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The Long Reach of Africa’s Music in the US

Over the centuries, wherever Africans went, their music travelled with them, leaving an indelible mark on the cultures and peoples they interacted with. From the 1950s onwards, African music has had a particular influence on jazz, hip-hop and R&B in the United States.

African music has influenced music around the world for centuries. Africa had an especially big impact on jazz music in the US during the 1950s and 1960s, when African nations were fighting for independence from European colonialists while Black Americans were simultaneously fighting for their civil rights. During this period of struggle and self-determination, there was a great deal of cultural exchange between African and Black American artists.

In the 1950s and 1960s, jazz musicians were becoming increasingly globally aware, and this reflected in the compositions they wrote. In 1954, saxophonist Sonny Rollins composed the song ‘Airegin,’ which went on to become a jazz standard. ‘Airegin’ is Nigeria spelled backwards. One of the more notable versions of the song was done in 1956 by the Miles Davis Quintet on the album Cookin’.

This trend continued through the 1960s. From Wayne Shorter’s ‘Angola’ in 1965, to Jackie McLean’s ‘Appointment in Ghana’ in 1960, to Lee Morgan’s ‘Zambia’ in 1966, jazz musicians often invoked Africa in their music. Most notably, John Coltrane’s numerous compositions, like ‘Liberia’ in 1960, ‘Ogunde’ in 1967, ‘Dahomey Dance’ in 1961, Gold Coast in 1958 and Africa/Brass in 1961 highlighted Coltrane’s African connection.


Same Struggle, Different Continents

Apart from compositions that were inspired by Africa, many jazz musicians worked actively with African musicians. The most notable collaboration was Max Roach and the Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji on the landmark album We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. This collaboration took a global approach to Black liberation. The first side dealt with Black American civil rights, while the second side, with the songs ‘All Africa’ and ‘Tears for Johannesburg’, addressed African independence movements. Like Roach, Olatunji was a civil rights activist who accompanied Martin Luther King Jr on his march on Washington on 28 August 1963.


Olatunji worked with other Black American jazz musicians like Cannonball Adderley, Horace Silver, Yusef Lateef, Clark Terry, and Randy Weston, to name a few. However, he forged a close friendship with John Coltrane, who wrote a song in his honour, titled ‘Tunji.’ Coltrane helped him establish the Olatunji Center for African Culture in Harlem, New York City. It was the site of one of Coltrane’s last live performances, which was posthumously released as The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording.

Read: “Boundaries are for men, not music”


Olatunji was influential in rock music as well, most notably Carlos Santana, whose band covered Olantunji’s classic song ‘Jin-Go-Lo-Ba’. The song has since been covered by many musicians.



Another man who tirelessly highlighted the connection between jazz and Africa was pianist Randy Weston, still an active performer at 91. Weston has long emphasised the importance and influence of various African rhythms, not only on jazz but on music all over the world, from Brazil to Cuba. In the 1960s, Weston was part of a US cultural delegation that travelled to various African countries. One of his more notable songs is his interpretation of ‘Niger Mambo’, a song by the Nigerian pioneer of Highlife music, Bernard Olabinjo Benson, better known as Bobby Benson.



No Credit, No Compensation

While it might be widely known that rap samples old jazz, funk, soul, rock and R&B songs, it is not as widely known that rap and hip-hop sample old African music as well, albeit not to the same extent. Here are five notable examples:

‘Mr. Grammarticalogylisationalism Is the Boss’ by Fela Kuti was sampled by The Roots in ‘I Will Not Apologize’.



‘Fear Not for Man’ by Fela Kuti was sampled by Mos Def in ‘Fear Not of Man’.

‘Kyenkyen Bi AdiM’awu’ by Alhaji K. Frimpong was sampled by Gnarls Barkley in ‘Storm Coming’.


‘Yegelle Tezeta’ by Mulatu Astatke was sampled by Nas and Damian Marley in ‘As We Enter’.


‘Quit it’ by Miriam Makeba was sampled by Devin the Dude in ‘Doobie Ashtray’.

Such legal sampling of African music can be beneficial to the original musician if they are credited and compensated, but this has not always been the case. There are many instances of the theft of material from African musicians, many of whom are unaware of it or do not have the resources to take legal action. Some may know about Manu Dibango’s ‘Soul Makossa’ being plagiarised by a few American musicians, most notably by Michael Jackson, but there are many more cases.

One example of theft was by ‘The Godfather of Soul’ himself, James Brown. While on tour in Cameroon in 1975, Brown met André-Marie Tala, a blind up-and-coming musician. Brown was so impressed by Tala that he asked him for some of his music so that he could get a sense of the music scene in Cameroon. Tala obliged and gave him some of his songs, which included the track ‘Hot Koki’. Brown took the music back to the US, and two years later he released the song ‘Hustle!!! (Dead on It)’. Brown’s song had the same melody, beat and arrangement as ‘Hot Koki’, but in English. Brown also gave himself full credit as the composer. Tala later sued Brown and won.

There is also the case of Jean-Marie Tiam and Maurice Foty, who were known as J.M. Tim and Foty, a duo from Cameroon. In 1977, they had a song called ‘Douala by Night’. By the early 1980s, the duo had disbanded, but Tiam continued as a solo musician. While working on an album decades later, Tiam wanted to record an updated version of ‘Douala by Night’. However, he was told that the song belonged to American rapper Missy Elliot. Outraged, he investigated the matter and found out that Elliot had released a song in 2002, titled ‘Dog in Heat’, which had stolen the beat from ‘Douala by Night’.

Read: Remembering The Queen of African Pop: Brenda Fassie

In what might be the most brazen example of theft, rapper Nas not only took the beat of the song ‘Life’s Gone Low’ by the Nigerian twin singers, the Lijadu Sisters, but he also lifted the chorus and the hook of the song, which featured the sisters’ singing.


It is important to highlight examples of intellectual property theft from African musicians, because it happens more often than many of us realise. The influence of African music runs deep, and it runs parallel to the influence of other forms of African art, from the Dada movement to fashion. Not highlighting the impact of African art outside of Africa erases the influence African artists have had on cultural movements over the years, while crediting non-Africans for it. African ingenuity should always be recognised and should never be left out of any narrative where they rightfully belong.

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