#YNaijaEssays: Music is always political and protest music especially so

Falz’s This Is Nigeria seems to have become the de-facto counterpoint to Childish Gambino’s genre-bending self-examination as a black musician transitioning into mainstream spaces and having his identity suddenly become relevant to his music. Where Childish’s music is personal, Falz’s take spans a whole country.

However, one of the major arguments is that somehow Falz is a political artist and supposedly the first of his kind to do this, and as such a musical unicorn.

All music is political and informed by choice, some artists are a lot more heads-on with their politics than others.

Music has long been used as an instrument to expose social injustices and to spur activism. From Trybesmen’s “Plenty Nonsense”, to Daddy Showkey’s “Fire”, to African China’s “Mr President”, to Eedris Abdulkarim’s “Nigeria Jaga Jaga”, to Sound Sultan’s “Motherland”, music can serve as a tool to protest injustice and encourage change. Music provides a context and dais through which to package and present an idea or point of view. As a result, music can serve to open up conversations and spur reflection and action relating to the issues of the day.

While a few people have a tendency to reject or coax musicians when they stand up in regards to something besides dance music, the truth is that musicians sometimes act as the conscience of society. What’s more? In the midst of social and political struggles, a musician’s role in such a manner becomes particularly important.

Given the present social and political streams whirling in Nigeria today, now as never before, artists will need to genuinely consider how they can best use that energy to light up social injustices as well as numerous different issues and concerns – just like we had in the voices of the musicians of the early 2000s: African China, Daddy Showkey, Trybesmen, Sound Sultan, Eedris Abdulkareem and others.

Chinagorom Onuoha, known as African China, came to limelight and held onto one mission: to question the activities of Nigerian politicians and the people in government with his songs.

He initiated a professional vocation in music in 1999 releasing well-known songs such as, “Crisis”, “Mr President” and “No Condition is Permanent” among others. And in an interview with Tribune, the CEO of 45 Entertainment said, I was happy about the impact of my songs. I believed that someone needed to speak for this country, and I did quite often. Even now, when I go to events, people keep greeting and welcoming me so warmly. Sometimes, it is overwhelming. You know what they tell me? They say, “You said it. However, nobody listened to you. All the things you said are still happening today.” “Mr President, food no dey” was released about eighteen years ago and people are still hungry until date.

In another interview with Punch, African China said he would never keep quiet on the truth even if it could cause him his life. He added, “Whether one talks or not, one will surely die. The future of our young kids is in our hands; so, I cannot just keep quiet because I am afraid to die. It is high time we started thinking of the new generation, not ourselves alone. This is the only country I feel people don’t value the younger generation. The government should focus on the new generation and how life can be better for them.

In my songs, I don’t insult anyone; I only tell them facts. They promised us certain things before they came into power; they promised us a good life. But after getting there, they have given us pains. So, I only try to remind them that this is not what they promised me and you.”

In any case, African China was said to have been constrained to surrender music for business. He simply said he did not want to “lick asses and butts” and so had to venture into other things.

Almost 18 years ago, Trybesmen (Eldee, Kaboom and Freestyle) dropped their debut album L.A.G Style and it featured one uncharacteristic track, “Plenty Nonsense”. The song is the Trybesmen’s interpretation of a portion of the dissatisfactions of being young in a society like ours and it sure ‘disturbed’ the airwaves.

Following a chorus denouncing how there are numerous regular substances that should not be a standard, Freestyle begins off with a tale about how the Nigerian Police stop citizens and begin to look for reasons to harass and assault youngsters seen driving expensive-looking vehicles. In the same track, K.B. talks about Nigerian churches, just to unobtrusively play out an account of how blind faith in religion is utilised to keep poor people the way they are. Eldee’s part considers higher institutions and how JAMB/WAEC keeps people out of the walls of a higher institution.

Later on, two members, Eldee and Freestyle, later recorded solo albums after the group broke up. When asked if the group could come back together, Eldee said,I don’t know if it will work. We perform together sometimes and do many other things together, but when it comes to recording an album, I don’t know. It involves a lot of hard work and we all are busy with our different projects. Everybody is now independent, but I don’t see how Trybesmen can work. Everybody is so busy and it would mean us leaving everything we are doing.”

