The layers of Nigeria’s relationship with music and politics

"The masses dey para cos raba no dey"

Nigeria’s 2023 presidential election draws nearer. All the candidates involved—from the major contenders Bola Ahmed Tinubu of All Progressives Congress (APC), Peter Obi of Labour Party (LP) and Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the little-known challengers such as Mazi Okwudili Nwa-Anyajike of National Rescue Mission (NRM)—have gathered their supporters and aired out electoral promises.

The election, which is scheduled to hold on February 25, holds much significance, especially for young Nigerians, who are still reeling from the unfortunate series of events in October 2020, the backwardness exemplified by the current government when it banned Twitter in the country for seven months among other unreasonable socio-economic policies. For most Nigerians, next week’s election is a fresh opportunity to elect a leader who they believe will overturn the country’s most pivotal cost of living crisis.

During #EndSARS in October 2020 when young Nigerians flooded the streets to call out a now-disbanded notorious police unit, music was one of the weapons they utilised alongside their voices and placards. Songs such as Davido’s “FEM,” Ajebo Hustlers’ “Barawo,” Stereoman’s “E Dey Pain Me” and African China’s “Mr President” soundtracked many protest grounds, fuelling protestors’ desire to demand better governance from their leaders. Certain Nigerian artists also lent their support on wax as they documented the protests with songs—Burna Boy with “20.10.2020,” Chike with “20.10.20 (Wahala Dey),” Orezi with “We Don Tire,” Efe Oraka with “Live rounds in the dark,” and Dwin The Stoic with “This Fight,” among others.

“The very nature of politics is, like music, rooted in conflict and harmony. The heart of music is the interplay of the physical and the mental, as the compromise between them forms a cohesive whole,” wrote Rex Thomson, a writer at Live For Music. Elsewhere in the piece, he posited that “from protest songs to voter campaigns, campaign rallies to musical endorsements and musicians campaigning, there’s been no shortage of love between music and politics.” That reality is not foreign to Nigeria, with the union between music and politics going as far back as the 1970’s.

The love between music and politics is layered and multidimensional. This is because many artists, before their music, are first of all citizens who have experienced the consequences of the inept decisions of their political leaders. In many cases, these decisions do not have the best interests of the regular person at heart. In Africa and around the world, where there has been a spate of bad governance and corruption, music has proved to be an effective platform to speak up against these poor policies, and soundtrack the plight of the people rarely offered a platform to speak about their pains and frustrations. 

Rap music is a good example of protest music and nowhere has it been wielded more strongly than in America. The country is full of history – from its connections with slavery to its civil war to the Great Depression to racism and the civil rights movement. Formed in the 1970s, the genre also known as hip-hop music has been a dependable source of voicing the anger, frustration and indignation of the African American community towards the government. Through the 80s and 90s, hip-hop groups such as Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Black Star, Arrested Development, The Roots and Dead Prez addressed the issues of racism and violence affecting the black communities. In 1988, the American group N.W.A aimed a bombshell at the authorities with Fuk Da Police,” which called out police harassment. “Fuck the police comin’ straight from the underground/A young nigga got it bad ‘cause I’m brown/And not the other colour, so police think/They have the authority to kill a minority,” Ice Cube raps. From 2Pac’s “Changes” to Ice Cube’s “I Wanna Kill Sam” to OutKast’s B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)” to Eminem’s “White America” to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” American rap artists have ensured that their thoughts and those of other Americans stay in plain view.

The late Nigerian music legend Fela Kuti is one of the major names that come up when music and politics are mentioned in Nigeria. A believer in Pan-Africanism, Fela used Afrobeat to tackle the issues prevalent in his times—from bad leadership to corruption and nepotism. His music was a tool that won him both admirers and enemies but he is a formidable example of how music and politics complement each other. Years later, Fela’s musical style has influenced many contemporary Nigerian artists, even birthing the offshoot Afrobeats, which is stamping its authority in the global space.

In an interview with SPIN, Fela acknowledged his position in Nigeria’s music scene, saying, “No one in Nigeria likes to play political music now, because the political situation is very bad. Africa is not like Europe in any way at all. If I can go to jail for 18 months, think how long an ordinary musician would go. But people want to hear political music. There are a few boys trying to, but it is not an easy thing to do political music. If you do, they clamp you down. At one time I was to play Zaire, but I wasn’t allowed into the country at all.” 

