Exploring the incredible legacy of Toto’s Africa

words Alexa Wang

Toto’s “Africa” was released in 1982, speeding straight to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States, and into the hearts of people around the world. Nearly 40 years later, the song is still the ultimate guilty pleasure.

Fans have demonstrated their devotion in a number of creative ways, such as setting up speakers to play Africa forever in the Namibian desert, and the @africabytotobot Twitter account, which only posts lines from the song to its 49k followers. Given the tune’s positive, heartfelt nature, people have continued to turn to it to keep their spirits up during the coronavirus crisis, be that through playing Animal Crossing or performing in a virtual concert.

That’s not to say everyone loves it — the track has certainly experienced its fair share of ridicule over the years. Nevertheless, of all the music to come out of the 1980s, it’s hard to think of another song that’s remained so prominent in contemporary culture, attracting new fans from all walks of life every passing year. Here, we delve into the astonishing afterlife of Toto’s “Africa”, and try to understand why its popularity has endured.

Africa as a charity anthem

A cassette containing Toto IV — the album “Africa” first featured on — was the centre of attention in an online auction. It was organised by The Heavy Metal Truants, a charitable fundraising organisation co-founded by Iron Maiden manager Rod Smallwood and Metal Hammer’s former editor-in-chief Alexander Milas. The annual event relies on donations from music greats to raise money, and 2019’s auction included a showstopping piece of memorabilia based on Toto’s hit single. Inside a framed case, custom-made by London company Soho Frames, the cassette was attached to a matte black backing board, cut into the shape of the African continent. It also featured three vials of African rainwater (“I bless the rains…”), which were signed by the band.

Elsewhere, DJ Michael Savage adopted a different approach when he dedicated a Bristol charity club night to the song back in 2018. Playing it back to back for 12 hours straight, people could pay to come along, be sponsored for how long they lasted, or donate to avoid the event altogether. “I’ve been DJing for 25 years and noticed over the years that Toto “Africa” has been the song that seems to bind the dance floor together,” Savage explained to the BBC.

Thousands of pounds were raised for Temwa, a Bristol-based charity helping communities in northern Malawi, with three attendees dancing away for all 12 hours according to the Bristol Post. This came as a shock to Toto founding member Steve Lukather, who tweeted: “This could be worse than waterboarding !! […] You think YOU are sick of it?” Similar events later took place in other cities, including London and Sheffield.

Africa as pop culture behemoth

Decades after its release, “Africa” has maintained a consistent presence in pop culture, and has become more popular than ever in recent years — especially 2017 when it became one of the most streamed songs in the UK. Numerous rap and R&B artists have sampled the song, including Nas, Ja Rule and Jason Derulo. There have also been plenty of noteworthy covers, the most famous being by Weezer in 2018. This was created in response to pleas from Twitter account @WeezerAfrica, who first contacted singer Rivers Cuomo in December 2017, saying: “it’s about time you bless the rains down in Africa.” It became Weezer’s first Hot 100 hit in eight years, and attracted even more attention after a music video featuring “Weird Al” Yankovic was released a few months later.

Outside of the music world, “Africa” has been featured and parodied in a number of television programmes including South Park, Community, Family Guy, and a sketch featuring Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon on the latter’s late-night show. Perhaps the show that most effectively showcased the song was Netflix’s 80s supernatural phenomena Stranger Things. Toto’s smash hit featured in the very first episode in 2016, during a romantic scene between characters Steve and Nancy. “There’s something that’s just magic about this song,” said the show’s creators The Duffer Brothers. “And the love for the song is not fueled by nostalgia or irony; it really works with anyone of any age. It’s everything we wanted our show to be.”

Africa as Internet sensation

Memes have become a core part of internet culture, and few songs have been memeified like “Africa”. As explained by Billboard, which declared it the most-memed song of the decade, “It’s hard to explain exactly why Toto’s chart-topping smash has enjoyed such an incredible Internet renaissance 35 years after its release, but it’s downright impossible to resist the song’s unadulterated pleasures.” Given that memes are generally associated with the millennial and Gen Z demographics, it seems perplexing that the song has resonated so much with people who weren’t even alive during its release. However, the Billboard piece deemed it “the perfect anthem for a generation steeped in nostalgia and existential angst”, citing the insightful analysis of Toto’s late drummer Jeff Porcaro: “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”.

This point is echoed by Ben Lunt, executive digital director at London advertising agency BMB. “‘Africa’ crosses generations. There’s a genuine nostalgia of people of my age, and a borrowed nostalgia of younger people,” he explained to Vice, believing the song may also remind younger people of the music they heard as children. Lunt believes “Africa”’s seemingly nonsensical lyrics have aided its internet popularity as memes need to be vague enough for people to make the content their own. “But usually when something becomes a meme there’s something that’s being subverted,” he pointed out. “There’s not a lot of subversion going on with the “Africa” meme. People are mostly just using it as an expression of joy and love.”

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