Black Excellence, through history, has been achieved through revolution

civil unrest spurs career-defining music

Peering into the role of music during, or in the aftermath, of civil uprisings worldwide, through the lens of the recent #EndSARS protests, Emmanuel Esomnofu argues that beyond serving the important function of documentation, such art portends a phenomenal, career-defining influence on any artist and often, a genre of music. 

On October 3rd, a young man was shot dead, and his car was driven away, in Ughelli, Delta state by members of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS. Two days after the Delta incident, reports surfaced of a musician, Daniel Chibuike aka Sleek shot in Rivers State after being chased by rogue police agents. The #EndSARS movement, as we know it today, was revived in the wake of these two events, which led thousands of Nigerians to protest nationwide. On one of the protest days, Fikky, a young rapper, found himself staged on top of a vehicle, spitting a rousing verse in Yoruba that fired up the crowd, returning home an internet sensation. After seeing Fikky’s performance on Twitter – where the video spread like wildfire – ace producer Adey communicated his intent to help and within days Fikky’s freestyle was made into a song.

Customary to most Nigerian gatherings, music was instrumental during the protests. Playlists spanned generations, evident in repeated spins of “Jaga Jaga” and the more recent records, like “Monsters You Made”. Davido’s “Fem” was especially a favourite, often sung at the top of their voices, protesters reworked a line from the song which became “I dey live my life, SARS dey turn am to shoot on sight”, and in addition, the now-popular phrase “why dem come dey para for me?” offered a more potent question than originally intended. Ajebo Hustlers on the infectious mob justice number “Barawo” sang: “This country na wa” and we agreed, filling the streets and demanding only the bare minimum from the government, which was to guarantee the safety of our lives, especially from them. 

It’s is the biggest injustice of all for society to kill its young; in good conscience, one cannot just scroll through the Twitter feed. “Nigeria jaga jaga/ everything scatter scatter/ poor man dey suffer suffer/ gboa gboa, gun shot inna the air,” Eedris Abdulkareem bluntly sang in his 2004 classic, referencing the insecurity, the damning poverty numbers and the hopeless despair felt by many Nigerians over the years. Pressing play on “Jaga Jaga”, you welcome Nigeria into the room as casually as a visitor; its infamous heat, you smell the putrid public toilets, its many decrepit houses, the overfilled rickety danfos. The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), in a report about poverty and inequality from September 2018 to October 2019, said that 40 percent of Nigerians lived below its poverty line of 137,430 naira ($381.75) a year. That number has surely risen considering the adverse economic effects of the coronavirus, egregiously worsened by politicians who unnecessarily hoarded palliatives meant for their struggling citizens. 

That streetlike quality to “Jaga Jaga” could have passed the record as a Ragga effort, specifically, the boisterous conscious form, popularised by Ajegunle acts like Danfo Drivers and Baba Fryo in the early 2000s. Ragga songs were meant to shock and educate, those two often go together. The production never failed to grab you, not unlike the situations being described on wax —it was under these conditions the street cultivated movement thrived. Danfo Drivers at some point even toured Europe. Also omnipresent in Nigeria at the time were evergreen cuts like African China’s “Mr. President” and Daddy Showkey’s “Fire”. A nation that has had its fair share of riots and death, the government continues to prove their cluelessness about anything that doesn’t include filling their already stuffed pockets with national funds. 


As the name suggests, Ragga took cultural precedence from a more developed scene, that of Reggae in Jamaica. Sharing a history of violence with the motherland, Caribbean art, music especially, has always been committed to the task of sociopolitical commentary, advising against rash actions and advocating for peace. In 1992, Nigerian artist Majek Fashek appeared on the American television show Late Night with David Letterman, performing the hit “So Long Too Long”. That memorable chant “Arise from your sleep, Africa!” was the artist’s alliance by the subject matter of his Reggae forebears, Bob Marley and Culture; years on, the haunting lyricism peculiar to records about gritty city life in Jamaican cities like Kingston and Spanish Town would be found in a record like “Jaga Jaga”

Odi, a small riverine city in Bayelsa was, in 1999, invaded by the Nigerian military in a most grotesque manner. Civilian deaths numbered in the hundreds and buildings were burned to the ground. Ten years later, in 2009, an artist from the region, Inetimi ‘Timaya’ Odom would record a piece of music that made for history notes on the gross violation of human rights that happened in Odi. “I say dem dun kill dem mama, eh eh,” Timaya sang with clear anger in his tone, the first ‘dem’ referring to the army which descended on the latter  – the people of Odi. Too often the erasure of black lives is considered statistics, numbers rather than lives. The burning desire to make sure the massacre of real humans wasn’t lied about in the history books, that those murdered by soldiers were neither forgotten or disregarded as mere data, charged Timaya to record what has become an epic protest song and arguably his best record. 

