The initial idea for the song came from David Paich. Jeff Porcaro explains the idea behind the song: "... a white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he's never been there, he can only tell what he's seen on TV or remembers in the past."
David Paich said: "At the beginning of the '80s I watched a late night documentary on TV about all the terrible death and suffering of the people in Africa. It both moved and appalled me and the pictures just wouldn't leave my head. I tried to imagine how I'd feel about if I was there and what I'd do."
Musically the song took quite some time to assemble, as Paich and Porcaro explain:
"On 'Africa' you hear a combination of marimba with GS 1. The kalimba is all done with the GS 1; it's six tracks of GS 1 playing different rhythms. I wrote the song on CS-80, so that plays the main part of the entire tune."
The music video was directed by Steve Barron. In the video, a researcher in a library (portrayed by band member David Paich) tries to match a scrap of a picture to the book from which it was torn out. As he continues his search, a black female librarian working at a desk takes occasional notice of him, while a native in the surrounding jungle begins to close in on the library. When the researcher finds a book entitled Africa, the native throws a spear, toppling stacks of books. Africa falls open to the page from which the scrap was torn, but a lantern lands on it and sets it on fire, after which the librarian's eyeglasses are shown falling to the floor. The scenes are intercut with shots of a spinning globe and the band performing atop a stack of hardcover books.
Lebanese/Canadian Pop/R&B singer Karl Wolf sampled "Africa" in his own remake also called "Africa", with added lyrics and musical composition and arrangement. The Karl Wolf song also featured a rap section by the Canadian-Bahamian rapper Culture. The track served as the first single from his 2007 sophomore studio album, Bite the Bullet and reached number 2 on the Billboard Canadian Hot 100.
The song was featured in Season 2 of the TV show Chuck in the episode titled, "Chuck Versus the Best Friend."