Mwizenge Tembo had just returned to his boarding school in Zambia’s remote provincial capital of Chipata after the Christmas holiday when one of his friends entered the dorm and showed him dance moves that would influence his life.
It was December 1970 and American singer James Brown had just visited Zambia, where he performed two concerts. Tembo’s friend, who had been one of the 20,000 fans packed into Dag Hammarskjöld Stadium in the city of Ndola, described the spectacle to his pals. Brown, the friend said, had arrived on the stage like a bouncing Ping-Pong ball as police held back a hysterical crowd. Then, imitating Brown, Tembo’s friend spun around the dorm floor like an ice skater, shuffled his feet, gestured with his left hand toward his crotch and dropped to the floor in a split.
Tembo, 17, had never seen Brown, but in that moment he was hooked. And unknown to him at the time, so was most of Zambia’s youth. But the Godfather of Soul, as Brown was known, wasn’t just a cultural phenomenon in the southern African nation. He was central to a largely forgotten but tumultuous chapter in U.S.-Zambia relations that saw the two countries pull apart — their leaders snubbing each other — before rebuilding bridges that rested on a musical bond.
In October 1970, Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s first post-independence president, was scheduled to meet with U.S. President Richard Nixon in Washington alongside other African leaders, but the White House postponed the meeting. Slighted, Kaunda refused to meet Nixon at the reassigned time. But two months later, Kaunda, a longtime supporter of the American civil rights movement, made sure to pose with Brown during the singer’s tour of the country.
Brown’s visit “surely helped Kaunda’s reputation with young Black Zambians,” says Andrew DeRoche, a historian at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of the 2016 book Kenneth Kaunda, the United States and Southern Africa. It also highlighted the deep connection Zambian youth like Tembo felt with African-American music icons of the time. “James Brown was seen as the hero who was transcending the dominant white narrative, because of his success everywhere,” says Tembo, now a professor of sociology at Bridgewater College in Virginia, where he teaches African culture and anthropology.
As one of the first African nations to gain independence from its colonial rulers, in 1964, Zambia enjoyed a special place for African-American political and cultural leaders, also because of its central role in the struggle for freedom in southern Africa, says DeRoche. In 1960, Kaunda — then a freedom fighter — had visited Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta. A year later, President John F. Kennedy invited Kaunda to talks in the White House, signaling his administration’s recognition of the Zambian leader’s growing profile. Civil rights leaders like Coretta King and Congressman Andrew Young counted Kaunda as an ally.
“As an advocate for nonviolence who had direct contact with Martin Luther King, Kaunda had major credibility with African-Americans such as Young and Coretta King,” says DeRoche.
American pop culture was already big in Zambia, says Tembo. But for a Black African nation grappling with its post-independence identity, Brown’s visit was special. “Some of my friends who had money got ‘James Brown’ suits stitched,” he recalls. “James Brown was playing like 50 percent of the time on the radio six months after he left. ‘Sex Machine,’ ‘Say it Loud’ … all those songs.”
None of those cultural connections appeared to benefit bilateral relations between the two countries — at first. The Nixon administration ignored southern Africa. During a December 1973 meeting with the leader of Portugal, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger “admitted that he did not know if Zambia had a border with Angola,” says DeRoche.
But the U.S. State Department had noticed the bond that Brown and others had forged with Zambia, and in 1973 it convinced Duke Ellington to visit Zambia as part of an African trip. The department “last week concluded [a] contract to pick up Duke Ellington and orchestra” after a fall tour to Europe, for a brief visit to East Africa, says a July 4, 1973, State Department cable, released by WikiLeaks in 2014. The American ambassador to Zambia, Jean Wilkowski, who was the first woman ambassador the U.S. had sent to Africa, was instrumental in organizing the event. The U.S. administration possibly found the milder Ellington a preferable candidate to the “wild Brown” for its soft diplomacy mission in Zambia, says DeRoche. And the plan to woo back Zambia and Kaunda worked.
The Ellington visit “was a very successful event in the view of Wilkowski,” says DeRoche, “and was also enjoyed very much by Kaunda.” Two years later, Coretta King and Congressman Young inaugurated the American Cultural Center in Lusaka. That same year President Gerald Ford hosted Kaunda at the White House, bookending a chapter that began with the perceived snub of 1970.
But Brown’s influence on U.S.–Zambia relations was far from over. In 2014, the U.S. embassy in Lusaka posted images from that historic 1970 visit on its Facebook page, acknowledging its significance. Tembo didn’t need a Facebook reminder, though. Stacked under the Zambian-American professor’s desk are dozens of the LPs and CDs of Brown’s music that he has collected over the past 48 years. That relationship isn’t about to end.
By Charu Sudan Kasturi