For that group, Eldee is still relatively in the business of music but “Plenty Nonsense” is probably the only track that seems to have a tone of activism.

If you remember “Nigeria Jaga Jaga” then you will remember the name Eedris Abdulkareem. In the song we find the lines: “Everything scatter scatter, poor man dey suffer suffer, gbosa, gbosa, gun shot inna di air. Armed robber came to your house, eno thief money, eno rape your wife. Went straight up to your bedside (Gbosa), six feet, now you are down. Which armed robber no want money, which armed robber no want joley. Na political armed robber be that. Na wetin dey kill Nigeria o”.

Of course, this drew the ire of then president, Olusegun Obasanjo who said “One of the worst problems Nigeria is facing is disbelief. Nigerians no longer believe in themselves neither do they believe in their country. That takes me back to that song “jaga jaga”, how could a sane man dare to call his country jaga jaga? It is the height of blasphemy. We are grooming our youth for tomorrow’s leadership and with such persons I don’t think the country can move forward”.

Eedris was not backing down. He replied, “Mr ex-president, Nigeria still dey Jaga Jaga, in fact it worst pass Jaga Jaga.” It eventually turned to a war of words among the two of them.

Abdulkareem performed with hip-hop band “The Remedies” from 1997 until they split in 2002. In November 2005, Abdulkareem launched his own record label, La Kreem Music and released his fourth album, “Letter to Mr. President”. The collection’s title track tended to Obasanjo’s reactions of “Jaga”; the album likewise included “Flash Up Unu Lighter“, a tribute to Obasanjo’s wife, Stella, also the casualties of the Bellview Airlines crash of October 2005.

He released a sequel to “Jaga Jaga” in January 2012 but like his age-grade colleagues, he has been out of the picture, except when he decided to attack some of his colleagues in 2017.

Nigerians like songs they can dance to. Nigerian musicians have followed that trend to the latter, not minding to address social ills in their music. Their fear is: “it will not sell”. Money is the drive, not the message it intends to pass or the ears it might itch.

Apart from Seun and Femi Kuti, who followed in the footsteps of their father, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Nigerian musicians, hardly produce ‘conscious’ or ‘political’ music that speaks against the state of the country and other social ills. Nigerian musicians who choose to sing about the challenges, corruption, suffering and austere state of the country are most likely inviting doom to their careers.

Sometimes, you might think Nigerians are burnt out on catching wind of their issues, they see the need to overlook their anguish and Nigerian musicians are great at making entertaining music that discusses money, celebrity life, women and satisfaction throughout everyday life, at the same time pivoting their prosperity on God.

A typical example of the dearth of protest music in Nigeria is when early in 2017, Tuface Idibia was to host a protest against the Muhammadu Buhari government.

Tuface’s foreseen presence in the protest touched off a great deal of buzz and discussions on the web. Many youth were ready to participate in the protest, but Tuface backed out. There was a warmed civil argument around Nigerian artistes and how they tend to separate themselves from any kind of activism going on in the nation. Many called Tuface a coward and it just showed how Nigerian music has far delved into more entertainment than a voice.

The art of music has evolved and gone through several eras before it became what it is today globally, while noting that in these eras, it has been deployed for whatsoever use, including entertainment, worship, economic purposes, political activism, etc.

However, the advent of the internet has greatly helped music (just like it has done to other forms of art) and whatever cause one seeks to promote with it, especially in relation to access, we live in times where one could download a song of your choice or otherwise at the snap of a finger, listen and deploy for whatsoever purpose you intend, while also having a lot of celebrities on these platforms where their fans are able to connect properly to them.

On the flipside, nowadays, many have also found solace in the internet as a medium of expressing their love and admiration as well as disgust or dissatisfaction with people, places, phenomena and lots more. This again does not exclude music and its practitioners.

This is coupled with the fact that these days, tweets have been glorified to the point of being the new standard; opinions on general, gists and sector-based information, as well as official announcements now go through this medium.

