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How And Why Toto's 1983 Hit 'Africa' Got New Life In 2018

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED are not afraid to ask why. For instance, why did a seemingly beige, toothless pop hit from 36 years ago get so much love in 2018?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFRICA")

WEEZER: (Singing) I hear the drums echoing tonight, but she hears...

CHANG: A cover, then a remix.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OCEAN TO OCEAN")

RHEA: (Singing) Going to take a lot to take me away from you.

CHANG: And so many internet memes. We are not frightened by the thing that it has become. We are only very curious. Rob Harvilla, music critic for the Ringer, knows he must do what is right and help us understand the strange afterlife of Toto's "Africa."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OCEAN TO OCEAN")

PITBULL: (Singing) I practice what I preach, but I ain't going to lie. Still got love...

CHANG: Thank you very kindly for being here, Rob.

ROB HARVILLA: Well, thank you. This is a great honor. This is the highlight of my career, I think.

CHANG: (Laughter) OK, so the zombie corpse of this song comes back to life.

HARVILLA: (Laughter).

CHANG: The band Weezer covers it this year. It is all over (laughter) rock radio stations. And then, just last week, Pitbull dropped his version of the song called "Ocean To Ocean." Why?

HARVILLA: Why? I - it's genuinely, earnestly, like, a pretty wonderful song.

CHANG: (Laughter).

HARVILLA: Like, it's honest about what it is. What it is is, like, a very cheesy, synth-driven song, you know, about a white person singing about Africa despite never having been to Africa.

CHANG: Right. I mean, these were some white guys from North Hollywood who were just studio session musicians, never been to Africa, like, had only seen Africa on TV.

HARVILLA: Right. Right.

CHANG: What were they doing (laughter) writing about what Africa's like?

HARVILLA: They were just being artists, man.

CHANG: (Laughter).

HARVILLA: That's the only way I can put it. That's what the artist does.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFRICA")

TOTO: (Singing) I know that I must do what's right, sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.

CHANG: I mean, the lyrics make no sense. The video is this Westernized, vaguely...

HARVILLA: Yeah.

CHANG: ...Racist fantasy of Africa.

HARVILLA: Someone throws a spear.

CHANG: (Laughter) Exactly.

HARVILLA: Yeah, that probably - probably they should have not thrown the spear. That was my thought.

CHANG: But why do you think this song gets so much forgiveness today? Because everyone's in on the joke?

HARVILLA: I think partly that's it, yeah. Toto had said from the beginning, like, this is a song about a white person who has never been to Africa trying to write a song about Africa.

CHANG: (Laughter).

HARVILLA: Like, there's a very upfront, apologetic, like, meta aspect to it.

CHANG: Yeah. Yeah.

HARVILLA: You know? And this is the early '80s. This is the era of Live Aid. You know, this is the era where Africa is, like, an abstract concept, you know, this big altruistic cause. And, like, looking at the lyrics - like, I seek to cure what's deep inside, frightened of this thing that I have become - like, this idea of Africa as this mystical place where you can go to purify yourself. Like, I don't think she actually went to Africa in "Eat, Pray, Love," but this is sort of, like...

CHANG: No, I don't think she does.

HARVILLA: ...The soft rock "Eat, Pray, Love..."

CHANG: (Laughter).

HARVILLA: ...You know, of the early '80s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFRICA")

TOTO: (Singing) Hurry, boy, she's waiting there for you.

CHANG: So what do you think it is about this song, whatever it was meant to be about, that speaks to this moment right now that we're in?

HARVILLA: I think there's a specific kind of song that tends to be very corny and soft rock-ish (ph) that just has a very pleasant dissonance in the Internet age. Like, you think about Rick-rolling, right? Like, how the Rick Astley song was suddenly reborn as this hilarious meme that got driven into the ground. And there's just something about the contrast of, like, that clueless sort of cheesiness in the cynical sort of dark internet age. Like, the contrast there was what made the Rick-rolling joke work.

CHANG: But as you mentioned, Rick-rolling got kind of driven into the ground. Do you think we've reached peak "Africa?" Is there some other '80s soft rock hit waiting to knock it off its pedestal at this point?

HARVILLA: I think two major interpolations of "Africa" in 2018 is plenty. I think we've achieved Toto saturation at this point. So yeah, let's get some other song in there - any song, really.

CHANG: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFRICA")

TOTO: (Singing) The rains down in Africa.

CHANG: Rob Harvilla, music critic with the Ringer. I have one last question for you, Rob.

HARVILLA: Please.

CHANG: Can you even see Mount Kilimanjaro from the Serengeti?

HARVILLA: I don't claim to be a geographical expert, but I - there seems to be some poetic license taken there. But, you know, that's - that just makes the song all the more profound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFRICA")

TOTO: (Singing) It's going to take a lot to take me away from you. There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do. I bless the rains down in Africa. I bless the rains down in Africa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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