“Music is our witness, and our ally. The beat is the confession which recognizes, changes and conquers time. Then, history becomes a garment we can wear and share, and not a cloak in which to hide; and time becomes a friend.”
The End SARS protests didn’t just rouse the Nigerian youth, it fed their spirit of communion. Across the nation, hot days and glacial nights meant nothing, even for celebrities with much greater comfort elsewhere. Of course, the streets and roads weren’t safe and no one was safe.
When millenials and Gen-Z pooled across the nation, loudly and clearly expressing their opinions on policing, they took style with them. Culture. Whatever you feel in the bones when you enter an Ajegunle street at night, the diverse souls striking a balance through the enjoyment of a musical performance.
It seemed remarkably aligned that a great pop star like Davido had just released FEM. Stentorian and quite direct, with a familiar energy bursting from the artist’s voice, the song was adapted as a sort of anthem. Whenever videos from the protests were shared, the lyric “why dem come dey para for me?” would be chanted–surely a question for the nation’s rulers, whose ineptitude and wickedness had for long infringed on the natural expressiveness of the youth they governed. I dey live my life; SARS dey turn am to shoot on sight.
On one of those days, Fikky, a young Lagos-based rapper was raised on a Danfo where he spit a rousing verse, mostly in Yoruba. “Keep your phone; popo dey everywhere,” he sarcastically advises. While he trended on Twitter, the acclaimed producer Adey requested his details and mere hours later, the freestyle became a song, blazing in new gravitas, a bounce that recognizably emerges from the mainland of Lagos. You’d again hear that expression of young, wounded experience in Zinoleeeky’s 1-minute anti-SARS record, released a year before Fikky’s.
Burna Boy’s Monsters You Made appealed because of its powerful lyricism but it was another Port Harcourt musician–two actually–whose song truly spoke to protesters. Ajebo Hustlers Barawo addressed mob justice from both angles, as a fit of righteous rage against a politician and a fatal punishment against an adjudged thief. It was also dedicated to the ALUU4, who’d been lynched nine years ago in the Obi-Akpor local government area of Rivers state. This textured appraisal of the human nature elevated the record to iconic status, and a Davido remix brought it even more listeners; from Lagos to Awka, one line provided an apt description for the madness: This country na wa.
The necessity of music towards sociopolitical discourse runs deep in the Nigerian consciousness. The Aba Women’s Riot of 1929, which influenced similar movements across Nigeria, featured several agitations against the local chief which included singing around his house at midnight.
Before the Civil War, Highlife was the go-to sound for Nigerians who sought identification with classical African music, with narratives stitched from familiar everyday experiences. The war’s outbreak in 1967 threw musicians across ethnic lines, performing in army bands and honored with military ranks. The Igbo people of Eastern Nigeria had come away worse from the war, not just mortally diminished but psychologically depleted. Chief Osita Osadebe’s Ebezina, among other records from Highlife practitioners like Oliver De’Coque and Bright Chimezie, kept the people’s spirits jolly and hopeful for a better future.
From then on, national politics was increasingly played out in Lagos. Though genres like Fújì and Jùjú turned mainstream afterwards, its acts didn’t possess the political vim of Fela Kuti, whose music had been baptized in social theory and spiritual awakening after a 1969 tour of the US. Tony Allen, the legendary drummer and musical director of Kuti’s Africa 70, supplied a steady drum groove which, when paired with horns, pianos and other instruments typical of a big band, set Fela up for prophecy. And, through it all, he delivered, whether on the vivid Sorrow, Tears & Blood, the humorous Expensive Shit or Unknown Soldier, his pithy account of an infamous attack on his Kalakuta Republic home, wherein his mother was thrown from a window by Nigerian soldiers.
As the nation disintegrated around its citizens, Kuti’s style of defiance influenced the coming generation of musicians. The humored storytelling showed itself in Nigga Raw’s Obodo and P-Square’s Oga Police. The technique of innuendo you’d find on Eedris Abdulkareem’s Jaga Jaga. Natty Get Jail, a classic record by Reggae maestro Ras Kimono, was initially titled Fela Getta Jail, written in support of the then-jailed artist who actually secured bail before the song was released.
