Today, we celebrate Andy Razaf the prolific poet, philosopher, composer and lyricist of more than five hundred songs. Some of his masterpieces were amongst the greatest hits from the Tin Pan Alley, a collection of music publishers and songwriters from New York city who dominated the American popular music in the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Inducted in 1972 into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, we are proud to celebrate Razaf as one of the first arts and cultural “ambassadors” between Madagascar and the US.
Andy Razaf was born Andriamanantena Paul Razafinkarefo in Washington, DC on December 16, 1895. Conceived in Madagascar, his father was a Malagasy prince, Henri Razafinkarefo, nephew of Queen Ranavalona III (1883-1897) of Madagascar. His mother was Jenny Waller, the daughter of the first African-American consul to Madagascar, John L. Waller, a political activist and former Missouri slave who became American consul to Madagascar in the early 1890s.
His father died during the invasion of the island by the French which led to colonization of the island, forcing his young pregnant mother to flee the country and move back to the United States.
Razaf was raised in Harlem, NYC and after quitting school at the age of 16, amongst other odd jobs, he began his early working life as an elevator operator in a downtown building on the famous Tin Pan Alley, a music publishing hub producing most of America’s greatest composers and music producers at the turn of the 20th Century. After working here, it led him to pitch and sell his first song at the age of 18 in 1913. Later he would go on to publish protest poems in 1917 in the Voice, the first newspaper of the “New Negro Movement”, a new time and age where the arts would flourish in Harlem, leading to the Harlem Renaissance.
In the 1920s, Razaf was able to collaborate with many notable Black jazz musicians and composers of the era such as Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson, Paul Denniker, JC Johnson, Joe Garland, and Thomas “Fats” Waller (no relation to his grandfather).
Having caught Fats Waller’s attention in 1921, Razaf wrote some of his most famous of this era such as Ain't Misbehavin and Honeysuckle Rose.
The Razaf catalog holds some of the greatest hits from the Tin Pan Alley era, including “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, “Honeysuckle Rose”, “In the Mood”, “Stompin’ at the Savoy”, “Memories of You”, “12th Street Rag”, “Black and Blue”, “S’posin’”, “Make Believe Ballroom”, “Christopher Columbus”, “Milkman’s Matinee”, Concentratin’ On You”, “You’re Lucky to Me”, “Porter’s Love Song”, “Knock Me a Kiss”, “Dusky Stevedore”, “My Special Friend”, “That’s What I Like “Bout the South”, “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now”, “Blue Turning Gray Over You”, “Shoutin’ in the Amen Corner”, “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You?”, “On Revival Day”, “Stealing Apples”, “How Can You Face Me?”, “Massachusetts”, “My Handy Man”, “My Fate is in Your Hands”, “The Joint is Jumpin’”, “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town”, “If It Ain’t Love”, “The Burning Bush of Israel”, “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”, “Seeds of Brotherhood” and “Precious Rosary.”
Razaf was keenly aware of the racial conflicts of the 20s and 30s. Proud of his Afro-American heritage, Razaf composed for a mobster-backed musical revue penning the song "Black and Blue" which is regarded as one of the first (if not first) American racial protest song. Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald count amongst the many Black artists of the era Razaf encouraged to perform his songs.
Towards the end of his life, Razaf retrieved into obscurity spending his later years as a newspaper columnist from the 50s up until his death in 1973.
We love the fact that Razaf used his talents and music prowess for representation of Madagascar, where his legacy has helped shape and evolve the American music culture, but also for the fact that he leveraged his popularity at the height of the Tin Pan Alley era to advance and protest the rights for Black-Americans.
Fun fact: Did you know that Razaf had an FBI file! You know you've made it when the FBI got their eyez on ya!