SOUNDTRACK TO A COUP D’ÉTAT
Johan Grimonprez / Belgium / 2023
We’re not angry man, we are enraged.
You can no longer defer my dream.
I’m gonna sing it, dance it, scream it and
if need be: I’ll steal it from this very earth!
On February 16, 1961, jazz musicians Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach crash a UN Security Council meeting to protest against the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime-minister of the Congo. Belgian embassies worldwide have to close their doors, as demonstrators are pelting eggs or simply setting the Missions ablaze.
Belgium had drawn Congo into an international intrigue that tore the country apart in less than a month after its independence. Lumumba, like Nkrumah in Ghana and Nasser in Egypt, claimed that the riches of the land should become the riches of its people. Western powers, coveting colonial riches, took fright at the Pan-African movement that Lumumba personified. Washington, exploiting the hiatus left by the crumbling colonial empires, cooked up a paranoid cold-war narrative to smother the African dream of sovereignty.
In September 1960 Congo had entered the UN world body together with 15 other newly independent African countries. As a result, the balance of the General Assembly majority vote tipped to the expanded Afro-Asian bloc. Taking advantage of the situation, Nikita Khrushchev, the shoe-banging leader of the Soviet bloc, invited all the heads of state to discuss demilitarisation and decolonisation at the forthcoming General Assembly in New York.
By October 1960, racist policies of the US and the global interest in the civil rights movement gave ground for Soviet accusations of hypocrisy. The Eisenhower administration, in an attempt to restore its image, turns to a most unconventional weapon: Jazz. Louis Armstrong is dispatched as a Jazz Ambassador to the Congo, as a diversion from the unfolding CIA-backed coup against Lumumba. But as more and more jazz ambassadors perform alongside covert CIA operations, the likes of Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Melba Liston face a painful dilemma: How to represent a country where racial segregation is still law of the land?