Innocent ‘2Face’ Idibia was another such artist to elevate his craft by deciding to sing what he saw, whether bomb or flower. Initially one of the three musicians who made the Nigerian pop group Plantashun Boyz, he was first to exit in 2004,  embarking on a solo career with Kennis Music, the most influential record label of the modern music era. On “Nfana Ibaga“, the opening track of his immersive debut Face 2 Face, 2Face rapped “My mission is to let you all see/ that there’s more to this life than just faking up reality”. As media veteran Osagie Alonge explained on his podcast, A Music in Time, 2Face knew well the Nigerian reality and with his favorite genres (R&B and Hip Hop) historically famous for their political and social relevance, he’d gleaned the framework necessary to convey his innermost thoughts, creating peerless records like “E Be Like Say” and “4 Instance“. Rightly considered among the great artists in Nigeria’s music history, 2Face laid down the blueprint for any pop artist: as important as happy bops are to the party, a threat to regular life discourages thought of a fun night out to begin with. In pop culture parlance, Na who dey alive dey catch cruise. 


There’s a Chinua Achebe quote I’m reminded of, “the trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a problem of leadership.” Among Nigerian artists, none embodies the angst of that quote like Fela Kuti. The trajectory of Fela’s life –and indeed his music– is a unique one, literally the stuff of legends. His mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, established the Abeokuta Women’s Union in the 1940s, a body which successfully agitated for women’s rights, demanded an end to unfair taxes on market women and got them better representation in local governing bodies, no mean feat considering this happened in the colonial period. Later in life, Fela would himself show some of that dare, ditching a familial interest in medicine and instead became a professional musician. According to his friend and biographer Carlos Moore, touring the US in 1969 with his band Koola Lobitos, Fela befriended Black Panther member Sandra Izsadore, who introduced him to pro-Black ideals and gifted Fela a book he considers the most influential in his life: Alex Haley’s autobiography of Malcolm X. It challenged his philosophy, leading him to adapt his music –until then an easy-going fusion of Highlife and Jazz– to the intolerable African experience he was born from. His lyrics became harsher and his music employed in full service to a conservative nation that didn’t share his pragmatism. 

“Unknown Soldier”, the Fela song, is identical to “Dem Mama”, the common enemy being the Nigerian military. Fela’s intense recording invokes a stage-like scene where his Lagos residence Kalakuta Republic is the setting and the visiting soldiers the antagonising cast. By the closing minutes, Fela speaks of soldiers throwing his 77-year-old mother from a window, so full of pain his voice threatens to break. With the dutifulness of a memoirist he notes the consequent inquiry led by Justice Dosunmu and Justice Agwu Anya, seizing his properties their primary intent –”government magic”, Fela calls it. Other records like “Sorrow, Tears and Blood” and “Coffin for Head of State” also project the harrowing vision of what it means to be Nigerian. In Fela, we find the necessary language to engage the ruling class. If the several incriminating lies, the incessant inquiry boards and the great discovery of Fashola Holmes has proven anything, it’s that “soro soke” and “Buhari has been a bad boy” are revolutionary embraces, comparable to Kuti’s utterances, more than popping phrases on the internet. 

Although infrequently, the Nigerian music industry has kept a ready playlist of timeless protest songs. “Ole (Bush meat)” from Sound Sultan comes to mind. “I’m not a chicken, I’m a rooster” was an epic line and M.I’s call to dare on “Crowd Mentality” so catchy you felt excited following the example of his raised fist. “Oga Police”, P Square’s classic is still as relevant today as it was fifteen years ago when it was released. Burna Boy throughout his career has embodied conscious pan-African struggles–from “Yawa Dey” to “Monsters You Made”– and has proven dedicated in honoring Fela’s credo. Of course, Fela’s own sons, Femi and Seun Kuti, too have produced classic albums such as the Grammy-nominated ‘No Place For My Dream (2013) and ‘Black Times (2018) to go with their activism. Veteran rap group Show Dem Camp as well: their famed ‘Clone Wars’ series includes the 2019 album ‘These Buhari Times’, a cult classic that engaged previously unexplored nuances of personhood and society and how that influences one’s outlook on life.  


