Understanding the efficacy of socially conscious music in Nigeria

What are the odds of music being a catalyst for change in a politically stagnant country?

To be a sentient Nigerian living in Nigeria is to be intermittently, if not constantly, resentful of the country’s sprawling dysfunctionality. Depending on social class and economic means, individuals have the capability to insulate themselves from the myriad of systemic bumps, but only to an extent. Here’s an example: In 2021, Nigerians still have to deal with fluctuating power supply, a prevalent issue that affects all and sundry, and has now been accepted as part of the Nigerian experience. As a band-aid solution, a portion of the population who have the means rely on power generating sets and inverters, costly and environmentally impactful solutions to an essential service.

In 1999, Nigeria entered its third democratic republic. Coming in three decades after the civil war, which led to the death of over a million Igbo people and traumatised millions more, and a rotation of brutal military regimes that constantly committed heinous crimes against humanity, the re-entrance of democracy signified a renewed ray of optimism for the country’s chances at proper systemic growth. The opening 90-second run of the video for Lagbaja’s “Sùúru Léré” offers a brief, symbolic rundown of Nigeria’s tumultuous travails towards a third attempt at running “a government by the people for the people”. Released in the year 2000, the hooded singer/saxophonist advocated for communal patience while in the early stages of a new government system, and even though he indicated a mild cynicism towards the heavy involvement of top-ranking military officials, optimism was the song’s overarching theme.

Every so often I think of Lagbaja’s “Sùúru Léré”, because it’s one of the earliest songs that helped me understand the Nigeria I was growing up in, and it still frames my relationship with the country. When “Sùúru Léré” was released and went on to become a smash hit song, I was an adolescent whose biggest problem was scoring perfect marks on my primary school home assignments. In the years that followed, and as I became more lucid to the realities of living in Nigeria, this song became a reference point for my existence, in conversation with the most recent definitive political decision in the country’s history.

Similar to every other form of art, music is inspired by, and reflects, the time during which it was created. No matter how personal, universal or detached it is from political events, music always acts as a time capsule for the happenings and ideals of its period. For instance, modern Nigerian pop music is widely adjudged to have begun in the late ‘90s, coinciding, or at least overlapping, with the country’s new democratic republic. With a freer society which aimed to improve systemic conditions to favour individual enterprise and a more open expression of self, the earlier days of modern Nigerian pop music carry even more significance when looked at within the context of its governing political landscape.

Of course, there’s the fact that, even if all music reflects the time at least subconsciously, there’s a long line of music that has consciously and explicitly engaged with Nigeria’s socio-political situation – which stretches back beyond the third democratic republic. Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, an inevitable name in this sort of conversation, famously declared music as a weapon to inspire change for a better future. In Nigeria’s third republic, two former military dictators, both of whom Fela vehemently rebuked in his music, have returned as democratically elected presidents. This outcome begs an important question: what role does “socially conscious” music play in effecting change, over two decades into our longest democratic run?

“We must now understand just how scary it is that we are facing the same problems from the ‘70s”, Made Kuti says on “Different Streets”, off his stellar debut album, ‘For(e)ward’. Made’s missive follows references to a few Fela songs deriding Nigeria’s political state at the time, which was rife with corruption, abuse of power, failure to invest in long-term infrastructures and viable foundation systems that would positively impact the future. It all plays into the idea that Nigeria hasn’t made any socio-political progress, and any positive steps the country has witnessed over the decades has taken place under the dark clouds of terrible governments, regardless of the adopted system.

The obvious denominator is bad leadership, a fact Made pointed out when I spoke to him a few weeks ago. While the underlying components are complex and multi-layered, it’s a widely held belief that the dominance of bad governance is the reason for Nigeria’s unchanging social fortunes. Every so often, there’s the rhetoric of Nigerians needing to become better citizens rather than simply lay all the blame at the feet of its government. As valid as that point is, the simple retort to the government part is its responsibility of creating and enabling a society geared towards incentivising citizens to feel a sense of obligation to the country.

Socially conscious music mirrors this idea, punching upwards way more than sideways. On Eedris Abdulkareem’s seminal hit, “Jaga Jaga”, the rapper points at terrible governance as the root of Nigeria’s undeveloped state in his vitriolic rant. The same ethos applies to African China’s classic “Mr President”, except the singer adopts a tone of admonishment, demanding good governance from those in power lest corruption swallows the country whole. Both these songs were released less than a decade into the new democratic system, and they’ve gone on to remain omnipresent as apex examples of social commentary in music, post-1999.

