Arts, Culture & Media

Mikhail Kalashnikov and his AK-47 take a bow

Kalashnikov_with rifle.jpg

Mikhail Kalashnikov, the designer of the AK-47 assault rifle, an acronym for "Avtomat Kalashnikov model 1947," indicating its first year of production.


REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Of all the wars being fought right now, how much different so many of them would be were it not for the man who died this past Monday, Mikhail Kalashnikov. Of course, he is best known for his innovation of the world’s most popular weapon, the AK-47, a relatively short-bodied assault rifle capable of letting off 650 bursts per minute.

He was 94. No cause of death has been given, but it’s safe to say he died of old age. What an irony for a man who invented a lethal tool intended to cut lives short. It's a tool that is estimated to be in possession by one in every 70 people — men, women and children — on Earth.

That was my first thought upon hearing the news.

Then, I considered the two best pop-culture references I know about the AK.

"Kalachnikov Love," a song by Ivorian reggae star Alpha Blondy that came out in 1986. It was being played everywhere across West Africa — taxis, bars, the stands of cassette sellers. After the death of Kalashnikov was announced on Monday, one former CIA officer commented that the AK-47 was the “easiest assault rifle to fall in love with.” 

That affection is not what Alpha Blondy was singing about. He wrote his tune as a protest against the military violence that was devouring neighboring Liberia, and would soon do the same in Sierra Leone and then his native Ivory Coast a few years after that. It's the gun that was the ambassador for such conflicts.

Carl Krendel is an academic who wrote a paper with the heady title “Alpha Blondy’s Musical Nullification of Race, Class and Cultural Boundaries.” Krendel wrote that “'Kalashnikov Love,' performed with the Wailers [yes, Bob Marley’s band - eds.] and to the base riff of Marley’s 'Stir It Up,' is a sarcastic criticism of violence and the commercialization of the AK-47 in Africa." (You can hear the song below).

Here are Alpha Blondy’s franglais lyrics, and my translation of the song:

Pour un oui, pour un non
Tu cours chercher ta Kalashnikov
Quand tu sèmes ta haine
Tu récoltes la Kalashnikov Love

Pour un oui, pour un non
Alerte aux Pershing One
Because les homo sapiens
Veulent tous être number one, number one yeh!
Dans le quartier, t'es mal fringué
Mal fringué, t'es mal fringué
In a Kalashnikov style
Tu cries peace, tu cries love
En brandissant ta Kalashnikov yeh !
Dans les journaux, t'es pas beau, t'es pas du tout beau
Interpol veut ta peau ouyé

La Kalashnikov Love
Ça peut te destroy
La Kalashnikov Love
Ça peut te destroy
Ça peut te destroy...

« Celui qui règne par les armes
périra par les armes
en vérité, en vérité »
Dans les journaux t'es pas beau
T'es wanted, t'es wanted
Interpol veut ta peau ouyeah !
La Kalashnikov love
Ça peut te destroy


For a yes, for a no
You run after your Kalashnikov
When you sow hate
You harvest Kalashnikov love

For a yes, for a no
Be alert to the Pershing One
Because homo sapiens
All want to be number one, number one yeah!
In the hood, your style don't cut it
Don't cut it, you don't cut it
In a Kalashnikov style
You cry out for peace, you cry out for love
As you brandish your Kalashnikov, yeah!
In the papers, you're not pretty, not at all pretty
Interpol wants your skin, oh yeah!

Kalashnikov Love
It can destroy you
Kalashnikov Love
It can destroy you

It can destroy you...

He who rules by the gun, dies by the gun
It’s the truth, it’s the truth
In the papers, you're not pretty, not at all pretty
Interpol wants your skin, oh yeah!
Kalashnikov Love
It can destroy you

Alpha Blondy rejects the gun. Contrast that with the Kalashnikov love in Hollywood, whose prop departments gobbled up the assault rifle. Quentin Tarantino is one director whose bloody antics may serve as a post-modern critique of violence, but the Kalashnikov still gets top billing. One of the best lines Tarantino ever gave to Samuel L. Jackson — and he delivers them with such gusto as the character Ordell Robbie in "Jackie Brown" — is this firearms sales pitch to Louis (Robert deNiro).

Editor's note: The video of "Jackie Brown" contains language not appropriate for some audiences.

“Accept no substitutes!” There are currently about 100 million AKs worldwide. It seems, sadly, a lot of people heeded Ordell’s advice.