The political climate in Nigeria in the 70s and 80s was a heated stage, fuelled in no small part by the Biafran War of 1967-70 and the economic downturn courtesy of the boom of oil production and the relegation of cocoa, peanuts and palm products as Nigeria’s major foreign-exchange earners. The dissatisfaction in the country swelled and—galvanised by a host of coups—birthed issues such as poverty, corruption, unemployment and crime, which the county still grapples with. “My people sef dey fear too much/We fear for the thing we no see/We fear for the air around us/We fear to fight for freedom/We fear to fight for liberty/We fear to fight for justice/We fear to fight for happiness,” Fela Kuti sings on “Sorrow Tears & Blood.” With songs like “Sorrow Tears & Blood,” “Zombie,”Shuffering and Shmiling” and Coffin For Head of State,” Fela Kuti documented personal and collective angst about Nigerian society.  

In the 80s, Reggae was a mainstay on the Nigerian airwaves. The Nigerian version of the genre carried the soul of its Jamaican forebears and its artists infused their music with the pain and ache they felt about the Nigerian situation. “They say I’m talking politics but I’m singing reality/For the suffering of the masses, so my brothers I’m feeling so right/Situation getting worse only the poor feel the pain/The fury falls on them, don’t close your eyes to reality,” Victor Essiet of The Mandators sings on “Rat Race” from their 1988 album of the same title. Other songs such as Ras Kimono’s “Under Pressure (Part 2)” and “Gimme Likkle Sugar” spoke about the daily struggles of Nigerians and the injustices caused by bad leadership. 

Outside of reggae, Nigerian Funk musician William Onyeabor, in “Politicians,” a track off his 1982 album ‘Hypertension,’ pleaded with political leaders, party leaders and supporters to refrain from playing dirty and consider the future of the country in their decisions. “We make mistakes during the oil boom/Not knowing that was our doom/Some people now have everything/While many many have nothing/Let’s save Nigeria/So Nigeria won’t fall,” Sunny Okosun sings on “Which Way Nigeria?” from his 1984 album of the same name.

As the issues bedevilling Nigerian society worsened, the musicians of the late 90s and early 2000s continued to report their thoughts about the county’s political climate. “Nigeria jaga jaga/Everything scatter scatter/Poor man dey suffer suffer,” Eedris Abdulkareem sings in his scathing 2004 song “Jaga Jaga.” The track took a direct swipe at the county’s politicians who didn’t care that bad decisions had worsened the living conditions of the masses. The song was so potent that it caught the attention of Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s president at the time, who didn’t take kindly to the song’s message. From the early 2000s to the late ‘00s, songs like 2Shotz’s 9ice-featuring “Make Them Talk,” African China’s “Mr President,” Aṣa’s “Fire on the Mountain,” 2Baba’s “4 Instance,” Sound Sultan’s 2Baba and W4-assisted “Bushment (Ole),” Oritse Femi’s “Flog Politicians (Koboko)” and Falz’s “Talk” and “This Is Nigeria” represent past and present issues preventing the country from being a habitable place for every Nigerian.

The music and politics affair is not all strife and protest. Some artists choose to offer hope to the masses. Veno Marioghae’s “Nigeria Go Survive,” Onyeka Onwenu’s “One Love” and Sound Sultan’s “Motherland” remind citizens of the great potential of the country to give them the good things of life. For other artists, they use their music to tighten their bond with political figures. In his track “Abacha Chibayi Democracy,” Highlife legend Oliver De Coque lauded the late Nigerian Head of State Sani Abacha and his First Lady Maryam Sani-Abacha for initiatives such as the Family Support Programme. The six-minute song was replete with praise after praise, even terming Maryam as “Mama Africa.” Fellow Highlife titan Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe also chipped in the names of political figures in his songs. 

Throughout the years, the synergy between music and politics has become even more blurred. It’s not odd to see a Nigerian politician offer Nigerian artists spots on their campaign rallies or teams. The job of the artists, it seems, is to create catchy tunes about actual (or proposed) good works of the politicians, while the politicians ride that wave to the polls. In 2015, Nigerian music acts M.I Abaga, Ice Prince, Yemi Alade, Olamide, Flavour, Banky W and Dammy Krane got together to create “Gbagbe,” a campaign tune that praised the potential of Akinwunmi Ambode to serve as governor of Lagos State prior to him beginning his four-year tenure.

That same year, on the track “Lagos Boys” off his album ‘Eyan Mayweather,’ Olamide paid his respect to the streets of Lagos while saluting some important figures in the southwestern Nigerian state. “Jo oh, I juba for my governor, Governor Ambode,” he sang. The following year, he went full-on Ambode hype on “I Love Lagos,” with the Unlimited L.A-directed music video extolling the achievements of the governor. Olamide isn’t the only Nigerian artist to use his music and support a politician. On “Great Politician” and “Shine Ur Eyes,” Nigerian artists Oritse Femi and Eedris Abdulkareem lent support for the re-election of Goodluck Ebele Jonathan as president during the 2015 presidential election.