In the ongoing gory aftermath of the End SARS protests, which involved the cold-blooded killings of unarmed civilians by Nigerian soldiers and the (ridiculous) arrest of protesters and passers-by at a recent protest against the reopening of financial operations at the massacre grounds, I’ve found myself mulling over the place and importance of socially conscious music advocating change, since it’s been established that things don’t change in Nigeria. After all, the leaders on the other side of these observations and vitriolic comments don’t seem to care. The answer possibly lies in the fact that Nigeria is something of a multi-layered paradox, in that, as stagnant, and even regressive, as social, political, and economic conditions are, we’ve become used to finding solutions to the myriad of daily bumps Nigeria presents, holding on to small quantities of hope for better governance while keeping our resentment intact.

Somewhere between recent, socially-inclined full-lengths like Show Dem Camp’s ‘Clone Wars IV: These Buhari Times’, Falz’s ‘Moral Instruction’, Bantu’s ‘Everybody Get Agenda’ and Made Kuti’s ‘For(e)ward’, the elements of this paradox are represented to varying degrees. Ranging from loud agitprop to nuanced commentary, these albums offer important looks at the issues from each artist’s perspective, and even if the resolutions aren’t altogether new, they signify a generation still keen on engaging openly with a political landscape that hasn’t been kind to us, because of how much it shapes the conditions under which we live in.

‘CULT!’, the second solo studio LP by rapper Paybac, isn’t an overtly socially conscious per se, but it’s a finely thought-out project of just how influential Nigeria’s bad governance, and by extension its system, is on our daily lives. On an album with song titles that include “Nigeria Suk My Dik” and “Fuk a Politician”, Paybac paints an autobiographical portrait of being a young man trying to navigate and negotiate with the systemic bumps and potholes of living in Nigeria, while trying to reach his life’s goal. In the year since its release, I’ve revisited ‘CULT!’ more than a handful of times because it mirrors what it means to be young in Nigeria. Considering his reputation as a niche act, I doubt that up to 10% of Nigeria’s youth population are acquainted with Paybac and his album, much less have any sort of communion with it.

Beyond the mental musings about the efficacy of socially conscious music, there’s also the fact that it doesn’t always permeate the mainstream. This is far from an indictment on Nigerian pop music’s emphasis on providing feel-good tunes, because it’s an apt reflection of ideals of the times. For better or worse, Nigeria is an aspirational society; everyone is working hard to insulate themselves from the unnecessary stresses of living in Nigeria, and generally, make life easier from the effects of terrible governance. Within this context, catchy pop songs with seemingly banal concerns captivate Nigerians because they represent the mundane concerns of many and, in many cases, project the lifestyle many look forward to living. It’s also within this context that “hustle anthems” are quite prominent, and rags-to-riches narratives are revered, because there’s the innate understanding of the difficulties of making it in Nigeria’s badly governed society.

From 2Baba and M.I to Burna Boy and SDC, many popular artists have shown that make music that taps both into conventional pop norms and socially conscious leanings are not mutually exclusive. If anything, these examples are ideological indications that it is impossible to not keep an eye out on the country’s socio-political woes. Last November, shortly after his acclaimed fourth studio album, ‘Made in Lagos’, Wizkid delivered a special virtual performance, and while performing his seminal autobiographical hit, “Ojuelegba”, he reworked lines to reflect last October’s protests against police brutality. The Surulere-born, global superstar doesn’t make politically-inclined music, but this gesture was an extension of his solidarity with a cause many young Nigerians identify with.

With little doubt in my mind, Wizkid’s gesture very likely reached more people than the stellar albums by Paybac, Bantu and Made Kuti, but that doesn’t invalidate the urgency these artists imbued into their projects. As important as popularity is, the potency of social commentary in music extends beyond its immediate commercial impact, mainly because its relevance isn’t limited to the moment of, and shortly after, its release. The same way Lagbaja’s “Sùúru Léré” enlightened me years later to the idea that I should’ve grown up in a golden era, following a new dawn of independence, and aforementioned classics by Eedris Abdulkareem and African China remain relevant, socially conscious music finds a way to live beyond its time. While it would be nice for it to spark immediate change, the idea that music with a social message has the capacity for future impact is something to hold on to, value wise. Right?

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