Rap Song of the Week: Shakez seethes with righteous anger on “Blood on the Flag”

A direct reference to the Lekki massacre, backed by a sample of one of the greatest civil rights era protest songs

In 1965, Nina Simone recorded a cover of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”, one of the greatest protests songs against racism. Accompanied by sombre piano chords, Nina Simone’s rendition is painfully bare, imbuing the poetic and powerful lyrics on racially motivated lynching with a layer of mournful passion. Nearly five decades later, Kanye West sampled the classic song on “Blood on the Leaves”, a standout off his 2013 album, ‘Yeezus’, where he ranted about the complications that can be effected by the colliding effect of fame and shaky relationships.

Kanye’s song was rightly lauded upon release, but it glaringly deviated from the subject matter of its sample material—which isn’t wrong in itself. Nigerian rapper Shakez Baba has just released a cover of “Blood on the Leaves”, and he takes the context of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” into account, retooling it into an excellent, impassioned rap song that recollects perhaps the most gruesome case of state-sanctioned cruelty, during the nationwide demonstrations against police brutality in Nigeria.

“Blood on the Flag”, as it is titled, directly references one of the agonising images that flooded social media timelines, when soldiers of the Nigerian military viciously attacked peaceful protesters at the Lekki-Victoria Island tollgate on October 20, 2020. On the evening when soldiers shot at these unarmed civilians at point blank range, the picture of a man carrying a gunshot victim in a Nigerian flag heavily sullied by blood quickly became symbolic. Shakez’s song is a reminder of that moment and the unfortunate aftermath of events that unfollowed.

Although there aren’t any noticeable changes to the beat from Kanye’s song, it’s clear that Shakez taps into the aggrieved spirit of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit”, as he seethes with a righteous anger that’s evident in his incensed cadence and candid raps. In the opening bars, he rips at perennial and grossly inept Nigerian government system, held in place by cruel, corrupt and incapable leaders, and has fostered an unconducive society for the larger portion of the Nigerian youth populace. He accuses these “leaders” of being so vested in personal profits and self-preservation, that they’re so insensitive, and even disgusted, by young people simply demanding their right to live without fear of being harassed, physically abused and possibly killed by those actually meant to “serve and protect” them.

“Turn police to criminals and hired guns/and then they take they guns and go and point at us/ vicious cycle until we come undone”, he raps with a fair share of annoyance in his voice. But it’s the very next sequence of lines that cuts the deepest: “We protest because police harass us/they send soldiers to use us for target practice/four hours heads up for evasive tactics”. Shakez recounts the events of the Lekki massacre, immortalising the gruesome event we all witnessed and letting it be known that the truth will not be buried by the powers that be.

Shakez is not the only artist speaking this particular truth to indelible power. Late last night, Burna Boy dropped “20 10 20”, phenomenally conjuring and conveying the emotions being felt by millions of concerned individuals. Shakez’s voice isn’t as singularly powerful as Burna’s, but it doesn’t need to be, due to the emotional gravitas already loaded into the sample choice behind his cover’s beat. “Blood on the Flag” is a great example of how sampling helps in putting the past in conversation with the present, Shakez is able to transpose the pain Nina Simone put on wax 55years ago, and put within the context of a current struggle.

In his essay, “Cosmic Anger: #EndSARS & the Making of a Movement”, writer Joshua Segun-Lean explains that the scope of our ongoing fight against police brutality means that “we are inheritors of Haiti’s revolution, whether we choose to be or not, and we are dependent on the movement for Black Lives in America as we are on the movement against Gender-Based Violence in Namibia.” Tackling a situation that’s this endemic situates us within the larger fight to permanently end Black suffering all over the world, and it’s the reason a song that was recorded during the civil rights fight in America can serve as the perfect backbone for raps about police brutality in Nigeria.

With the high-handed reactions from the government, there’s clearly still a lot of work to be done before a rogue unit of the police force is disbanded, and by extension, sweeping positive change in Nigeria’s government system. As Shakez bellows at the end of “Blood on the Flag”, we need to “Stay mad, stay woke, 2023 come out and vote”.

Listen to “Blood on the Flag” here.

Featured Image Credits: YouTube/Shakez Baba

Dennis is a staff writer at the NATIVE. Let me know your favourite the Cavemen songs @dennisadepeter