One implication of this, therefore, is increased public scrutiny of works of art, especially the artist(e) responsible for such, on and off the studio or stage, as there is indeed a global audience listening often to everything an artist says and willing to go hard on the artist’s call. But there is also more scrutiny on artists, and stronger demand on them to be politically correct.

The difficult dimension to this, is the concept of cancel culture which does not allow people the capacity to learn from their mistakes, such that celebrities who are perceived as all-knowing and when they express unpopular views or opinions that differ sharply from trending thoughts, they get called out, become more often than not simply written off, and no longer supported, no matter the apology.

And to explain better, cancel culture is, essentially, when people who have said or done problematic things, either now or in the past, are decidedly “cancelled,” and people no longer support them or their endeavours. In this day and age, examples are everywhere. Celebrities getting called out for problematic behaviour, or racially insensitive words, and losing network deals or TV shows, as a result. Time and time again, we’ve seen this play out in Nigeria as well as on the foreign scene too.

In the case of popular American rapper and producer, Kanye West, he was recently vilified for tweets where he expressed support for U.S. President, Donald Trump, to the ire of many followers in the industry (to the delight of right-wingers) considering Trump’s ideals, policies, and language and he got trolled by critics for proudly brandishing Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hat on social media.

Popular Nigerian artiste 2face Idibia came close to this when he announced that he would be leading an anti-government protest, under the umbrella of the Enough is Enough Initiative, to press for better life in Nigeria and that government wakes up to its responsibility but backed out days after, when he announced that the protest would no longer take place due to possible “hijackings” and other threats to safety.

As expected, he got a huge backlash from fans in Nigeria who called him names including being a chicken-hearted person over his decision to cancel just two days before the protest was to occur, noting that he tried to act as a man of the people, but played himself as he’s clearly no Fela Kuti. It took a while and largely for his clout to overcome that episode.

“Apartheid was schizophrenic. If you look at apartheid as a character, he was a very schizophrenic character, one minute smiling and by the very same token, by the very same minute, murdering.” – Sifiso Ntuli, “Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony”

Students of Johns Hopkins University fight against South African apartheid, 1970. Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Archive Photos/Getty Images

If there’s one place that used music as a rallying call to inspire political change, it’s South Africa. 300 years of oppression by the Dutch settlers and British which culminated in Apartheid – Apartheid – whose literal meaning is separateness – in the Afrikaans language – sparked the first avenue liberation music in South Africa.

The story begins with the Western European migration. Sometime in 1488, Dutch travellers found the Cape of Good Hope an ideal rest stop on their journey through the East by sea and soon after, Dutch East India Company (VOC) established a refreshment post in Table Bay. “In 1657, officials (mostly Dutch and Germans) could retire from the Company’s service and become Free Burghers (independent farmers). In 1688, a group of French Protestants, striving for religious freedom, fled from France and settled in the Cape. Together with the Free Burghers they are regarded as the earliest ancestors of the Afrikaner nation.”

J.A. Heese and C. Pama gives a breakdown of the ‘Afrikaners’ by 1867:

  • Dutch (34.8%)
  • Germans (33.7%)
  • French (13.2%)
  • People of colour (7%)
  • British (5.2%)
  • Unknown origin (3.5%)
  • Other Europeans (2.6%)

This group drove the Khoi and San from their homeland through a series of wars and established their own community on African soil, developing their own language – Afrikaans – and entrenching their own brand of religion on the conquered people through government and education.

The Afrikaner religion is a combination of various church influences; one, the Protestant practices of the 17th century Reformed Church of Holland, two, the British English-speaking ministers in the early 1800s, and three, the Swiss reformer John Calvin (1509–1564) exported to South Africa by French settlers. Calvin believed “that the church should influence government policy, and that races should remain pure and separate.” The brand of Protestantism that the Afrikaans subscribed to was therefore distinct, as a result of these diverse influences and in the years to come, helped form the bedrock of Apartheid.

