The account of Michael Jackson and Africa is that of a love story – one which was birthed in 1974 when he visited the continent for the first time performing in Senegal with the Jackson 5. Michael relished every bit of the trip. He describes the experience in an interview:
“When I came off the plane in Dakar, Senegal, Africa, we were greeted by a long line of African dancers. Their drums and sounds filled the air with rhythm. I was going crazy, I was screaming, ‘All right! They got the rhythm… This is it. This is where I come from. The origin.”
In a May 1992 interview with Ebony Magazine, MJ described Africa as “home”. MJ went on to visit several African countries including Tunisia, Gabon, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Tanzania, Egypt, and South Africa.
Michael Jackson once said about the influence of African music on his own works: “The rhythms of Africa – which is the roots of rhythm – that’s my favorite music. I think that’s the favorite music of the world. Because all music is derived from that.”
Today, we talk about 5 Times Michael Jackson’s Work Was Inspired by Africa.
1. Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’
“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” is the opening track off The King of Pop’s critically acclaimed sixth studio album “Thriller”. Written and produced by Jackson, with co-production credits going to Quincy Jones, the song sees Jackson draw inspiration from legendary Cameroonian saxophonist and songwriter Manu Dibango’s Grammy-nominated “Soul Makossa”.
Originally recorded as an anthem celebrating Cameroon hosting the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament, and the qualification of the Cameroon national football team to the quarterfinals of the tournament; “Soul Makossa” was debuted in 1972 by Manu Dibango.
The song’s lyrics were however written by Cameroonian poet and musicologist S.M. Eno Belinga except for some words in English, it was entirely written in Duala, a native Cameroonian dialect.
The song is probably best known for the chanted vocal refrain “ma-ma-ko, ma-ma-sa, ma-ko ma-ko-sa”; which Jackson borrowed for the hook of his 1982 superhit!
2. We Are The World
On 28th January 1985 Michael Jackson, along with a group of over forty leading musicians convened in a recording studio in Los Angeles to record the song “We Are the World.” The list of superstars included Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Tina Turner, and Stevie Wonder.
Written by Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, and arranged and produced by Quincy Jones, the song was recorded to raise money to fight famine in Africa.
The “charity single” was intended to inspire Americans from different backgrounds and races to put aside their prejudices and come together to support people in need in Africa; and successfully, it raised more than $75 million.
“We Are the World” won a Grammy for song of the year in 1996. It was also released with nine other songs on an album, We Are the World, which also won record of the year.
3. Liberian Girl
“Liberian Girl” is the ninth single off MJ’s “Bad” album released in 1987. The sentimental number sees Jackson sing about a love interest from the small West African nation of Liberia.
The song became a commercial success and also received positive reception in Liberia, with women from the country viewing the song as empowering. One Liberian woman identified as Margaret Carson in an interview with The Washington Times said: “When that music came out … the Liberian girls were so astonished to hear a great musician like Michael Jackson thinking about a little country in Africa. It gave us hope, especially when things went bad… It made us to feel that we are still part of the world.”
The song opens with the South African jazz songstress Letta Mbulu saying the Swahili phrase “Naku penda piya-naku taka piya-mpenziwe,” which translates to “Love you too. I want you too, my love.”
There was however some geographic liberty here because, in as much as Swahili is the most widely spoken African language, it is not spoken in Liberia.
4. Remember The Time
Michael Jackson’s second single from his 1992 released eighth studio album “Dangerous” details reminiscing a blissful romance. In Michael’s Moonwalker Autobiography, he stated that he had his long-time love interest and mentor, Diana Ross, in mind when he wrote the song.
Directed by John Singleton, the music video is set in ancient Egypt and features appearances from Eddie Murphy, Iman, Tommy “Tiny” Lister, and Magic Johnson.
Promoted as a short film, the nine minutes long video’s imagery includes historical themes such as the pyramids of Giza, the sphinx and busts of Pharaohs. These costume styles allude to a variety of pharaonic periods.
Egypt is historically touted as the cradle of civilization. Though usually thought of in its modern context as part of the Middle East, Michael Jackson quite accurately perceived of it as part of the continent of Africa and viewed its rich past as part of pan-African history.
In an interview with Rev. Jesse Jackson in 2005, this is what Michael Jackson had to say:
“The world is jealous of Africa for its natural resources. It is the dawn of civilizations. A lot of our story is set in Africa. King Tut, and all those great civilizations, were born right there in Africa. Egypt is in Africa! They always try to separate them but Egypt is Africa, period!“
5. Collaborations With Senegalese-born Akon
With the first African country, MJ ever visited being Senegal, it is almost poetic that his final works were recorded with Senegalese-born American singer-songwriter and record producer Akon.
“Hold My Hand” – a collaboration with Akon, was one of the first posthumous singles by the King of Pop released on 15th November 2010. The song about friendship and togetherness proved a commercial success and charted within the top 20 in several countries.
“Hold My Hand” is the second collaboration between the two artistes following the 2008 remake of Jackson’s 1982 smash hit “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”.
Speaking about his relationship with MJ, Akon said: “We got a chance to get to know and understand each other, and we developed a great friendship. We were together almost every day for two years before he passed away, and he gave me a lot of jewels.”
In a recent TMZ interview, Akon revealed he and Michael had plans to open music schools across Africa.
He said: “It started off as a concept, me and Mike was actually speaking about creating music universities all throughout Africa… I’m giving them the tools, the instruments, the knowledge of the business. Just kind of help them with facilities that help them polish up their skills because Africa got so much talent!”
Unfortunately, the two were never able to realize their plans when Jackson died suddenly from cardiac arrest in June 2009.