For this cause, the scions of Reggae who emerged in the eighties fought hard. Kimono’s 1989 debut album, Under Pressure, was a stirring response to the inefficiences of the Ibrahim Babangida government. Prisoner of Conscience, the 1988 album of Majek Fashek, set the Benin City-born musician on a legendary path, acclaimed as diviner and storyteller. Victor Essiet and The Mandators released Rat Race that same year, its title record becoming one of the era’s most popular songs. Evi-Edna Ogholi’s sophomore album On The Move, too, was out in ’88 and had Obaro (Move Forward), a conscious banger delivered in her native Isoko dialect.
When the modern pop industry formed in the late nineties, there was understandably lesser motivation for political declarations. The nation had returned to democracy and artists went about staking their claim to a fast-growing industry. However, musicians like 2Face Idibia and Sound Sultan still sang about social happenings, especially during crucial national periods. Even though our pop music would tilt more towards hedonism, politics was an ugly underside of the social condition, and has come to be evoked in the same breath over the years.
What makes Nigerian music so catchy? Is it the melodies, the production or our slangs? Is it individual talent, or is there something in the air? Well, there’s a point to be made that our abundant population increases the likelihood of creating great musicians. Then again to relegate such a question to numbers couldn’t be less ingenious.
One Lagos day, I and two friends visited The Afrikan Shrine in Ikeja. Seun Kuti was billed to appear but the musician got on stage quite deep into the night, performing brilliantly in yellow trousers, his bare frame slick with sweat as he alternated between instruments, from keyboard to trumpet. It was a good time, no doubt, but I couldn’t return home such a late hour. After chatting with a friend, we located his house not far away where we’d spend the night.
This friend was a music executive, and had been in the game for quite a long time. As we got talking, watching music videos on his TV, he launched into a monologue of why Black music was supreme. “It comes from a place of pain, man,” I remember him saying. His theory was that the nation’s many problems supplied enough motivation for its bustling youth. And of course, creating art from pain had raw energy that could barely be replicated. Many musicians have made joyful songs, like Marley has Easy Skankin and Stir It Up, but why are No Woman, No Cry and Redemption Song his biggest records?
On October 20th of 2020, despair was thick as smoke in Lagos and throughout the world, where many saw as young Nigerians were hounded and killed by the nation’s armed officials. For many, it was undeniable proof that Nigeria’s ills had gotten past the stage of protest songs. As many sought ways out of the mess, our music, like it’d always done, reminded us of our beauty. Regardless of everything, we could still live beyond the depression and mounting hopelessness.
It wasn’t surprising that a lot of young Nigerians left the country this year. Still, in the corners of Ajegunle, in the congested houses in Mushin, in some putrid streets of Bariga, someone’s plotting a way out of the misery. Music finds this person and there’s no way out but to sing. To sing as no one has done before. There’s reason why the most emotive musicians are those who came from dire circumstances.
The current crop of Afro Pop musicians are known to condense these experiences into their music. Although not overtly political, songs like Fireboy DML’s I’ll Be Fine and Omah Lay Do Not Disturb are intensely conscious, with allusions to larger societal trends which are affected, someway, by politics. Rema’s Peace Of Mind thus rests at the zenith of his artistic accomplishments, a harrowing look at Nigeria from the eyes of its disillusioned youth. The Kel P-produced song references the infamous usage of drugs to cope with anxiety, the harshness of the Nigerian reality, and its punishing unpredictability. His weary question “how many happiness man fit to buy?” and the crushing admission of a survivor, that “this pain no be only my pain” is reason why, even though a song like Jaga Jaga would hardly be made by contemporary superstars, their very existence are demonstrations of protest.
That’s why we relate so much to Tems and Bella Shmurda, or Zinoleesky and Ayra Starr. They don’t project their images as great models of contrarian thought; instead they’re living it. And, as much as outright protest songs might strike that nerve so well, it’s inevitable that we should bask in our joys too. What I’m saying is that the destiny of music—black music especially—is to capture us at our most beautiful. A year after End SARS, while we continue to push for reforms and better leaders, we shouldn’t feel guilty for surrendering to the nature of our blackness.
Emmanuel Esomnofu is a Nigerian writer and culture journalist. He publishes Distant Relatives, a newsletter on music and culture.