Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
That’s the sound of an iconic synth hook that resonated in both 1982 and 2018, thanks first to ‘80s pop/rock stars Toto, then to another group of pop-rocking Angelenos: Weezer. Arguably, “Africa” never really wavered in popularity in between those two recordings — and yet, recent years have proved there’s room for both versions in the pop mainstream.
Weezer’s version of “Africa” is uncomplicated upon first listen: a more or less note-for-note take on the original. But then, there’s frontman Rivers Cuomo adeptly pulling off the high parts (one of the last “I bless the rains down in Africa” is downright brow-raising). It’s faster and tighter, and a minute shorter. There are prominent electric guitars, the synths more of a footnote.
Upon its release in May 2018, “Africa” was polarizing enough that the internet immediately took sides, as it had been doing over Weezer’s music for most of the 2010s. You either complained about it being lame — like many of the band’s ‘90s fans, who can’t understand why they keep embarrassing themselves — or accepted it as a benign addition to the collective consciousness, like newer fans, who find Weezer’s more recent material just as fun as their older stuff. (Last December, a Saturday Night Live sketch summed up the ongoing battle nicely. Cuomo hasn’t seen it, but drummer Pat Wilson tweeted to cheer guest Weezer defender Matt Damon on.)
How “Africa” actually got in front of Cuomo is a story in itself. A teenage girl from Ohio named Mary Klym, who went by the handle @WeezerAfrica, began constantly tweeting at Cuomo and band about her request. (“It’s about time you blessed the rains down in africa,” read a typical tweet from the account.) Around that time, someone on his team saw the early Vice interview with Klym from December 2017.
@RiversCuomo it’s about time you bless the rains down in africa
— weezer cover africa by toto (@weezerafrica) December 6, 2017
Cuomo admits to Billboard that he doesn’t “normally like doing what people tell him to do,” due to his rebellious streak, but explains that it’s a great song that he would “have wanted to do anyway,” and it especially aligns with his fondness for covers from the ‘80s. (See: Weezer’s spin on The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” or The Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way.”) So when Cuomo’s manager approached him about it, it didn’t take too long for him to get on board.
In a twist, though, he first decided to release a cover of “Rosanna,” the first single from Toto’s 1982 Grammy-sweeping Toto IV set, which is exactly the sort of ha-ha move Weezer is known to pull. “Then a week later we put out ‘Africa,’ and within 24 hours, it was number one on iTunes,” he says.
Naturally, “Africa” went viral almost instantly — to an extent that still boggles the minds of the band (and their fans). The cover earned Weezer their first Hot 100 entry in eight years, peaking at No. 51 (chart dated Sept. 22, 2018), and their first Alternative Songs No. 1 in a decade. It received a music video starring Weird Al as Cuomo, took the band to late night television and even Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve as performers, and led to the aforementioned SNL sketch. It even gave the band the idea to release The Teal Album, a set of covers (many beloved ‘80s pop songs like “Africa”) as a surprise in January 2019.
Weezer had a crowdsourced viral hit on their hands, where every part of its ride to popularity meant it looked and talked, if you will, like a sentient meme, particularly once “Weird Al” Yankovic was starring as Cuomo in the song’s video — essentially a shot-for-shot remake of Weezer’s mid-’90s clip for “Undone (The Sweater Song).” “Africa” was a prime example of what happens when the Internet seemingly uses its collective force to actually influence and shape the pop landscape. It was also an early instance of what’s shaping up to be an increasingly common modern phenomenon: a tweet inspiring a Hot 100 hit.
Even as the “Africa” hysteria dies down, it continues to impact Cuomo’s life. It’s still in the Weezer setlist — it might even make it into international stadiums when they embark on the Hella Mega Tour in 2020 — and at home in California, it’s unavoidable. “I [would] go to my kid’s school and the other kids there would be like, ‘Yo, Africa is dope,’” he says, revealing that he’s even performed the song at a bar mitzvah. “The moral is: The 14-year-old girl in Ohio tends to be right. If you get ahold of her, ask if she has any other ideas for us.”