For 150 years, the Dutch held sway in the region until the arrival of the British in 1795. 11 years after they seized control of the Cape Peninsula, they set about freeing the slaves the Dutch had amassed (made up of the Khoi and San natives, Indians and Easterners). A struggle for political and economic superiority ensued as gold and diamonds were discovered. Two wars were fought. The First Boer War was fought between 1880 and 1881, which the Afrikaans won. The Second Boer War was fought from 1899 to 1902, from which the British emerged victorious. After the Boer Wars ended, Britain ruled the region as “the Union of South Africa” and enacted a series of laws – the Constitution of the Union – enforcing segregation among racial groups, thereby perpetuating white rule. The following categorizations were used: ‘White’, ‘Black’, ‘Coloured’ and ‘Indian’. According to the South African Native Affairs Commission report, in the 1900s it was decided that “no native shall vote in the election of any member or candidate for whom a European has a right to vote” (SANAC, 1905: 35-6, 97). “Central legislative, judicial, and administrative bodies were shared amongst the capitals of “white” South Africa, ensuring that only white South Africans would be involved in the government”. In 1913, the Native Land Act was passed, which dispossessed natives of most of their land, confining ownership to only 7% of the country’s total land area, “most of which were of poor quality and could not meet the needs of the African population.” Pass Laws were also put in place which barred blacks from certain urban areas. In fact, Under the Native Urban Areas Act of 1923, documentation was required to access white South Africa (cities) and only for the purposes of “ministering to the needs of the white population”. Imprisonment or deportation back to the hinterland awaited any defaulter.

Administration of these laws- and region -was given to the Afrikaans.

However, World War II came calling and with it an influx of Africans into the cities picking up jobs that were meant for “skilled workers”, which previously only whites were allowed to perform, but over 200,000 had been drafted by the British to fight against the Nazis leaving a shortfall in the factories of ready hands who could make military supplies. Also, during that period, South Africa experienced one of the worst droughts in its history, forcing natives into urban areas by droves. As Alistair Boddy-Evans reports, “squatter camps grew up near major industrial centres but had neither proper sanitation nor running water. One of the largest of these squatter camps was near Johannesburg, where 20,000 residents formed the basis of what would become Soweto.”

Meanwhile, Africans began to oppose white oppression. During World War II, the African National Congress was led by Alfred Xuma. He was the first black South African to become a medical doctor, bagging multiple degrees from the United States, Scotland, and England. Xuma and the African National Congress (ANC) called for universal political rights. In 1943, Xuma, President-General of the ANC presented the wartime Prime Minister Jan Smuts with a document titled African’s Claims in South Africa, demanding full citizenship rights, fair distribution of the land, equal pay for equal work, and the abolishment of segregation.

In 1944, a faction of the ANC, Anton Lembede, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu formed the ANC Youth League. They came up with a different brand of protest meant to force the hand of the government. “Squatter communities set up their own system of local government and taxation, and the Council of Non-European Trade Unions had 158,000 members organised in 119 unions, including the African Mine Workers’ Union. The AMWU struck for higher wages in the gold mines and 100,000 men stopped work. There were over 300 strikes by Africans between 1939 and 1945, even though strikes were illegal during the war.”

In other to suppress the swell of opposition from the Africans, three solutions were advanced. The United Party (UP) of Jan Smuts opted to maintain the status quo, arguing against the practicality of complete segregation was totally impractical but still refusing to give Africans political rights. On the other side of the divide, the Herenigde Nasionale Party (HNP) led by D.F. Malan advocated for the following: total segregation and “practical” apartheid.

Total segregation proposed that Africans be driven back into “their homelands”, leaving only male ‘migrant’ workers to take on the most menial jobs while “Practical” apartheid urged government intervention to establish special agencies to direct African workers to employment in specific white businesses. The “practical system” commanded complete separation between races, prohibiting any intermarriage between Africans, “Coloureds,” and Asians. Indians were to be repatriated back to India, and the national home of Africans would be in the reserve lands. Africans in urban areas were to be migratory citizens, and black trade unions would be banned.

The HNP won majority of seats in Parliament, effectively setting in motion practical apartheid under which Africans in South Africa laboured for the next 40 years.

Protest Music to the rescue

“There has yet been little investigation of how music was used by political movements, either within the country or in exile. In addition, little detailed research has been conducted on freedom songs, the ubiquitous but largely informal and un-professionalised genre that was probably the dominant musical medium of popular political expression” (Olwage 2004).

