A Moment In Time: Louis Armstrong in Leopoldville

Last week, Deja Patterson wrote briefly about Louis Armstrong in Leopoldville. Therefore, I thought it was only fitting to share the article I wrote about Leopoldville and how he stopped a war. It’ll be featured in the fall issue of The Dippermouth.

With everything happening in contemporary culture surrounding civil discourse, we’re often confronted with notions of activism and what it may look like, but we’re also witnessing the power of protest. Like anything else in the world that takes on varying forms and facets, the work of activism is typically associated with street protests, but it also manifests in other mediums and formats.

Whether it be via written text, employed through sound, or a visual component, activism is generally ignited off the basis of a movement or moment. For Louis Armstrong, the king of jazz and a world-renowned musician, recording artist and entertainer, activism was about having something to say when others didn’t. Throughout his career, he actively opposed any and all racial injustices. From the racial makeup of his band down to refusing staying in hotels where colored folk couldn’t stay, he didn’t stand for nonsense about someone’s skin color. And when he took an active stance to comment about the integration crisis at Little Rock Central High School in September 1957, it was then that he knew nothing you do in this world can mitigate how everyone else sees you despite your celebrity status or racial upbringing.

Unlike his contemporaries, Armstrong’s reach as an artist was unrivaled, something made undeniably clear throughout the span of six decades. His career trajectory not only represented that of a world renown musician, but also a philanthropist, activist and ambassador for his country. And in one instance, oddly enough, a peacemaker for others.

Under the sponsorship of Pepsi-Cola International (PepsiCo), and later the State Department, Armstrong went on a twenty-seven city tour of Africa in October of 1960 to promote the opening of five new bottling plants in West Africa. This tour, unlike Armstrong’s many other overseas ventures, interfered with one country’s independence festivities (Nigeria) and another’s civil war uprising (Leopoldville).

In July 1960, just three months before Armstrong arrived, a political uprising began begun in the Republic of the Congo (known today as the Democratic Republic of the Congo), resulting in a series of wars that lasted for five years and claimed 100,000 lives.

Early in the conflict, Armstrong arrived in Leopoldville in late October of 1960. Upon his arrival, somewhat miraculously, the war ceased and the opposing sides called a day-long truce, large crowds welcoming Satchmo as he traveled across the city.

Reports estimated that Armstrong played for over 175,000 people in the Congo. Armstrong managed, with his horn, to call a brief intermission in a country that had been unstable before his arrival. Unlike his forceful comments regarding the Little Rock Nine, Armstrong didn’t set out to stop a war, nor did he take an active role in doing so. It was just his mere showing up, Armstrong the human being, who initially motivated the pause in the war for that day-long concert. In an later interview, Armstrong recalled, “Man, they even declared peace in The Congo fighting the day I showed up in Leopoldville.” And he was right. Just for that day, he blew his horn and played with his band the sweet sound of jazz for a large crowd. But no sooner after Louis departed, the war resumed.

His tour to Africa, but more specifically Leopoldville, underscores the impact and influence that a cultural phenomenon can have on the world, especially one of Armstrong’s stature. For him, the time spent there was unparalleled. As he once stated, “Listen, man, Cats are the same everywhere – all over the world.

They all dig me and my horn.” The thing about Armstrong that separated him from other artists was his ability to speak out against injustice, even if it meant putting his career on the line; when he did say something, he didn’t hold his tongue back for anyone. And at other times, such as in Leopoldville, he didn’t even have to say anything, it was his horn that did all the talking for him. Armstrong’s words and music still speak to all who listen to this day

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