What Asa’s NNPC Performance Tells Us About The Political Conscience

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Sometimes they agree, sometimes they disagree, but music and politics are never far apart. In the past few weeks, Nigerians have seen how well music can serve politics. A singing nephew helped his dancing uncle win the highest office in Osun State. This Tuesday, music gave politics a mild scolding: Asa sang her famous Fire on the Mountain (2007) in Muhammadu Buhari’s presence during the relaunch of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation at an event held at the Presidential Villa in Abuja. Other top government officials were present, but it’s the president’s presence that has impelled most of the remarks made about the event. It’s not a perfect comparison, but what Asa did is like Burna Boy singing 20-10-20 at an official Lagos State event with Sanwo-Olu in the front row. Or Fela Kuti performing Beast of No Nation at Buhari’s birthday bash. As I said, not a perfect comparison.  

We rarely see Nigerian musicians contradict their politicians in a face-to-face situation. Even contradiction from the distant safety of a studio booth is uncommon. Fela was frequently incarcerated for using music as a political “weapon”. Contemporary musicians, familiar with Fela’s tribulations, know that to avoid jail time they must avoid politics. Also, songs with socio-political themes do not generate as much revenue as songs about weed or sex. People prefer to learn their politics from Reuters, not Spotify. Musicians, profit-driven animals like the rest of us, do what is good for business. 

In those rare times a musician yokes melody with political polemic — even when said polemic wears the shawl of allegory, as Asa’s song does —  we are exuberant in our veneration of the artist’s “courage”, and in the significance we give to the critique. Asa brought fire to a petroleum event. The result? Explosion on social media: people discussed and hailed her for singing truth to power. 

I don’t recall Asa moving her lips in support of the End SARS protests, her social media accounts maintaining a Trappist silence through that eventful period. While her oeuvre boasts of some socially conscious songs, Asa the musician is more of a paramour than an activist champion. Her newest album V is a tribute to both self-love and hedonism. I know this; you know this; those who put together the NNPC event know it, too. They must have decided on Asa because she is who you want on stage when you don’t want to embarrass the number one citizen of your country. She is respectable, as are her lyrics: at least you won’t have to worry about an off-key reference being made to the female genitalia at the Presidential Villa. 

More importantly, nothing in her public life suggests her as capable of political drama of the subversive kind. But if a non-controversial music performance was what the event’s organisers had in mind, their plan backfired (here’s another fire pun for your amusement).

Fifty-eight years ago, the theatre legend Hubert Ogunde first showcased his popular play, Yoruba Ronu. It was at an event put together by the newly formed National Nigerian Democratic Party. It was to mark the launch of Egbe Omo Olofin, a reaction to Obafemi Awolowo’s Egbe Omo Oduduwa. Chief Ladoke Akintola, the new Western Region Premier and NNDP leader, watched Ogunde’s play that day. If Akintola’s face carried a smile when the play started, it was a rictus of rage by the middle of the play.

In the play, King Fiwajoye is deposed and imprisoned by his deputy, Yeye-Iloba. Yeye-Iloba then rules as a tyrant, but is eventually killed by his people. Akintola recognised himself in Yeye-Iloba. Once, he was Awolowo’s deputy in the Action Group party. He fell out with Awolowo, had a hand in his imprisonment, then occupied the political office previously held by Awo. Ogunde’s play lacked the fearless name-dropping of Fela Kuti’s protest music. But it was far more pointed than Asa’s performance, so much that Akintola stormed out of the hall with some of his ministers. The next day, Ogunde’s theatre group was banned from performing in the Western Region. 

It’s possible Ogunde borrowed ideas from Hamlet. In the Shakespearean drama, Hamlet suspects the king, his uncle Claudius, killed his father by poisoning his ear. To confirm his suspicion, he stages a play for his uncle’s benefit, where he recreates what he believes to be the manner of his father’s death, then he watches for his uncle’s reaction. When the actor playing king has his ear poisoned, a guilt-stricken Claudius hoofs it out of the room. A politician’s conscience, and rage, responds to artistic portraits of striking exactitude.

Asa wasn’t wrong when she sang that “there is fire on the mountain”. Just look how much the naira is worth these days. It used to be that with N20,000 I could pay for everything at the local mall; with that sum these days I can’t pay attention. But Asa’s singing didn’t make Buhari stir in his chair. Nor did he do a dramatic walkout. We can’t be sure he understood Asa’s lyrics, the question of his literacy a large quota of the national debate in the last eight years. He has frequently misunderstood basic questions thrown to him by journalists, but that may have been by deft design: willfully misread the questions and you avoid giving straightforward answers.  

Or his non-reaction may be down to the nature of Asa’s song: no specific names are mentioned — only abstract nouns: “soldier man”; “lover man” —  and it indicts the rest of us as much as it does the political class. Nothing that demands a walkout. 

Closer to the truth is that Mr President couldn’t care less. He has fulfilled his vanity of living in Aso Rock and nothing else matters — not the mountain, not the fire, not the dreadlocked songstress singing about a subject Daniel Olukoya is best suited to address (he did, after all, found the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries).  Only recently one Channels TV reporter asked Buhari what his thoughts were about the forthcoming presidential elections. To which Buhari said, “not my problem”. The response of someone who cares: I hope it is fair and peaceful. 

I thought Asa turned up to the event looking like Neo from The Matrix. What with her all-black regalia and her sunshades in the sunless room. She finished her performance to tentative applause: it was only a few decibels noisier than your university’s library. Perhaps chastened by the reprimand given in verse, the room’s occupants had yet to regain their courtesy and ability to applaud. Or maybe that’s how it is with politicians and rich people: all that money and high status instils a self-restraint that makes them use their body in niggardly portions when under public surveillance. One chink to that argument is Davido’s uncle: a filthily rich politician unashamed of sending his body on frenetic errands.

After Fire on the Mountain, Asa performed IDG, a song from her new album featuring Wizkid. Languidly apolitical, it is a contrast to the one she sang only seconds ago. You could say the abrupt thematic switch embodies the Nigerian condition. Our house may be burning but it has never stopped us from dancing. The more optimistic ones among us may even call it housewarming. Very rarely does music criticise politics; usually, it is how we survive politics. To cancel out the din of terrorism in the North-East we put Yemi Alade at full volume and on repeat. At any rate, you should never underestimate the Nigerian unique facility for seeing the bright side of life. 

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