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PopMusic: AIDS in Africa

By Joshua Brooks

Published April 4, 2013

“AIDS in Africa/And cancer back home,” American singer-songwriter Cass McCombs croons in this cryptic ballad, describing in the most basic sense the epidemiological divide that often exists between the infectious diseases of the developing world and the chronic, non-communicable diseases of the so-called developed world.

Yes. AIDS in Africa
And cancer back home
The Season of Giving is nigh
A war is on, Lady
Lady, a war is on
AIDS in Africa

Africa is home to an estimated 69 percent of all people living with HIV and 72 percent of all deaths from AIDS, while there are 12.5 million people in the United States with cancer, according to 2009 estimates.

Old-language whisper by the bonny banks
Survivor cells are chanting ALI BUMAYE
Ave Maria, Lady

From there, the song becomes largely poetic, encouraging cancer “survivor cells” with the now famous Lingala language chant, “Ali Bumaye” (“Ali, kill him!”), which the people of Zaire screamed in support of Muhammad Ali during his now famous Rumble in the Jungle fight with George Foreman.

Thinking back on the song, now over 10 years old, McCombs said that he wrote it as a reminder that there is an “other” world that we – whether Westerners or others – load with our invented perceptions of reality. The song is an exploration—a realization—“that tourism and imperialism are one and the same,” McCombs told The 2×2 Project in an email. “Western art is seen as ‘occidental’ and therefore mundane, and Eastern and African is ‘Oriental’ and therefore exotic. The character of the song even separates us by our diseases, even though both AIDS and cancer exist in both cultures.”

Though the types of diseases in developing and developed countries do differ, McCombs is right that AIDS and cancer exist in both. However, in the world McCombs describes as Eastern, the balance is starting to shift, becoming more like the developed world. This phenomenon, known as the epidemiological transition, takes place when developing nations slowly move from infectious burdens of disease to more chronic diseases. It’s a phenomenon originally posed by Abdel Omran in 1971 and studied in Ghana.

Despite the perceptions of disease, culture and death, McCombs said, “I wanted to dig up what we hide to reveal suffering is not specific to any culture, and neither is ignorance.” But he concedes, “Music is an especially strange place to discuss these themes because it’s generally a place of dreams.”

Read our introduction to the PopMusic series, The 2×2 Project’s compilation of some of the most iconic songs tackling topics of public health. Come back to see new songs posted every Thursday.

Edited by Jordan Lite. Additional research by Larkin Callaghan.

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The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the authors and do not represent those of the Department of Epidemiology, the Mailman School of Public Health, or Columbia University.