By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
With their 1982 album Toto IV, Toto scored a string of hits which continue to enjoy regular radio airtime and a popular fanbase: ‘Rosanna’ was one, and ‘I Won’t Hold You Back’ (memorably sampled by Roger Sanchez for his 2001 dance hit ‘Another Chance’) was another. But the success of these songs pales next to the song that has become Toto’s most played – and most widely discussed – song: ‘Africa’.
The lyrics to ‘Africa’ are elusive, elliptical, suggestive, baffling, and frustrating. Is this a song about the literal continent of Africa, or is ‘Africa’ functioning as some kind of metaphor? Is it about the end of a relationship, or the commitment to one?
Let’s take a closer look at the lyrics to the song, which have aroused considerable discussion – and disagreement – among fans and listeners.
‘Africa’: song meaning
‘Africa’ was written by David Paich and Jeff Porcaro. Let’s start by considering what the songwriters of ‘Africa’ have said about its meaning.
Jeff Porcaro has stated that the song is about ‘a white boy’ who 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.’ Meanwhile, David Paich has described the song as a romantic song, but it’s a love song about a continent, rather than a person.
Paich also stated in 2018 that the person flying in on the plane in the song’s first verse is a missionary, but this doesn’t help us to make sense of the ‘we’ mentioned in the phrase ‘the things we never had’: the singer and the (female) missionary?
If we take Paich and Porcaro’s comments about the song’s meaning at face value, ‘Africa’ is a song which addresses Africa in the chorus (as ‘you’), and sees the singer professing his love for the place. If we follow the clues given by the songwriters themselves, this is what the song means: it’s about someone who has fallen in love with the African landscape.
However, there are lines in the song which make such an interpretation unsatisfying, or at least insufficient. Why would the singer be frightened of what he has become, just because he loves a continent? Why must be talk himself into doing ‘what’s right’, and what was the wrong thing he was tempted to do?
When analysing song meanings, we like to bear in mind Roland Barthes’ landmark 1967 essay ‘The Death of the Author’, in which the French literary theorist argued that we must let go of the notion that the author of a text (novel, play, poem … pop song?) has any special ownership over that text’s meaning.
Instead, the meaning of a text lies ‘not in its origin but in its destination’. So it’s up to the reader. Or the listener, if we’re talking about popular music and song lyrics.
This is not to suggest that we should disregard the views of the songwriters on what ‘Africa’ means, of course. But their brief comments, made years after the song was written, only go so far in helping us to make sense of the lyrics, so we need to think beyond their remarks – either that, or the song is literally just a straightforward celebration of Africa, and a number of the lines in the song really are just meaningless filler (which is a possibility).
So, let’s turn to the text – that is, the song itself – and take it on its own terms. Unusually, let’s begin with the chorus to Toto’s song, since the verses are more difficult to unpick in terms of their meaning.
The rains in Africa are a symbol of renewal, breaking the drought and signifying the return of life and water to the dry, barren land. This couplet in the song’s chorus, which bless the rains in Africa and express the desire to take some time to do the ‘things we never had’, is perhaps the kernel of the song and contains the biggest clue to its meaning.
But it’s not, as is sometimes suggested, a breakup song: the ‘we’ in the chorus is still very much in existence. Indeed, the two lines which precede the ‘rains in Africa’ line see the singer professing the depth of his devotion to her: a hundred men (or more) couldn’t tear him away from his sweetheart. ‘Africa’, in this interpretation, is a song about marital commitment (or romantic commitment, at least) and resisting the temptation to live the wilder life of a single man.
If we move from the chorus to the verses of the song, we find further support for such an interpretation. The first verse finds the singer hearing the primal drums beating in the night, while his partner, aboard a plane home, hears only the whispers of her fellow passengers talking to each other as the plane flies through the air, its wings reflecting the stars.
These stars, as the singer imagines them, are guiding him towards ‘salvation’. Again, this is where the ‘Africa-loving’ interpretation of the song falls down: why would he need salvation if the song is not about some sort of internal spiritual crisis, such as a crisis of commitment?
The word ‘But’ in the verse’s second line imply that he is hearing the ‘call of the wild’, as it were, while his sweetheart is preparing to arrive home and be greeted by him.
As he heads to the airport, her hopes for a sign that will help him to make his decision. Should he meet his wife/lover and be a faithful husband, or should he go out and heed the call of those drumbeats (which may equally serve as a figurative summoning of the beats of dance music in nightclubs, suggesting the primitive, ritualistic nature modern dance halls and clubbing)?
He stops an old man who presumably looks wise, and asks him. Although the old man (who probably didn’t have a clue why he was being accosted) presumably said nothing, the singer seems to find what he seeks in the man’s expression, the way he turns to face the singer, and the singer appears to find confirmation that what he seeks is waiting for him – at the airport.
The second verse continues the narrative of the song. Once again, the singer hears a sound in the night: another sound which is associated with a summoning or call. Indeed, this is a literal ‘call of the wild’, suggesting the way wolves cry to each other at night to gather in packs – and what are they gathering for, if not to hunt?
Again, the singer appears to be using this as a metaphor for being young, free, and single: going out on the prowl in search of a casual encounter.
The clever oxymoron ‘solitary company’ confirms this. The idea is to find someone to spend the night with, someone who will not encroach on the singer’s bachelorhood, and won’t make him feel ‘tied down’. He’ll remain ‘solitary’, so far as his status goes.
But once again, he knows he must turn away from such temptation, and do the right thing. He knows this as sure as he can see the giant mountain, Kilimanjaro, rising above the Serengeti (actually an impossibility: you can’t even see Kilimanjaro from the Serengeti plains).
The singer confesses that he is frightened by what he has become (unfaithful? addicted to infidelity? addicted to sex?), and seeks to cure it. And so we find ourselves back at the chorus, which sees him professing his commitment and fidelity to his lover.
In summary, then, ‘Africa’ is a song which uses the landscape and backdrop of Africa to discuss a man’s battle with sexual temptation – and the lure of the single life – and his commitment to resist temptation and ‘make a go of it’ with his newly returning lover.
Whether the singer is actually in Africa is harder to determine. He could simply be drawing on the imagery and locations of the continent because it provides him with the perfect metaphor for the conflicting emotions he is feeling, and the huge weight of emotion he is experiencing. Africa is a vast continent, Kilimanjaro is vast, the Serengeti is vast.
But perhaps that flight is coming in at half-past midnight to somewhere in Africa, where the singer is located. ‘Africa’ is a song which remains tantalisingly between the figurative and literal modes so far as its lyrics go. It doesn’t matter if Paich had never visited Africa: the man in the song is not the same person necessarily, nor is the meaning of the song bound up exclusively with the commentaries offered by the songwriters.