The Shuffle: Timaya’s debut single, “Dem Mama” exposes the continued brutality of the Nigerian government

Making sure that the 1999 Odi Massacre in Bayelsa isn't swept under the rug with his unapologetic hit song

We doubt that it’s a coincidence that Timaya’s new album, ‘Gratitude’ has 15 tracks and was released 15 years after the singer released his debut single in 2005, “Dem Mama”. The Bayelsa-raised singer is the type of artist to leave Easter egg trails for fans to find, and the album is essentially his way of expressing his appreciation for his successful music career so far and sharing his approach to life’s uncertainties – “This life I can’t kill myself oh/ Allow me to flex oh”. And with his numerous accomplishments—including a Grammy nomination in 2017 for his contribution on Morgan Heritage’s album, ‘Avrakedabra’—Timaya has the range to flex on anybody as he flexed his muscles by performing all the tracks on the album without including any guest features.


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Timaya has never been afraid of saying it exactly as it is when it comes to expressing how he feels. On “Dem Mama”, his debut single which broke him out to the mainstream, he gave an unflinching portrayal of the brutality he experienced at the hands of the Nigerian security forces in 1999, when soldiers attacked his village in Bayelsa. The Odi Massacre, as it was called was carried out on the 20th of November in Odi town in Bayelsa state, where Timaya grew up. The attack was triggered by the Niger Delta conflict over indigenes’ rights to the region’s oil-rich lands. And just like they’ve done with recent Lekki Massacre, the Obasanjo also denied involvement with the attack. According to the government’s claims, the military was ambushed on their way to the village at the time of the attack. Unfortunately, we didn’t have access to social media live broadcasts or CCTV camera recordings to show proof that the military did in fact attack villagers in Bayelsa in 1999, however, Timaya made sure that the incident won’t be swept under the rug by narrating his personal account of the attack.

Singing “This na reality. Well e bin happen for Bayelsa oh/ 1999 oh/ I swear I no go forget am oh/ when them kill the people oh/ And them make the children them orphans oh”, his message was pointed and conveyed a sentiment that’s familiar to us today after experiencing the Lekki massacre and watching the government refuse to take accountability for their actions and loss of innocent lives during the protests. Even with all the evidence in the world, they still wouldn’t admit to the killings.

Thinking back, I never realised the weight of “Dem Mama” when it was getting massive radio play back in 2005. It was very popular and I’m sure I even joined in to sing along with the catchy rhythm of his lyrics, “I say them don killi Dem mama eh, dem papa eh/ I say them don killi dem mama, dem papa, dem mama eh”. It’s hard to imagine such violent words being sung endearingly, but many of us have sung joyously to the upbeat record that announced Timaya’s arrival into the Nigerian music scene.

Timaya has since made other types of songs including 2013’s soundscape-defining hit song, “Ukwu” that showed he can be as carefree and as he’s conscious and self-aware. The subversive message of “Dem Mama” didn’t stop it from becoming a stadium anthem and it certainly didn’t keep Timaya from becoming one of the biggest Nigerian artists of the last decade. Though we’ve seen the government clampdown on EndSARS activists by blocking bank accounts and even detaining some, Timaya’s unapologetic affront to the government on “Dem Mama” should encourage artists to channel our current political climate into making the type of fist-pumping anthems that can provide the motivation we need to fight against any oppressive government.

Watch the video for Timaya’s “Dem Mama” below.

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You are meeting Debola at a strange time in his life. He wandered into a dream and lost his way back. Tweet at him @debola_abimbolu

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