Profile: Is Falz the most woke performer since Fela, or is he just as problematic?

The year 2018 has been a difficult one for Nigeria and its citizens. For proof, look no further than the news headlines. Violent clashes between herdsmen and local citizens over grazing rights have devolved into a full-blown security crisis across the middle belt, Boko Haram, once labelled as ‘’technically defeated’’ by government, has refused to go gently into the good night, sporadically attacking soft targets across the North East.

Young Nigerians have gotten a raw deal. The exploding youth population in the face of a paucity of opportunities has been a fertile ground for the blossoming of vices like substance abuse and advance free fraud. Operatives of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), an elite police unit have taken advantage of this to unleash a reign of terror targeted specifically at young persons. Compounding matters have been the total absence of inspiring leadership from President Muhammadu Buhari, whose mandate rode on the wave of support from the youth population.

It isn’t the first time that the country would fall into difficult times. One of the ways that a country- any country- makes sense of such troubling periods is by turning to art for inspiration. From the days of the military junta, when Fela Kuti was railing about injustice and human rights in songs like Zombie and Beasts of no Nation, to post-Trump American cinematic offerings like Get Out, art has always sought to reflect the times, to document the challenges, hopes and aspirations and to place them in context.

Curiously, contemporary Nigerian artistes, especially pop musicians, despite the wealth of material presently available to them, have stayed out of infusing political statements in their music. For this class of pop acts, it is easier, and more profitable to glorify alcohol and parts of the female anatomy while hailing Fela as the ultimate icon of Nigerian music.

2Baba briefly considered himself bold enough to take on the political class when last year, he threw his weight behind the Enough is Enough One Voice Nigeria rally. The idea was to protest Buhari’s disastrous governance style. Days before the rally was to start, a scared 2Baba turned tail and announced a cancellation, citing ‘’hijack by interests not aligned with our ideals.’’ He would go back to making a hit song about a new dance move, plus one about the rare lady wiley enough to leave him blue balled.

Shaking tables

Falz has become the most talked about rapper of the year for going against the grain and taking a splash in not just socially conscious, but politically charged waters. He took a break from promoting his third studio album 27, to release This is Nigeria, a thoroughly timely if uninspiring piece of music that painted a broad picture of contemporary Nigerian society without recourse to whose ox was gored.

Taken on its own and examined on its merits, This is Nigeria is both sober reflection and litany of complaints, as it examines all the ways that living in Nigeria has become untenable for many. From murderous herdsmen to SARS oppression, the codeine crisis and the Chibok girls, Falz to the applause of his core audience, highlights a line list of the common ways the Nigerian state fails its citizens.

This is Nigeria proved to be hugely successful, especially online, where it quickly achieved viral status. However as performed and executed by Falz, This is Nigeria is also guaranteed to fall short of lasting cultural significance for the same reasons that made it such a potent viral pop culture weapon.

In May, while appearing on Saturday Night Live, multi-hyphenate American entertainer Childish Gambino aka Donald Glover released This is America, a controlled lambast against the failings of modern American society. The video, directed by regular Gambino collaborator, Hiro Murai made all the difference. This is America had Gambino dancing through a warehouse, while observing and/or participating in a number of disturbing acts including the shooting of a church choir.

But most importantly, the This is America video was Gambino making a state of the nation address, especially as it concerns the black person. In a series of graphic imagery juxtaposed with trendy dance moves- including Nigeria’s famous shoki- Gambino subtly yet effectively drove home his point. He was interested in highlighting issues of cop killings, racial inequality and social immobility.

Open to various interpretations and demanding several views in order to grasp the multi-layered, sub-textual meanings, This is America quickly became one of the most talked about music videos in recent memory, amassing over 360 million Youtube views and birthing loads of copycats from various corners of the world.

Doreen St. Felix of The New Yorker described the video as an ‘’ambiguous document.’’ She wrote, ‘’Glover forces us to relive public traumas and barely gives us a second to breathe before he forces us to dance.’’ The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber worried about the larger picture and Gambino’s effect on the culture. In his words, ‘’But it will also invite sharp questioning, like about whether he (Gambino) is criticizing the rap tropes his song invokes, or overly implicating black people in their own suffering.’’

