The Meaning of Toto’s “Africa”

Press photo of Toto from 1984. Photo by Jim Shea.

There is perhaps no song that represents the feeling of popular music in the 80s better than Toto’s “Africa”, the goofy track that presents a fantastical vision of the continent of Africa. Complete with bright, glossy synths and a chorus that is both epic and memorable, “Africa” is one that we’ll never forget, helping to define the sound of an entire decade.

“Africa” was released in October 1982 as third single from Toto IV, and by February of 1983 it had reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States and was also #1 in Canada and in the top 10 in many other countries. It was a critical and a mainstream success all around the world and today it is fondly remembered as one of the best bangers of the entire 80s, with continued success in the mainstream.

Funnily enough, Toto and Columbia Records were more focused on “Rosanna”, the other single from Toto IV while they were working out material for the album, and in fact “Africa” was almost cut from the album entirely. Apparently the band thought the song was too quirky to be part of the album, and none of them ever expected it to become the smash hit that it has since become.

Even Toto members Steve Porcaro and Steve Lukather were not very into the song at first, as they thought it was a bit ridiculous. Lukather even remembers saying that he would streak down Hollywood Boulevard if “Africa” was a hit, as in his mind the song was sort of a throwaway, tacked on at the end of the album because they had some space to fill. He expected the hits to be other songs from the album, such as “Make Believe”.

David Paich and Jeff Porcaro of Toto in the early 80s. Photo by Chris Walter.

There’s also the fact that while Toto sings about how they want to “bless the rains down in Africa”, none of the band members had ever been to Africa. David Paich, who wrote the lyrics to “Africa” and many more corny hits in Toto’s discography, spoke of the song’s meaning in a 2018 interview with Billboard:

I’ve always wanted to go to Africa. I’d seen it on films when I was a kid and everything, as a National Geographic nut. I used to extract poetry from the different countries and stuff. And I’d gone to an all boys Catholic high school, where we were taught by Marianist brothers and priests who had done missionary work in Africa. They’d come back and tell these fascinating stories… “We’d basically come and we’d bless the village. And if they had books, we’d come and we’d bless the books, we’d bless their crops if they had crops, and if it rains, we bless the rains down there.” And so that was one of the inspirations. I became enthralled with going to Africa, but I had never been there.

David Paich on the lyrics to “Africa” by Toto.

Apparently, “Africa” was written as a fantasy of what David Paich imagined Africa to be like, based upon stories he had heard and things he had seen on TV. While some of the lyrics do suggest that “Africa” may be a love song about a human person, it is actually a love song about an entire continent.

That explains the meme-worthy quality of the song, crafted by six exceptionally talented musicians from California who had never been to Africa, but had an entire studio’s worth of tools and a major label budget at their disposal.

Toto IV and “Africa” were the sign of a major comeback for Toto, who had enjoyed early success with their self-titled debut album but hadn’t scored a hit since then, and were feeling the pressure from Columbia Records to release something that people enjoyed, and more importantly, moved units. Toto IV was packed with hits, the biggest being “Africa”, and ended up netting them six Grammy Awards that year.

I’d say they satisfied the record label. Not only that, but they cemented themselves as a band that will be remembered as one of the most important acts of the 1980s, with “Africa” leading the charge.

David Paich live with Toto in 2019. Photo by Daniel Hanssen.

Perhaps the best part about the success of “Africa” is how it has been adopted by millennials, many of whom were not even born yet when the song was released, but rather who found out about the song in TV, movies, or on the internet. It has become a meme of its own and has been used in many TV shows in recent years, including Scrubs, South Park, Family GuyStranger Things and more. “Africa” is arguably more popular than ever before today, with the song now having well over 1 billion streams on Spotify.

Most famously (and recently), “Africa” was covered by Weezer in 2018, with the rock band taking advantage of the silly nature of the song to put their own twist on it. Toto enjoyed Weezer’s cover and replied with their own cover of Weezer’s “Hash Pipe”.

As Toto sang, which can now be applied to the song itself: “It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you. There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do!”.

“Africa” was also released along with a music video that expands upon this fantasy theme of Africa, depicting David Paich exploring the continent via encyclopedias at the local library, while the band plays on top of a giant Africa book stage. Watch it below.

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One thought on “The Meaning of Toto’s “Africa”

  • April 30, 2022 at 9:58 pm

    This is one of my favorite songs of all time. I’ve never thought of it as silly. This is truly an exotic, existential song of longing and loving. I’ve always thought of the continent of Africa as fascinating and beautiful. This love song to her unique beauty is a perfect expression of respect for the miracle that is Africa.

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