by Ayodeji Rotinwa
It goes without saying what a force music can be, especially in repressive climes such as ours.
“Shake”, “Waist”, “Whine”, “Money” and the insertion of plenty of alcohol brand names: Hennessy! Moët! These are the prominent, recurring features that identify the spawn of the Nigerian music industry of today. Sexual perversion, braggadocio, the objectification and subtle disparagement of women, revelling in inebriation: these are the themes around which their ‘odes’ revolve. One would be hard-pressed to find any song, recording, music video or production that scratches the surface, let alone betray a hint of depth. Since the turn of the millennium, music in Nigeria has been accepted, heck, even praised, while having no definite meaning or message. It is strung together to no end other than to entertain to the point of decadence. And defiantly so.
Today’s producer, record label owner, talent manager and singer argues that we are in such a bad way that we would rather not be reminded of our troubles. So their effervescent yet empty brand of music should be regarded as escapist. They exist to help us, as one popular song by former 2Face protégé Dammy Krane goes, to “dance away your (our) sorrows, dance like there’s no tomorrow.” One hates to be the bearer of reality – ergo, in our case, bad news – but ‘tomorrow’ will not be if we do not do something about it today. This is a mantra that was understood by one man whose music remains timeless: Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
“Everybody say Yeah, Yeah!”
In remembrance of the man and what he stood for, via the annual week-long Felabration festival that was set up in his honour, a legion of the aforementioned musical class troops to Fela’s old home, kingdom and altar, the New Afrika Shrine. From here he ripped into the government of his day, stripping its flesh one caustic, satirical line at a time. His music and, indeed, life mission, it seemed, was at all times to keep the government, ballooned by the gluttonous marauding of public funds, on its corpulent toes. Isn’t it a sad irony, then, that those to whom this worthy mission is something from a bygone era share the man’s stage to belt out their inanity? They celebrate the man and his life, yes, but they remember his music, not the message.
Yes, Fela did have his fair share of songs that could be seen as misogynistic. He repeatedly employed sexualised messages and imagery in his work. For instance, in ‘Mattress’, a 14-minute-long provocative piece, he metaphorises women as ‘a mattress for a man to lie on’. The lyrics give the impression that the sexual availability of a woman is her sole worth. “It is the spring that bounces like a ball, it is the cushion that is soft like wool, it is a plank, a mat, a spring and a cushion; when I say woman is a mattress, I am not lying…”
For every song like this, however, he had a score that decried the state of affairs. Records like ‘Zombie’, an acerbic attack on the methods of the Nigerian military, under whose government Nigerians were languishing at the time; ‘International Thief Thief’, ‘Coffin for Head of State’, recorded between 1972 to 1989, are still popular and very relevant today. Their messages, one dares say, still rankle today’s ruling class. His music mirrored the frustration and suffering of the people. It incited riots for change. It sparked and fuelled talk of revolution.
Today, we have no such luck. While the country may no longer be in the iron clench of rotating military regimes, the bleak conditions that flourished in those times have not changed much. Nigerians are still suffering and smiling. Yet, where is/are our Fela(s)?
Will a new Fela please stand up?
It would be unfair, however, to say that no contemporary artist has used their music, platform and celebrity as a megaphone for speaking out against socio-political ills. What is worrying is the number. One. Nneka. She is the only present-day Nigerian artist (even though she is not Nigeria-based and half-German) that has built a career making music that bleeds for social change. She is conscious music’s lone trooper in our parts.
Unsurprisingly, Nneka’s work is not popular, nor is it well or widely received in Nigeria. Yet she has released four albums to critical acclaim abroad and has toured and performed in many different countries, from France to the US. Her first album, Victim of Truth, released in 2005, was compared favourably by the UK Sunday Times to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the Grammy Award-winning debut album by Lauryn Hill. Nneka’s second album, No Longer at Ease, released in 2008, with a title that is taken from the late Chinua Achebe’s book of the same name, is regarded by critics as a hip-pop, soul and reggae triumph. The album is fiercely political and shines a spotlight on the plight of the people of the Niger Delta and on corruption in Nigeria in general.
Closer to home, there is no artist that can hold a candle to her work. A small number of singers might perfunctorily include a moderately critical song in an album that is otherwise laden with commercialised, sexed-up party starters. Others may make public statements about a burning issue from time to time. None of them follow up their songs and statements with any conviction.
Of note, however, is rapper and CEO of Trybe Records, eLDee, whose five albums from 2004 to date have featured songs, such as ‘I Go Yarn’ and ‘One Day’, that are geared towards social change. Bedevilled by inconsistency, he has yet to make a seismic impact with these albums. It is also believed that he has retired from music and recently moved to the USA to pursue other endeavours. On his Twitter page he is still vocal about Nigeria and the country’s ills. But he got tired. He left.
It goes without saying what a force music can be, especially in repressive climes such as ours. Fela’s music shook governments. He became an amplified voice for millions. Times have not changed much. We live in a country that, put simply, is not working. Today’s music can follow Fela’s well-beaten trail. It should. It must.
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.
Ayodeji Rotinwa is a writer that comments on the arts, (pop) culture, technology and business within the continent for a number of international publications. He is currently a lead features writer at THISDAY Newspapers & contributor to Forbes Africa magazine.
This article was first published on ThisIsAfrica.Me