Falz’s This is Nigeria is definitely more about the latter, concerned heavily with forcing Nigerians to own up to their complacency in the chronic erosion of the state. The people are victims of an incompetent political class yes, but they are also willing partakers in the chaos and destruction, participating in the killing and the pilfering with equal gusto.

One of the major criticisms of Falz’s This is Nigeria, especially among Nigerian thinkers, shifting away from the bandwagon effect is that however good his intentions, the version suffers from a shortage of big ideas that made Gambino’s original so utterly perplexing and readily open for adaptation. Where This is America offered ambiguity and cerebral engagement, Falz diluted the mix to a basic form of poverty porn, a boring recap of the latest new headlines.

Whereas in the past, this bare minimum effort may have been considered adequate- and indeed in certain quarters it was- culture gatekeepers demanded more from the lawyer turned entertainer. In a stimulating debate published on Africa is a Country, writer Káyọ̀dé Fáníyì recorded his frustrations thus, ‘’Good art elevates its subject beyond the everyday; here we’re firmly mired in it. When you riff off something that’s still so fresh, I think you’re duty-bound to transcend it.’’

‘’The message is the truth’’

American mogul P Diddy was pleased with Falz’s rendition and went ahead to express his appreciation on Instagram. This is Nigeria racked up the views and the think pieces and Falz went on the defensive, explaining his right to express himself freely.

Not everyone was pleased with the record though. Government figures looked the other way but the religious group, Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) took offence at the video’s opening incident in which a Fulani man beheads his neighbor. The clips of the cavorting female dancers dressed in hijab didn’t go down as well either.. The group in a public statement, denounced the video as ‘’thoughtless, insensitive and highly provocative’’ and demanded that Falz withdraw the video and apologize to Nigerians or face legal consequences otherwise. Days later, MURIC announced a ‘’sudden change in tactics’’ calling instead for the intervention of the censors board.

Falz addressed the backlash in an interview with the BBC News Africa saying, ‘’Majority of what I have been facing in terms of backlash is just a matter of people that are trying to shoot the messenger so that they miss the message. But at the end of the day the message is pretty clear and everyone knows that the message is the truth.’’

Child of the world

Very much like Mr Gambino, Falz enjoys a multi-pronged career that has him take on work in film, television and in comedy. In 2016, Falz won an Africa Magic Viewers Choice Award (AMVCA) trophy for Best Actor in a Television series for his recurring role in the enduring Jenifa’s Diary. This year, he had a starring role in the Tope Oshin directed film New Money and Brother Taju, his local bumpkin alter ego is a reliable source for laughs on the Internet and stand-up comedy circuit.

Falz is also a business man. His Bahd Guy record label completed its first signing with the announcement of a record deal for singer and frequent Falz collaborator, Sir Dauda. ‘’He’s the future’’ Falz yelled enthusiastically at a live unveiling event, even though Sir Dauda has yet to prove to be viable as a stand-alone artiste.

After the storm that was This is Nigeria, Falz returned to regular programming promoting 27. He scored a minor hit with single, Boogie alongside Sir Dauda, but it was with another socially conscious record, Child of the World that Falz would once again become the center of public conversation.

To promote Child of the World, an already contentious song from 27, Falz enlisted the services of Kemi Adetiba, helmer of envelope pushing videos by Wizkid, Banky W and Sound Sultan, not to mention the box office juggernaut, The Wedding Party. Bringing her feminine gaze- and Nollywood storytelling aesthetic- to the fore, perhaps to deflect inevitable accusations of sexism, Adetiba directs Falz, Big Brother Naija star Bambam and actress Toyin Abraham as they act out a tired, cliched story accommodating purity culture, sexual abuse and slut shaming.

One of the weakest moments of the 27 album, Child of the World plays into and upholds well-worn stereotypes concerning sexually adventurous women. It isn’t quite clear where this culture of shame started from. Falz certainly did not originate it but deliberately or otherwise, on Child of the World, he buys heavily into it. This inclination is a common streak that rears its head constantly especially amongst men who identify as supporters of women.