Grant Olwage, Historian.

The natives refused to go quietly into the night and began a different kind of struggle through music. Initially, it was civil and churchy, having its earliest foundations in the Ohlange Institute, established by John Dube in 1901 (He was the first president of the South African National Native Congress (SAANC), later to become the African National Congress (ANC)). Ohlange was roundly influenced by European and American church music and this reflected in its musical compositions, including protest songs (termed iMusic).

Robin Scher describes the early protest songs composed by Reuben Caluza, first a pupil then teacher at the Institute as “mere grumblings, with no call for direct action.” However, through regular choir tours, the Institute used these songs to keep the natives informed about the atrocities being enforced by the Afrikaans. ‘Umteto we Land Act’, for instance, shed light on the injustice of the 1913 Land Act. The songs were sung in isiZulu so they went over white officials’ heads. Using the available dual distribution points of the time – the black migrant gold mines worker and the transistor radio, a wartime innovation, Caluza later adapted his protest songs to reflect the frenzied sounds of the time – jazz and ragtime, giving birth to iRagtime. This music was in accord with Zulu speech patterns, making it effective for the most direct resistance through song to date. “A notable example was ‘iDipu eTekwini’ (Dipping in Durban), a song Caluza composed dealing with the dehumanising practice of human flea dipping required for workers from rural Natal wanting to work in Durban.”

The Union of South African Artists in 1952 continued the struggle. The musicians came together, with the assistance of a white man Ian Bernhardt to escape the repressive environment on creativity, no thanks to apartheid laws. The collaboration by notable names such as Abdullah Ibrahim, Miriam Makeba’s vocals or Hugh Masekela’s trumpet produced a musical titled King Kong which was first performed in 1959 at the Witwatersrand University Great Hall to the first multi-racially diverse gathering of its kind in the country. While the musical became an overseas hit, it also landed several of its cast members in exile, including Makeba, Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu, who became international ambassadors for the struggle against apartheid.

On the heels of King Kong’s international success was ‘Izakunyathel’iAfrica Verwoerd’ or Ndodemnyama” (Africa is Going to Trample On You, Verwoerd), a protest song composed in prison by Vuyisile Mini, a secretary for the Dock Workers Union of Port Elizabeth and ANC activist. Mini was arrested in 1963 for “political crimes,” including sabotage and complicity in the death of an alleged police informer. He was sentenced to death after refusing to squeal on his comrades. “Fellow prisoner Ben Turok describes him as walking defiantly to the gallows while singing Ndodemnyama”.

The song, targeted at the Minister of Native Affairs, Hendrick Verwoerd (Prime Minister in 1958) and widely regarded as the architect of apartheid went thus:


Africa is going to trample on you, Verwoerd.

Verwoerd! Shoot…

You are going to get hurt.

Verwoerd, watch out.

As mounting pressure poured in from overseas,  the tide began to turn in the 1980s. In 1984, a band- The Special AKA – from Coventry, England helped seal the fate of apartheid with their hit song Free Nelson Mandela. On 11 June 1988, in celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday, the band delivered its message in a spectacular manner as over 600 million people in 67 countries around the world watched as performers paid tribute Mandela at Wembley Stadium in London. The apartheid government had no choice but to yield to the pressure and bow out. In the 1994 elections, which saw Nelson Mandela emerge President, over 19 million South Africans trooped to the polls. Shortly after, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the national anthem was composed with elements of both the African and British hymns to reflect the new South Africa ideal.

“Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (In Xhosa)

Nkosi, sikelel’ iAfrika

Malupakam’upondo lwayo

Yiva imitandazo yetu



Yehla Moya, Yehla Moya,

Yehla Moya Oyingcwele

In English

Lord, bless Africa

May her horn rise high up

Hear Thou our prayers And bless us.


Descend, O Spirit,

Descend, O Holy Spirit.

“Senzeni Na?”




Sono sethu ubumnyama

Sono sethu yinyaniso


Mayibuye i Africa.

What Have We Done?

(English Translation)

What have we done?

