapeze artist, believe me, swinging from things all day will get you pretty fit! But let’s face it, Tarzan and George are exceptionally buff (the first search suggestion when you type in Brendan Fraser George is “brendan fraser george of the jungle workout”), and their appeal is that they are “real men,” living a primal, back-to-nature existence. They are somewhat devoid of sexuality, no matter how masculine and sexy they are, because they live a pure existence among the animals. A longing for a nature-driven life is seen in countless eco-tourist destinations as well as songs such as Savage Garden’s “The Animal Song.”

Moreover, Tarzan’s and George’s innocence and moral goodness are often presented as the true nature of man, compared to the corruption to which “civilized” man succumbs (see: the antagonists of Tarzan and George of the Jungle). Primatologist Jane Goodall said she was very inspired by Tarzan as she was growing up and fully endorsed the “primitivist” view of a world close to nature as being better and righter.

Therein lies the romantic appeal of Africa. It’s a symbol of connection to nature and deep friendship, of our very heartbeats embodied in the drumming. The safari, ever the popular tourist excursion and even the name of a certain Internet browser, allows people to safely encounter what they perceive as epic, while African dance classes and African art become ever more popular for people who want to tap into what they see as some ancient and changeless. It’s convenient for Americans to overlook the complicated politics and history of Africa and its (currently) 54 countries, and especially its dark past with America.

When the Ebola outbreak occurred in western Africa several years ago, many American commentators assumed that “primitive” Africa simply didn’t have the modern resources to deal with the disease, or even that their backwardness contributed to its spread. One could hear the pity in their voices. In fact, the outbreak was slightly less deadly than previous outbreaks. Several international organizations joined forces with local healthcare outfits to tackle the disease. If you have the chance, visit the Smithsonian exhibit “Outbreak.”

To fully appreciate Africa and its nuances, one must look beyond the sad headlines and take a deep dive into the continent’s incredible range of cultures and habitats. Get started by visiting your local natural history museum. You can still admire Tarzan and George, it’s okay.

Be sure to check out my article on Congolese comics, and stay tuned for my next Africa-themed piece, which will examine Neil Blömkamp’s films.

If you would like to see more photos of Dian Fossey’s work, visit the free collection at the University of Florida digital libraries.

Rachel Wayne is a writer and visual anthropologist at the University of Florida.

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Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list:

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