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La vie en rose? How the CIA manipulated Louis Armstrong in the Congo

By Jaysim Hanspal
Posted on Thursday, 16 September 2021 18:00, updated on Tuesday, 21 September 2021 11:07

Louis Armstrong in Kinshasa (formerly Leopoldville), 1960 © Louis Armstrong House Museum

Famous American jazz musician Louis Armstrong toured Africa many times; visits that were often orchestrated by the US State Department to build relations between Washington and recently decolonised regions of Africa.

As the ‘Goodwill Jazz Ambassador’ for the US in newly-independent Congo in October 1960, Armstrong sat at a table with his wife, and an individual he believed to be a US diplomat in Léopodville.

This was the beginning of a very different African tour. According to The Guardian, the Jazz star was completely unaware that he was being used as a ‘Trojan horse’ by the CIA officer, to gain access to  intelligence.

Armstrong and his All Stars band thrilled crowds across the then Gold Coast (now Ghana). Journalist Robert Raymond, in his book Black Star in the Wind, described the scene “as the animated mass of players and swinging people moved across the tarmac, gathering strength and impetus all the time, the noise and the clamour rose to the skies…The shouts and applause merged into a steady uproot…Quickly, without pausing, Armstrong swung into a fast driving number.”

Armstrong was basically a Trojan horse for the CIA. It’s genuinely heartbreaking. He was brought in to serve an interest that was completely contrary to his own sense of what was right or wrong. He would have been horrified [if he knew].”

Other jazz stars such as Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie were also used to promote the image of the US abroad, particularly in countries like Congo.

Armstrong in Congo, post-Lumumba…

Armstrong arrived in Congo a mere month after the overthrow of former President Patrice Lumumba and the independence of Congo. A mutiny had broken out within the army, which led to Lumumba’s assassination, considered today to have been backed by the CIA. They also ran operations from the conception of Congolese independence, to “minimise communist influence in a strategically vital, resource-rich location in central Africa”, according to CIA historian David Robarge.

Lumumba had been suspected to be a communist due to his pro-soviet sensibilities and was thus targeted for assassination before he resumed his seat as head of state. It is believed that Armstrong’s ‘small talk’ may have contributed to this operation.

Armstrong was essentially manipulated by CIA operatives, as Susan Williams, a research fellow at the London University School of Advanced Study who specialises in CIA activity across Africa between 1950-60, told The Guardian.  “Armstrong was basically a Trojan horse for the CIA. It’s genuinely heartbreaking. He was brought in to serve an interest that was completely contrary to his own sense of what was right or wrong. He would have been horrified [if he knew]”.

‘I came from here, way back’

During one of his first tours of Africa, Armstrong famously said: “I came from here, way back. At least my people did. Now I know this is my country too.” His aim to unite the two countries was diplomatic, in the purest sense, despite the state’s vision for his presence there.

Jazz musician Louis Armstrong returned to his hometown of New Orleans for the first time in more than a decade, on 31 October 1965. (AP Photo)

It was during this time that Armstrong had regained his place as Goodwill Ambassador, after previous disagreements with the US government’s continued segregation laws. During the trip, alongside Dave and Iona Burbeck, he continued to criticise the American government for dragging its feet on the civil rights issues, highlighting the contradictory nature of the Goodwill Jazz Ambassadors’ mission. “Though I represent the government, the government [doesn’t] represent some of the policies I’m for,” Armstrong said.

This led to a jazz musical with the pair, The Real Ambassadors, based on the trio’s experiences as ambassadors in Africa during the era of the Civil Rights Movement. In Armstrong’s opening song They Say I Look Like God, he says: “They say I look like God. Could God be black? My God!”

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