The 2017 Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde vehicle, Alter Ego has a similar arc that equates a large sexual appetite with abuse in the past and goes ahead to punish its heroine unnecessarily for the choices she makes. Much the same way Falz punishes his protagonist by labelling her a ‘’child of the world.’’

Reviewing the album 27 for 360nobs, this writer describes Child of the World thus, ‘’When he gets into the consciousness spirit, Falz cannot quite stop himself from going over the top with the preaching and Child of the World represents the messiness of these tendencies.’’

Falz promotes his protagonist, Shola in the song’s first act as a decent, studious Christian girl who goes bad only after suffering rape at the hands of a relative. Ms Abraham makes a big show in the video of praying for her daughter, helping to ensure that Shola gets all the sympathy that she deserves from the audience. Presented any other way and Shola would most certainly be judged by the same audience for setting herself up for the inevitable.

The video goes on to roll out Shola’s unfortunate encounter with her uncle. He rapes her and awakens the beast in her, or as Falz puts so eloquently,

Uncle Peter don create beast, he can’t tame the stuff/She like make e rough She can’t have enough.

Because God forbid that a woman naturally discovers her sexual awakening and agency without some hint of abuse lurking somewhere in her past. Shola becomes wild and sexually adventurous, a proper child of the world, aka the worst thing that can happen to a woman in patriarchal Nigeria.

Like a bad Tyler Perry movie (tautology?) Shola is infected with HIV and only then does she realize the error of her ways. She finds Jesus and becomes a shining example for others to follow, completing her redemption arc and making her unworthy self, relatable once again.

There is little doubt about the good intentions of Falz and the team behind Child of the World and the accolades, including some from the Lagos state Domestic Violence Response Team which Falz name checks in the video is proof. It remains unchallenged that Falz has done a good thing bringing light to a worthy cause. But the response from critics who expect him to properly interrogate his art before putting same out is just as valid. It isn’t enough to just do a deed or make art for the sake of it. Especially for socially relevant art, choices must be examined and placed in context, and reexamined before arrival at a place of decision.

Fela Forever

Born Folarin Falana to the family of Femi and Funmi, both legal practitioners from Ekiti state on 27, October 1990, it isn’t quite surprising that Falz has followed this path. Both parents are fiery legal crusaders and human rights activists.

At some point in his life, a rascally Afrobeat pioneer named  Fela was represented in court by another fiery young lawyer named Femi Falana. This was years before Falana became a senior advocate and established one of the most successful law practices in country.

With a Law degree from the University of Reading, Falz’s privilege guaranteed him a placement in the family chambers. He chose to pursue his passion instead, in the same vein as Fela Kuti who abandoned a medical career and relative comfort to birth the sound of an entire genre of music.

Fela is rightly hailed as a legend today but so many aspects of his colorful life do not quite hold up to scrutiny. His renegade lifestyle, family life, relationships with women, treatment of them and his anti-feminist stance on classics such as Lady are all red flags.

It is the rare Nigerian artiste that doesn’t secretly pine for the iconic cachet of Fela. But naturally only few are willing to put in the work to secure such a legacy. Fewer still have it in them to make the kind of music capable of lasting beyond the sell by date. While Falz does not have the capacity or genius to create timeless music like Fela did, he is at least willing enough to make use of his privilege to speak out against injustices.

All well and good but artistes need to hold themselves to higher standards, the same thing they sometimes demand of constituted authority. Publisher Ainehi Edoro writing on Africa is a Country captures this sentiment in a few words, ‘’All of this may boil down to the kinds of questions we, as critics of African cultural objects, ask about a work. Perhaps, we need to move away from asking artists how representative of reality is the work, how faithful to reality is the work and, instead, ask what exactly is artful about the work?’’

2018 has been a mess, and Falz has been present, recording the moments and sound tracking the period. If only he would summon up the range and the depth to truly inspire, he would be King.

Wilfred Okiche :Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.