While I was doing the research for my book Heavy Metal Africa: Life, Passion, and Heavy Metal in the Forgotten Continent, I had a humbling realisation of where I was standing: in the world’s oldest civilisation, celebrating a unique history that has long been cherished. A trip to any one of Africa’s nations; to a continent that cannot be summed up in any number of phrases or words, will have that humbling impact. I did my best in writing a book about the continent, but I learned that Africa was a composition of emotions and beautiful sounds echoed only by the land’s diversity.
As wonderful as the continent’s musical traditions are, I went to Africa to inquire on a matter of personal interest: rock and heavy metal. As a lifelong metal fan and Afrophile, I had a curiosity to find people on the continent who shared my passion for this music. I did just that. What surprised me most was not only the insatiable love that many had for this music, but that rock and metal music had rooted itself in Africa for far longer than I had imagined.
What became apparent to me early on was that rock and metal were not only rejected by some for being aspects of cultural imperialism – after all, this music is frowned upon in the West, too. Rock and heavy metal spread organically. Those who possessed a genuine love for this music were eager to pass it on to whomever they could. The occasional slip of a rock song on radio, or the rare appearance of a band or their music on a Western television show caught a few ears, but it was the genuine catalyst of word-of-mouth, of tape-trading, that cemented this genre’s place in Africa.
For those who connected, this music was infectious – and this connection came earlier than many of us would assume. In the early1970s, just after their civil war, a few Nigerians set aside their Highlife music in favour of the fuzziness of the electric guitar. Their rock-and-roll souls produced magic to ease their post-war stress. Further south, Zambians jumped in too, with remarkable artists recording albums (within their borders) that are still revered by many around the world. Zamrock, as it was known, is a wonderful medley of psychedelic rock, riff mastery à la Black Sabbath, and a tincture of tradition. And this was even before rock penetrated other parts of the world!
Where rock lead, heavy metal followed
A whole generation would pass before rock lead to heavy metal. Today, heavy metal has found a comfortable home in Africa, thanks to the unwavering devotion of its ardent supporters. In Heavy Metal Africa, I detail the rise of rock and metal in each of the countries I visited, and I share how the music is continuing to inspire today. My experiences allowed me to see how the Kenyan metal community attributed the music’s ascendancy to the actions of one person and two DJs. In Botswana, one band’s formation inspired another, and in Mauritius one single night of metal changed the lives of so many. All it ever takes is a little ambition and creativity for a spark to ignite heavy metal’s honesty and for it to spread through a continent of ambitious and optimistic people.
Today, Africans encompassing an array of ages and backgrounds are proudly showing what this music means to them. In Madagascar, this music is sounding the call for leadership to put an end to the poverty that engulfs the island. In Kenya, a generation is discovering a distinctly modern voice and identity through heavy metal. South Africans today have embraced heavy metal to fill the gap that politics has left for them, resulting in one of the most diverse metal scenes in the world. Hopefully that bodes well for the future. In Zimbabwe, rock and metal musicians are working through trepidation, fear and discord that few in the world will ever understand.
This music has returned to Africa, and it is doing so with an aplomb unrivaled anywhere in the world. Africans are performing rock and heavy metal music that is just as emotional, aggressive and ambitious as that of their peers around the world. The music has an honesty that is difficult to replicate for the musicians know and understand real hardship. When they sing of poverty, corruption and war, they are not doing so from afar. They are crafting a dialogue expressing their realities, without ever compromising on honesty. It is this sincerity that is making rock and metal fans from within the continent and from beyond its borders to take notice of what is happening on the world’s oldest inhabited continent.