Our sin is that we are black

Our sin is the truth

They are killing us

Let Africa return.

Protest music is not limited to South Africa. In Nigeria, the legendary Fela Anikulapo-Kuti used the instrumentality of music to criticise the Military government of the day. With songs like Unknown Soldier targeted at Olusegun Obasanjo or Zombie, a dig at the Nigerian military, Fela dished scathing condemnation with glee, for which he caught major ire. He was jailed several times and a government-sanctioned attack, it has been alleged, was ordered on his home, Kalakuta Republic, the effects of which his mother never recovered from.

In 1977, Fela released Sorrows, Tears and Blood, depicting what he had suffered.

Fela didn’t stop with songs. He started buying advertising space in daily newspapers in the 70s. He wrote social and political commentaries under the title “Chief Priest Say”, which was published by The Punch and Daily Times.

Is all music political?

It is hard to imagine a scenario where any creative work isn’t political. Creative work is often wrapped around the crucial decision of the privilege of storytelling. As a creative of any kind, and especially a creative who works in the audiovisual mediums, who you choose to centre in your art is an important political statement, almost as political as who you choose to exclude. Because the persons you choose to centre and the persons you choose to exclude are an estimation of what is important to you as a person and what you feel can be ignored.

One of the biggest struggles in millennial culture is the struggle of representation, especially as the media has gone from obscure to ubiquitous, invading all aspects of our lives. Now that we have images from all across the world constantly being broadcast to us across screens large and small, we are starting to question why there aren’t more images of people like us, people who share our specific skin colour and heritage, people interested in the problems that we have and are willing/ready to speak on them. The media is no longer under the monopoly of major media networks, now we are all at the mercy of the audience and the advertiser and the advertiser listens to the audience. This is why platforms like YouTube have become so popular, often the content created there is repetitive and formulaic, but the people who religiously follow YouTube channels often admit to doing so because they form connections with the content creators. This new democratisation of media channels and ways to get our creative work straight to the final audience has also allowed us for the first time, truly ask of our local creatives; why do you refuse to tell our stories; why do you choose to tell the stories you tell?

Nigerian music is vapid and watered down into broad, simplistic strokes. This is a deliberate decision by the artists based on an unspoken agreement between them and their audiences. We allow them tell these vapid stories that seem to focus only entirely on our ideals of unmerited success, the pursuit of sexual conquest in a way that elevates that uniquely Nigerian strain of paternalism and ridiculous, bourgois expressions of personal wealth. All three ideals are built on a foundation of entitlement, that blind expectation that good must come to us, even though we have put nothing in the universe to warrant this good will. Nigerian music and (slowly trickling across Africa) has embraced the distinctly American ideal of expressing aspirations as opposed to realities. There isn’t much blame to go round in aspirational music, and what little blame there is, goes to invisible detractors. Our distinct lack of protest music, especially in Nigeria exists because to protest against the prevailing circumstances that plague Africa would be to admit that indeed we are complicit in the failings of our nations. It would require us to address the prevailing ethnic biases and stereotypes that have arisen from those biases, it would require us to address our greed and slovenliness, our willingness to destroy the planet to enrich our pockets. It would require us to admit to our cowardice, our willingness to admit to less than humane conditions provided we aren’t at the bottom of the totem pole, our refusal to consider the lives of people different from us a valid and worth protecting and/or elevating.

Very few artists anywhere have made a living out of protest music, at least without becoming entrenched in politics and nation-building itself.  We’d even go as a far as saying not many artists who make conscious music have managed a mainstream following. Like Falz, many African artists usually dabble in conscious or protest music, taking on one or two protest songs at the end of an album that works as a buffet tasting table, a little bit of everything in the hopes that something sticks. Or they hop on a popular trend, using a catalyst as a fulcrum to thrust their music into the mainstream consciousness and ensure that the music made in this spirit retains profitable.

Music is always political, because it is inherently defined by choice, choice of subject matter, choice of genre and medium, the debate of melody over lyrics, the choice of visual imagery. The absence of music that engages the lived experiences of its target is a political statement, one that suggests avoidance is our most treasured African trait.

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