Their name evokes images of the Congo, but their origin is a bit more tame. The group Kongos is made-up of four brothers, Johnny, Jesse, Dylan and Daniel Kongo. Their father, John Kongos, has undoubtedly influenced the group through his own musical career, having much success in South Africa in the 1960s and 70s. Kongos slide easily into a category with Kings of Leon, The Killers, and The Black Keys; a band of brothers making melodic dance music with the refined instruments of Rock. I, like many others residing in the United States, discovered this band on the radio while I was jamming out in my car in sunny Southern California. The Kongos represent a Rock n’ Roll style that has been blossoming in the 21st century: accordions, poetic lyrics, and a chorus that unifies the counterculture. The Kongos’ sophomore album Lunatic is a refreshing reverb on modern day Rock.
The Kongos found themselves in a two-year lull following their album drop in South Africa. Lunatic (2012) saw widespread exposure across various stations in South Africa in 2012, including 5FM and Tuks FM, but their top hits like “Come With Me Now” and “I’m Only Joking” faced trouble breaking through to stereos in America. In October of 2013, the group self-released in the US with high hopes. Eighteen months after their initial album release, the group became skeptical of their product and seriously considered forging new content. Drummer Jesse said there was a long period of waiting for the album to catch on in the States, but when it did happen, the change was instantaneous. A Denver radio station picked up “Come With me Now” in January, 2014, and the band spun to the top of the US charts. Finally, gaining the recognition that they deserved across the globe last year, they have become “the fastest-rising debut top 10 on the charts since Lorde's "Royals" last July, and the fastest by a group since Flobots' "Handlebars" in 2008, according to Billboard.
You’re wondering now, “what makes this band of South African musicians so worth the listen?” A few things. They address their listener as “you” consistantly, directly, engaging their audience in their material. In turn, the listener connects his/her own personal history within the general themes of the lyrics. This appeals to listeners seeking personal connections with music, and fulfills Kongos' goal of forging autonomy within their listeners. The lyrics of Lunatic obsess over the regrets of the past, the creation of history, the attainment of knowledge, asking “Where have all the heroes gone?” The references in their music come from observations that the band has constructed based on what they see in life. The generalized presentation of these observations allows listeners to apply their own personal experiences to the music, such ￼as with the line, “Oh, we've tried/ At times we've lied/ But few have known/ And fewer have shown.” The art the Kongos make thrives on the autonomy of the individual who is listening because various interpretations can be taken away from the same piece of work.
Kongos cares about their fans, specifically about the individuality of each and every one of them. It’s evident that the band recognizes the effects of Capitalism on modern society. They mourn the divide between the rich and the poor and the narrowing gap between man and machine. Materialism, the consequence of Capitalism, has re- prioritized what we find important. Today, the self is no longer a mind to cultivate, but a body to dress up and accessorize, defined by its possessions. The band’s attempts to resonate with their listeners by addressing them in first person and using compelling lyrics.
Tim Kassar quotes German democratic intellectual Erich Fromm in his book The High Price of Materialism. Fromm said, “In the medieval system capital was the servant of man, but in the modern system it became his master.” The world has become transfixed with materialism and possession due to our capitalist society and the Information Age. Capitalization on the advancements of computers has created a perceived need in society - constant acquisition. Whether it’s the answer to the trivia question that’s plagued you all day, or those discounted concert tickets that came out this morning, the Internet has allowed us to obtain whatever we want, whenever we want it. Commodity now rules our lives, rather than the reverse that was true in the medieval system. So, why is this relevant to Kongos? Their album, Lunatic, is ridden with social commentary on contemporary society’s obsession with getting a fix, having the hot new thing, and the disconnect this forges between a person and their identity. Kassar writes, “[Materialistic values] diminish our personal freedom. Said differently, a strong focus on the pursuit of wealth, fame, and image undermines the satisfaction of needs for authenticity and autonomy”. Seen most prevalently in “I’m Only Joking”, “Kids These Days”, and “Hey, I Don’t Know”, the Kongos brothers are actively participating in this scholarly conversation. Their lyrics touch upon discussions of true love, an inner connection to the self, and growth in personal experiences. The High Price of Materialism claims this personal connection, or autonomy, and is compromised by “The Chains of Materialism” that cause us to focus on external motivating rewards, like money, instead of intrinsic motivation, like passion. External rewards “lead people to care more about the rewards than the activity, consequently to experience less interest and enjoyment”. A passion-project in themselves, it makes sense that Kongos is fighting for the Transcendental aim of re-connecting with the inner self. Their album has the honorable objective of reuniting the everyday individual with their passion, what makes them lose track of time and forget about themselves. Perpetuating this goal, it’s easy to lose yourself in the complex conversation going on in Lunatic.
“In the medieval system capital was the servant of man, but in the modern system it became his master.” - Erich Fromm