By Hannu Afere

Music, from time immemorial, has been a tool for entertainment, for education, for spiritual exhortation and for passing on memorable messages.

The ancient Yoruba sang protest songs when they were dissatisfied with the rule of their leaders, forcing them to abdicate the throne either by committing suicide or by going on exile.

Many of the songs contained explicit language, in an effort to strip their said leaders of their legitimacy and moral credentials. Even though they prided themselves in being respectful, there was no play at coyness when it came to protesting. The anger and disgust against the system was palpable.

There are some who would say these were the fore-runners of ‘cancel culture’ but while this may be true, there are many conservative scholars who would be loath to use a term so mundane in describing something as serious.

Now, it goes without saying that the young ‘Abami Eda’ Fela Anikulapo Kuti upon returning from England in the sixties, took this kind of music to a whole new level. As a matter of fact, through out Nigeria’s post colonial history, Fela was at the forefront of the struggle, making politically consciousmusic– the entire time not caring to be politically correct.

He paid the price for it too. Was harassed several times, blacklisted, arrested and even imprisoned.

This article will not bother to outline his achievements or the numerous awards he’s received for his work, both while alive and posthumously. Those are well documented.

This article will rather attempt to highlight the relationship between his sound and that of the current rash of Afrobeat musicians, the relevance of his deliberate lyricism and the portrait of the artist as the standard for revolutionary music in this era of social media activism.

Fela as an artist was the epitome of what it means to ‘speak truth power’. In fact, he wasn’t just the epitome, he was the entire paradigm.

His preferred vehicle (as you may know) was his saxophone and since his death in ’97, we have been seeing a lot of signalling, sampling and referencing by musicians old and new.

Apart from his musically inclined children who are geniuses in their own rights, there’s a truck load of other artists who the media has touted as being the successors– amongst whom are Lagbaja, Buga, D’banj to mention a few. None of these songsmiths are known for being deliberately political.

In recent times however, we have had sampling from people like Falz the Bahd Guy seeking to arouse nationalistic sentiment, Burna Boy who can seem to do no wrong in anyone’s eyes right now, Wizkid who uses the sound but does not appear to have a single politically conscious bone in his body and more recently the “soapy” crooner, Naira Marley.

Naira Marley is a rapper whose work thrives on its shock factor and avant-garde style. His lyrics are rebellious and make no pretense at being moral but he has gained a large fan base on the streets and more recently is following that up with a steady conversion of intellectuals online.

He admits to being heavily influenced by Abami Eda, and it would be absolutely disrespectful comparing him to Fela’s genius but one thing this sort of music does is, it attempts to subvert state control and takes back the public space.

Fela laid the foundation for all that. He made music for both the heart and the feet to dance to. He’s had people protesting against bad governance, corruption, and social injustice since before this writer was born.

And he is not alone. This is something that should be emulated worldwide. Artistes and social media influencers in
Catalonia are currently clamouring for independence from Spain. If you are a fan of the TV series “Money Heist”, you would not be lost hearing them chant the revolutionary tune “Bella Ciao”. Hong Kong is currently protesting against China. Haiti is protesting a lack of gas in their fuel stations and demanding that their president steps down. Lebanon also is demanding social reform from its government.

The one thing all these people have in common is that they are united in their desire for change. They are out in the streets, raising their voices, using art by way of music or graffiti and generally bypassing institutions, partisan politics, and ideologies to get the necessary reforms.

That level of deliberateness is unfortunately not overtly displayed by a lot of Nigerian artistes, but hopefully the momentum will increase as the days pass. And it might be nigh impossible determining the mobilizing or educational effects of Fela’s legacy, but it goes without saying that it has been a source of inspiration.

Both in the streets and on the internet.

(c) Hannu Afere 2019