The story of the great American musician Marvin Gaye shapes the perspective for artists creating in the midst of some trouble. A series of unfortunate personal events, most painful being the loss of his partner Tammi Terell, led Gaye into seclusion and the artist stopped recording. Gaye thought deeply of the music he made during this time and in his brother Frankie’s return from war in Vietnam, he knew where to go. They spent time trading stories, and Gaye, writing from Frankie’s perspective of a returning American soldier, produced “What’s Going On” in an attempt to diffuse the tensions of America, especially racially. That led to him unlocking a mastery of his famed vocals. NPR wrote that “[Marvin Gaye] might have set out to deliver one of those call-to-action sermons he’d heard growing up, but he veiled it in the sweet butterfly anguish of his voice and all kinds of musical seductions.” To biographer David Ritz, the artist said he felt like he’d finally learned to sing. “I’d been studying the microphone for a dozen years, and I suddenly saw what I’d been doing wrong. I’d been singing too loud.”

The novelty of Gaye’s ‘coming-of-age’ tempts one to relegate the backstory of that record but that’s what we won’t do. Marvin Gaye’s boss at Motown Records, Berry Gordy Jr., didn’t see the commercial sense in Gaye’s brash deviance from the label’s niche of love numbers and, for a long time, delayed its release. The artist stuck it out and decided he wouldn’t record for Motown if he wasn’t allowed a song cut from his deepest artistic impulses. On January 21, 1971, almost a year after he submitted the record, it was released by the label (without the knowledge of Gordy Jr.) and soon after became a smash hit, reaching number two at the pop charts and earned Gaye much-desired creative freedom. 

On May 30th this year, rapper Elveektor released Nsibidi 2, a tape of seven songs that dabbled in Igbo-centric ideals such as brotherhood, capitalist ambitions and most importantly, the recognition of one’s history. The Igbo Landing of 1803, where a number of Igbo people being transported as slaves drowned themselves in Dunbar Creek, Georgia, inspired the first song off the Nsibidi 2 tape. Track five is titled after the Asaba Massacre of 1967, a heartbreaking pogrom perpetrated against an entire city during the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War. A roll of gunshots and screaming opens the record. This protest song will raise hairs of discomfort even as it honors the slain victims of that malicious event. “During the [Nigeria-Biafra] war, if you listen to [Highlife veteran] Osadebe’s songs and the Oriental Brothers, those were songs about how the military came and killed us. There’d been some protest songs before but those weren’t formally recorded in a studio. Those were more like war songs,” said Elveektor over the phone, speaking on the culture of protest music as he observed in Enugu, where he spent most of his life. “The first actual protest song I heard was in 2012, during the Fuel Subsidy. [Contemporary Nigerian Afro Highlife artist] Flavour remade an Osadebe song. The original record was more like a consolation tune after the war but Flavour turned the record to a protest song. It was quite popular when he released it.” 

It took the #EndSARS protests for a large section of Nigerians to recognize the relevance of detailing our national struggles on wax. They found the typical hedonist themes insufficient. Burna Boy, days after the Lekki massacre, released “20.10. 2020”. Here the strength of Burna’s technique is on full display as his baritone ponders the Nigerian experience, the corruption and injustice, the madness of it all. The most poignant lyric of the song assures the complicit persons behind the massacre that the ghosts of the slain will haunt their dreams. 

As time progresses, we see that artists can be competent voices for change. It’s an economically tough decision but a greater reward means that, like Fela, 2Baba or Gaye, they emerge refined as never before and confident of purpose. That, I think, is a very important reason to surrender one’s art to a cause greater than oneself. You see, the excellence among black communities has never been independent of its many struggles, and the trajectories of these great black artists epitomises that.

Featured Image Credits: BBC

Emmanuel Esomnofu is a Lagos-based culture journalist. Someday he’ll pen The Great Ajegunle Novel but for now, find him winging life as a 21st Century philosopher. Tweet him your favourite Burna Boy deep cuts @E.Esomnofu