While we mourned, we danced: On #EndSARS, Afrobeats & Grief
Many times what we need is something to carry us somewhere where all the death and loss recedes even for a little while
Many times what we need is something to carry us somewhere where all the death and loss recedes even for a little while
“The country is burning, both in dream and wakefulness” – Moyosore Orimoloye
In the middle of 2004, at the peak of his troubled, growling reign at the top of Nigeria pop, Eedris Abdulkareem released “Jaga Jaga”. Eedris made his name from being the sort of rapper who blurred the line between his mimicky raps and the biting social critiques that littered his works, but even by measure of all that had come before, “Jaga Jaga” was visceral. Opening the video for the single was a message, or maybe a warning, that what was about to be witnessed was the reality—and perhaps, if we paid attention, the future—of Nigeria’s trajectory. What he goes on to describe is a delineation of chaos, wanton destruction, and death that had people dancing from the creeks of the Niger Delta to the slums on the fringe of Lagos.
It is tempting to ascribe prescience to the musician’s work because in our nostalgia-tinged minds many people can conjure a Nigeria that appeared to worked in their childhoods and adolescence; so jarring was the vividness of “Jaga Jaga” that it seemed like a collage of scenes out of a post-apocalyptic re-imagination of Nigeria that seemed at odd with the realities of the country in that immediate moment. But even while the country appeared to work in walled-up silos, many felt the effect of a country more concerned with the optics of performance than it was with getting to work. What this means more than anything is that as some people’s lives crumbled, other people summoned their best impression of normalcy to keep at it like the country wasn’t on fire: carrying on with zest that comes from decades of practice, singing Eedris’ “Jaga Jaga” as some fantastical accompaniment to their disbelief, and hoping and praying that misfortune did not arrive at their doors while jamming to this polyrhythmic fusion of sounds and sonic markers that started to be called Afrobeats at the turn of the last decade.
When I say Nigeria was burning, I do not give into hyperbole. In October 2005, a plane fell out of the sky and plunged families into grief. In 2010, an armed militia launched an attack against a city in Northern Nigeria, marking the transmogrification of a beast into a soulless leviathan. Conversely, Wizkid was taking the first steps into the path of greatness that would lead him to an undisputed position of cultural infallibility. Davido would follow a year later as would Burna Boy. Two years later, a whole cultural movement was on the map powered by euphoric anthems about lust, partying, and its potent intersection. While this was unfolding, the country slipped onward and onward to an abyss, but we seemed committed to the idea that music was an escape and that, perhaps, if we lost ourselves in the pulse of our catchy music, it would be easier to work through the pain. And for a while, that tactic worked: pain as pleasure, pleasure as pain.
By the time #EndSARS came around in 2020, all our worries had been documented in songs that urged the elected class not to plunge the country into water or mused about the probability of 2010 as the promised year, or the increasing climate for violence in numerous parts of the country, and the violence that the state perpetuates against its citizenry. I guess what I am saying is that the protests were inevitable because no matter how hard you try to turn your away from disaster, no matter how hard you try to build your walls against it in a country that luxuriates in that brand of jeopardy, it still arrives at your doors, leaving you with sadness in your mouth and ruminations about what the future can look like.
For me, every #EndSARS protest ground I visited last year always represented an oasis of possibility in a disappearing climate for hope. There were flags, chatter, chanting camaraderie, and, as an act of propulsion, refreshments; and the request was simple: we would like to die no more. I also think the protests became about community and our belief that if we held each other’s hands securely, nothing would hurt us; that briefly, in these small circles, we became impervious to Nigeria’s less pleasant machinations. Under withering humidity, the people stretched their voices far beyond the natural limits of tired, weary minds and demanded that a police unit be scrapped and, not too far from their lips, was the wish that Nigeria would get out a rot. And when the rain came, we huddled beneath leaking stalls and whatever had a roof over its head, biding our time, and perfecting the quick bonds made at protest grounds with people we would probably not see again the next day.
At the protest grounds too, there was the miracle of sound. From my position on the fringes of the crowd, I watched in wonder as inauspicious murmurs on one end of the ground gradually passed through the crowd and warmed their lips till it became an unstoppable cascade of righteous fury. I also watched Afrobeats provide the melodies that lined the mouth of confused and angry protestors. Times without numbers, someone from somewhere in the crowd would break into cries of “Nigeria jaga jaga” and I must assume that it is easy to assume what follows. One time, at the Lagos state secretariat, the Lagos state governor tried to calm irate protesters and they turned on him, witheringly shouting back the words of “FEM”, Davido’s monster hit, to him. It was often music that provided a brief escape between the emotional strain of protesting, even as we protested the loss of our comrades, even when we were confronted with a rain of bullets as we protested the loss of our comrades. Even when we committed more of our lost comrades to earth, Afrobeats—or whatever you call Nigerian music—has been there as a protest chant, an elegy, and a firecracker.
