Footage of Muhammad Ali from the 2009 documentary "Soul Power” captures intimate moments when the legendary boxer expressed his pride in Africa while visiting Zaire in 1974.
Ali was in Kinshasa, the capital of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, weeks ahead of a heavyweight world championship fight with George Foreman -- an encounter famously nicknamed the "Rumble in the Jungle."
Foreman was injured and the fight delayed six weeks, but “Zaire '74,” a three-day music festival intended to accompany it, went on as planned -- and Ali attended. The festival brought African-American stars like James Brown, Bill Withers and the Spinners on the same stage with African sensations like Miriam Makeba.
In 2009, filmmaker Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte turned hours of previously unseen video of the concert and the days leading up to it into “Soul Power.”
Ali, with his trademark charisma and lyricism, had some of the most memorable moments in the film. He shares his appreciation of Africa while connecting his presence there to the broader struggle of black people the world over to achieve justice and freedom.
“This is our homeland, this is our civilization,” Ali declares in a passionate speech. “Africa’s the cradle of civilization. Original man’s from Africa. All civilizations started in Africa.”
“This fight is for the freedom, justice and equality of the black man in America so that I may take my take my title and my fame and go out there and uplift little black people in the ghettos,” he concludes. “Black people is catching hell. Black people who entertainers won’t speak for.”
At another point, Ali seems to appreciate the relatively quiet pace of life in Kinshasa. He mocks Americans who are supposedly afraid to attend the fight or the concert because they worry that Africa is too dangerous.
“No kidding, New York is more of a jungle than here,” he quips. He then recites a litany of criminal incidents and scenes of urban chaos. The description is comically over-the-top, but has a realistic ring.
“Always something in America,” he finishes. “They’re so peaceful over here. And really, the savages in America.”
I’ve never felt so free in my life.
Ali embraced the music festival as a celebration of shared heritage between black Americans forcibly removed from Africa generations prior and native Africans who remained on the continent. It was, as the promoter Don King put it, “a family gathering, a welcoming back home.”
We see Ali on the first day of the festival sitting at a table eating alongside King, Bill Withers and another friend. The camera zooms in on Ali adding spoonful after spoonful of sugar to his coffee.
“I’ve never felt so free in my life,” Ali says. “Free from America where I’m not really free.”
A young girl from the area goes up to introduce herself while Ali is sitting at the table. Ali just hugs the girl close and kisses her repeatedly as she smiles broadly. The girl does not say anything, presumably since she cannot speak English.
(The DRC was a Belgian colony until 1960; French remains one of the official languages.)
“She was ruled by the French and I was ruled by the English, so we both done lost our language,” he said. “But one day we are going to talk to each other in our own language.”