Away from the shores of Nigeria, American music mogul Jay-Z was an integral part of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign as both shared their admiration—rooted in music and policy changes—for each other. Obama shared that he and Jay-Z have “a little bond,” with the rapper and his wife Beyoncé joining the list of celebrities who organised fundraisers for the former president. In the same vein, Kanye West was a vocal supporter of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential aspirations and ignored the criticisms and ire of fellow music stars and the Black American community. It is a reminder that the political choices of artists, no matter how personal those choices are, can go a long way in swaying—favourably or unfavourably—the public’s perception of a public servant.

It is a similar situation in Nigeria, as regards the forthcoming presidential election. Artists have not been shy about throwing their weight behind their preferred candidate—sometimes with less-than-appreciated results. Earlier in the year, the Nigerian singer, Brymo, who has allegations of sexual assault, came under fire for his tweet which painted the Igbo community as a lesser entity in Nigerian society. Brymo was criticised for covert tribalistic sentiments and a petition was created calling for his disqualification from the 8th All Africa Music Awards (AFRIMA). Some days ago, Afrobeat act Seun Kuti ruffled feathers when he termed Labour Party candidate Peter Obi as an opportunist who wasn’t the right person to lead the country. Among the crowd angry at Kuti’s thoughts was Peter Okoye, one-half of the Nigerian music duo P-Square. Okoye, a staunch supporter of another candidate took shots at Kuti resulting in warring sides trading abuse on social media. Regardless of how misguided the exchanges were, it showed the grip that the country’s political climate has on its stars; for both, the election determines their futures and those of the ordinary Nigerian tired of bad governance.

In recent years, Nigerian music has entered global spaces, with stars earning high-profile international collaborations and notching up Grammy plaques and Oscar nominations. Still, Nigerian artists have not stopped calling out the government for poor policies. Hip-hop duo Show Dem Camp are one example of such an artist. While they create easygoing, fun-fuelled tunes with their ‘Palm Wine Music’ series, they utilise the ‘Clone Wars’ series as a tool to tackle Nigeria’s political and societal issues. “See something just happen right now/Omo Sars laid a nigga out flat, oh boy/Their turn up is seeing people run down/It’s messed up but I don’t see no one react, oh boy,” Ghost, one-half of Show Dem Camp, raps on the Ozone-assisted Epigenetics” off ‘Clone Wars Vol. IV: These Buhari Times.’ Over a hard-hitting beat, the song, along with the rest of the project, establishes a connection between the unsteady political and economic climate of the country while delving into the mental and psychological state of mind of its citizens. The project addresses the traumas—financial, social and personal—that imprison Nigerians and force most of them to seek greener pastures in foreign lands.

Another music duo balancing party vibes and political commentary is Ajebo Hustlers, whose 2020 single “Barawo,” tackles the horrors of mob justice, brought them into the limelight. “The masses dey para cos raba no dey,” Knowledge, one-half of the duo, raps. The poignant line is even more crucial in this current time of naira scarcity and the riots that broke out as a result of Nigerians’ frustration with the situation. It is telling that the sad reality of a song released in 2020 still rings true in 2023; it is also indicative of the poor choices of the government throughout the years. Ajebo Hustlers and a slew of other artists—Burna Boy (“Monsters You Made”), Yemi Alade (“CIA (Criminal In Agbada)”), OdumoduBlvck (“Fake Politicians”), Prettyboy D-O (“Chop Elbow”)—represent the ever-standing relationship between those in the corridors of power and those who wield power with a microphone; as long as the Nigerian society remains an entity governed by laws and policies, there will always be a response, whether positive or not, about those laws and policies.

Most recently, Nigerian artist Falz released “O Wa” featuring Tekno, which serves as his first single of the year. It follows the thread of political commentary that started with earlier releases such as “This Nigeria” and the 2019 album ‘Moral Instruction.’ In the Nigerian context, owa—a Yoruba word—is spoken by passengers in public transport when they are about to alight at their destination. Falz and Tekno are advocating that citizens should not be afraid to step away from and cast out any government that doesn’t respect their rights to better and inclusive policies. “Why you no give me change (Change) I para/I curse the driver, I tell conductor say “waka”/Stop the motor I need to come down, I tire,” Falz sings. With the presidential election a day away, “O Wa” possesses a timely message as it urges citizens to use their votes at the polls to create the kind of Nigeria that they want to live in.

Across social media, Nigerian party supporters have taken the responsibility canvass for their preferred candidates ahead of the 2023 presidential election. As the date for the election draws near, more fusion between music and politics is expected, whether in preparation for the election or as a means to celebrate victory.

Featured image credits/NATIVE

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