Momentum carries, and two weeks into the protests, many young people I know who were plugged into the pulse of the Internet are carefully straddling the boundaries of optimism and pessimism. But we never stopped talking and raising our voices at protest grounds. Shouting and singing and disrupting and organising, we did it all and music was a weapon. Music, amongst many other things, was the weapon of the people in October. Not necessarily because it contained the words that spoke truth to power or because it enunciated our demands in the clearest terms possible, but because to shout of the words of a Nigerian pop song at a protest ground when the margins of one’s life is crumbling is an act of radicality that almost borders on political defiance in a country trying to neuter you.
On the night of October 20th, 2020, the Nigerian military shot at protesters at the toll gate and more than 100,000 people watched it live on Instagram. As they held hands and sang a medley of folk songs and pop music, we saw the Lekki Toll Plaza turn to a killing field that held the broken dreams of countless people. First came the quiet, the rage, and then the questioning of memory as we retreated to our houses and looked over what we lost and stood to gain. We grieved in private and via 140-character tweets that compressed our feelings into vignettes of anger and resignation. Then the president spoke and said nothing about the shootings and the humour poured out as we searched for tools to memorialize what happened. On a freestyle that later became a single, Burna Boy threads the political with the personal over the death of protesters that night, providing a tragic archiving of an event that shook many to their core. Days later, when DJs spin the track at places where bodies congregate, it elicits a little bobbing of the head first and then a sigh later.
When people talk about grief, not many speak about its ability to obscure time and its effects. It felt like a lifetime but nine days after soldiers shot citizens at the Lekki toll plaza, Wizkid dropped Made In Lagos. The culmination of a sonic journey that started with Sounds From The Other Side, Wizkid called on a phalanx of local and international talents to record an inspired body of work that attempted the nationwide equivalent of a TL cleanse. I cannot speak for everyone but among the people that I know, the tears were still falling but they felt something different to hurt and confusion when the warmth of Made In Lagos embraced them. Afrobeats is a genre that has allowed—required, even—its artists to abandon all constraints that are humanly plausible (grammatical, conceptual, and lyrically) and revel in the imagination of a good time, to stretch the elasticity of that creation till it merges with your immediate reality, even when the country is on fire, and especially when the whole nation is on the edge. I say this not to convince you that Made In Lagos profoundly rescued everyone that heard it from the gloom of an abominable disaster; more that, for many, it sat sad by side with their sadness till they gathered enough strength to attempt to work through its scars and the loss of youthful innocence.
No one who listens to Davido can call him a conscious musician by any stretch of the word. But even the most politically apathetic can become a tool for representation during taut times like this. It is incredulity, I think, that Davido felt the most at “FEM” becoming an anthem at the #EndSARS protests. There is no process to a pop diss song becoming the anthem of the people, but the song of the protests belongs to the protesters. Two weeks after Wizkid released Made In Lagos, Davido dropped A Better Time, his second maximal album in a twelve month span. It was not an album that met the moment, but it was of the moment, transforming pain and whatever tensions that lay at the core of Davido into boisterous pop anthems.
On A Better Time, “I Got A Friend” seems like a celebration of friendship and fraternity but if you listen closer what it really is a litany of obituaries reimagined as a beautiful mess of synths and thumbing basslines. And many times that was what it meant to live in the immediate aftermath of 20/10/20: to transform all that pain into fuel for whatever daily exercise that we define our identities against. For weeks after that date, I never went to bed without tears lining up my eyes and I can say the same for the people I call my own. Yet, I think that in those time of uncertainties, it was a welcome feeling to have two albums, wildly different in approach, that beckoned Nigerians to a light at the end of the tunnel; peddling a form of group therapy, even one that, at its most elemental, comes down to imagining all the things we can do to one another under the neon of a disco club.
It is the night of April 26th, and I am crying as I walk back to my home again. It could be the exhaustion of watching myself struggle with my mental health again but I think that, in that moment, I am sad because the people that are my friends are sad again and my friends are sad because they have lost someone who is their friend and, while dealing with that sadness, they have had to commit their friend to the earth before the sun set that day without the long drawn out goodbyes that grief demands. There is a hierarchy to mourning more often than not, but that night I wished all of the world would stop revolving and acknowledge the tragedy in my network, that my friends would cry without awkwardness because this country is devastation after devastation and I wonder what thing can help get my friends out of their despair.
What Lagos-based singer, YKB, sings about more than anything is rooted in joy or, perhaps more accurately, a long-winded elation that never stays dampened for too long. The sort of joy that can see friends through their toughest times and inspire a laugh and acknowledgement that we still have to go on. A few weeks after the night of April 26th, on Snapchat, I see my friends dancing to YKB’s latest freestyle in an open air party in Lagos and I am happy to see them breathe in the cool evening air that fills their lungs and live a little in spite of Nigeria, in spite of death, and, more importantly, because we have such little time left. I want all my niggas find a way to live with the grief that continues to locate us in this house of jeopardy. I want them to find the peace of mind that Rema sings about and if music is the tonic, so be it. The backdrop to grief doesn’t have to be grim, many times what we need is something to carry us to another place, not necessarily a better place, but somewhere where all the death and loss recedes even for a little while. A place where we are alive and fighting whatever demon needs to be fought, a place where my people are not broken.
@walenchi Is A Lagos-Based Writer Interested In The Intersection Of Popular Culture, Music, And Youth Lifestyle.