Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Alamy)


When James Brown joined Muhammad Ali to perform live in Zaire

Over history, the realms of music and sport have converged on countless occasions. However, from September 22nd through 24th 1974, something remarkable would happen. Ordinarily, with our conditioned, western-centric perspective, we might imagine this mystery convergence to take place in one of many major conurbations of the “Westernised” world.

No. This convergence of sport and music would also feature a key theme and idea. It was a celebration of the reunion of Africa with its diaspora and, what became known as Zaire74, carried on in a sequence of events that had also welcomed reunification of Africa with its people. This started with the Fesman Festival (World Festival of Black Arts) in Senegal and Soul To Soul in 1971 in Ghana.

What also set Zaire74 apart from its idealistic predecessors was the massive sporting event that the music festival surrounded. What has been hailed as “arguably the greatest sporting event of the 20th century”, was officially advertised as The Rumble in The Jungle. Sound familiar, boxing fans?

The Rumble in The Jungle is one of the most iconic boxing matches of all time. It featured two of history’s greatest Black sporting icons. The fight pitted the then-undefeated heavyweight champion, George Foreman, against Muhammad Ali, the former champ. Ali won by knockout, and it became famous for Ali introducing his rope-a-dope tactic.

Not all went to plan though. The hotly anticipated fight was planned for September 25th, however, it was postponed until October 30th as Foreman got injured. Subsequently, much mulling took place between organisers Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine. Should they go through with the festival? After all, the festival’s intended audience of international tourists had been all but eliminated.

However, the decision was made to push forward with the plans. It was held at the 20th of May Stadium (now the Stade Tata Raphaël), in Kinshasa, Zaire. 80,000 people attended the concert in the capital city of what is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

It worth noting that, at the time, Zaire was run by infamous dictator Joseph Mobutu, who coughed up $10 million dollars to fund the fights purse. Widely regarded as being ruinous to the country, Mobutu’s long reign has been regarded as a “Kleptocracy”, becoming notorious for corruption, nepotism and embezzlement.

Mobutu had funded the bout in an attempt to gain international recognition and legitimacy. Supposedly, Muhammad Ali commented: “Some countries go to war to get their names out there, and wars cost a lot more than ten million.” On 22 September 1974, Mobutu presented the rebuilt 20th of May Stadium. It had been a multi-million-dollar project constructed primarily to host the fight, and to a lesser extent, for the Zaire Ministry of Youth and Sport, and the people of Zaire.

As part of the festival’s build-up, legendary boxing promoter Don King helped promote the event. Over the course of the event, 31 groups performed, seventeen from Zaire and fourteen from overseas.

The line-up included a whole host of greats. The African performers included the likes of: Tabu Ley Rochereau, Miriam Makeba, TPOK Jazz, Fania All-Stars and the Stukas. The overseas guests included African American legends such as: B.B. King, Bill Withers, The Spinners and none other than Mr. Dynamite himself, James Brown.

A documentary about the concert entitled Soul Power was released in 2008. It perfectly captures the essence of solidarity espoused by it. Organiser Stewart Levine explained: “The festival was going to be a device for expanding consciousness.” The legendary American producer added: “It was an attempt on our part to get people interested in Africa and the connection between Africa and America.” Dictator Mobutu got in on this as well, and for the festival’s final night he pressured the organisers to open its doors to those without tickets.

In the film, Muhammad Ali welcomes a young girl native to the country to his table, and a bystander comments “she can talk French and you can talk English.” After hugging the child, the legendary boxer triumphantly exclaims: “She was ruled by the French and I was ruled by the English. So we both done lost our language. But one day we’re going to talk to each other in our own language.”

This statement is so powerful when we note Ali’s racial activism. He was a very high-profile figure and was consequently a source of much pride for African Americans. He had been affiliated with the Nation of Islam, before denouncing them and had been mentored by Malcolm X. He had also conscientiously objected to the conscription and the Vietnam war.

Adding to the acute self-awareness of the event. Headliner James Brown was a black rights activist as well. His songs featured social commentary, and he had scored an iconic hit in 1968 with ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud’. This would become a civil rights anthem and would inspire generations of black activists and musicians, including the likes of Public Enemy.

In 1974, Brown was deep within his “super heavy funk” period and his performance was a captivating, visceral experience. It is clear the atmosphere of the festival was electric, feeding into the performances. Brown and his band are sweaty, energetic and on-point. The Godfather of Soul covers every inch of the stage, featuring his iconic dancing featuring the splits.

It was so fitting that Brown concluded his performance with ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud’. His anthem of Black affirmation and reclamation perfectly sums up the essence of the festival, which would go down in history as an iconic moment in pan-africanist celebration.

Unfortunately, though, Joseph Mobutu’s decades-long rule of Zaire would lead to its economic destruction, culminating in his overthrow in 1997. Consequently, this entered the country and its people into years of turmoil they are yet to recover from.

Watch footage from his triumphant Zaire74 set, below.