Socially Conscious Music and the activism that must follow it

‘‘Critics want to mention that they miss when hip-hop was rapping/ motherfucker if you did, then Killer Mike would be platinum’’ — Kendrick Lamar — Hood Politics [2015]

Fela Anikulapo Kuti [GettyImages/Paul Natkin]

Reading this very important article by Dennis Adepeter reminded me of something I had always reminisced about. Being a huge fan of songs with messages, one often pitched the effort put into making these records versus their acceptance and more crucially if their impact was worth it.

This got heightened many years ago after listening’s to M.I Abaga's Crowd Mentality.’ It was the first official single from the classic album, Talk About It. On it, M delivered one of the finest rap performances that defied time, but the line that stuck with me was, ‘‘No matter how many songs I sing, about truth, honestly, it will never change a thing.’’

This can’t be more accurate in a nation where our problems — lack of basic infrastructures, corruption, police injustice — have remained almost the same as the leaders since independence.

Like, Fela for decades dedicated his career to being the vanguard of conscious, political, and revolutionary change using Afrobeat as his weapon such that even at death he barely succeeded in stirring the people into a revolt or get the authorities to have a change of heart, and God did he try with over 20 albums.

One of his albums was Beasts Of No Nation, a bold and riveting take on Nigerian politics, Apartheid South Africa, and western influence on African politics after he returned from prison.

While the likes of Bob Marley and Majek Fashek made Reggae music laced with critiques of ‘Babylon,’ and Sonny Okosun’s ‘Which Way Nigeria’ is social consciousness on steroids, pop stars like 2baba took things to another level for newer listeners.

On his 2004 debut album, Face2Face, the legend used ‘Holy Pass’ to discuss the reality of Nigerian hypocrisy and how we’re all complicit in a failed system.

Face2Face Album cover [KennisMusic]

Then he released the singles ‘For Instance’ and ‘One Love’ on his classic sophomore, Grass 2 Grace. The former represented the yearnings of the average Nigerian for profitable power while ‘One Love’ rehashed the classic Onyeka Onwenu song of the same title inspired by the late Bob Marley. Idibia and Onwenu bemoaned ethnic tensions which have contributed to tribal divides and in turn incohesive voices and bad electoral decisions.

Still, nothing changed. On her debut, Asa did a socio-political critique with ‘Jailer’ and so did Wande Coal, raising questions on, ‘Se Na Like This’ off his paradigmatic album, Mushin To Mo’hits.

At the turn of the last decade, Sound Sultan and MI Abaga created the classic socio-political critique, ‘2010,’ to signify the continuation of Nigeria’s problem into the new decade. Tekno made ‘Rara’ in 2017 and Femi Kuti continued the cause with the classic vitriolic critique, ‘Evil People.’ The list goes on.

Those songs are essential to the struggle, but the efficiency of that struggle reflects in our choice of music. Instead of dwelling in the pain, we embrace the hustle mentality and rather find avenues to escape. On social media, we joke about everything, and during the #EndSARS protests, regular pop records accompanied our battle cry, not any of these powerful records.

Some then questioned the importance of these socio-politically charged records, if they aren’t mainstream enough to educate, spark a change, and be used for socio-political movements. Why bother really when the people just want to dance?

Then I found a semblance of an answer in the unlikeliest of places; ‘‘What shall we say then, shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid’’ [Romans 6: 1–2]

Interpreted thus: To desire to continue in sin shows a misunderstanding of this abundant grace and contempt for the sacrifice of Christ.

Appropriately, to conclude or surmise that these socially conscious songs don’t matter or are of little value shows a disconnect from the reality of our daily lives and a contempt for the labors of our heroes’ past. That one day goes by where injustice, oppression, failed governance, and discrimination exist is one more day when speaking up and lending your voice matters.

But I do agree that there needs to be more to just the music for amplified effect and while the radical brand of Fela’s activism leading to constant raids, arrests, and the death of his mother, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti makes it nearly impossible for any modern artist to ever be compared to him, there must be the next level in some form to these conscious agitations. Let’s take J Cole and Jay Z for example.

A young Fela alongside his mother, Funmilayo Kuti [AfricaShrine]

Before proceeding, let’s be clear, I understand the complexities of our terrain and differences in our systems to demand this from any Nigerian artist, but at least it helps put things into perspective.

At best, what we have seen is most of our celebrities play on the J Cole level. In 2014, after the unfortunate shooting of Michael Brown, Cole not only released the single, ‘Be Free,’ but two days later, he was sighted with protesters at Ferguson.

Fast-forward six years later, in May 2020, Cole again joined protesters in his native North Carolina following the killing of George Floyd by the Police. So think J Cole; think Eedris Abdulkareem, think Runtown, think Burna Boy, think every Nigerian artist who joined the ‘Occupy Nigeria’ protests at Ojota in 2012 or more recently during the #EndSars protests.

J Cole at the George Floyd protests [fayobserver]

In 2019, Falz who has always had a conscious spin to his music despite being more famous for his comical rap style took a bolder frame with his ‘‘Moral Instruction’’ tape, and to back up his words, he has done more than just ‘Talk’ [No pun intended]. From the interview series, he ran in the build-up to the last elections to the role he played in the recent #EndSars protests. Falz has taken the message beyond just the music by devoting his time, resources, and clout to the cause.

Then there is what I call the Jay- Z level. I once read an article where the writer stated that ‘‘No one seems to know how to move in a room full of vultures like Jay,’’ and trust me, there are fewer rooms filled with vultures than the Nigerian political class, so how does one artist navigate through this situation at very little risk to their bag or even their lives?

Jay was reported to have helped raise $1.5M through his New World Foundation to support charities including the Black Lives Matter Movement. In 2017, he was part of the Kalief Browder Story — a six-part series — on black minorities getting locked up for crimes they never committed. Upon his release from jail, Meek Mill told how Hov helped pay his legal fees and how they both launched the Reform Group afterward.

Admittedly no Nigerian artist has the financial strength or influence that Jay has but there are lessons to be adopted and certain things they can still leverage on; think less of a single iconic image of a man with two fists up and more institutionally potent.

Think Davido during the #EndSars protest and how his good intentions sadly became more about him than the course. Whatever did happen to the supposed ‘Independent Panel’ he was empowered by the IG to set up?

Davido at the Abuja End Sars protest ground [Fortune]

In the aftermath of the protests, bodies like Feminist Coalition swiftly moved to provide transportation for injured protesters, security where they could, and legal services aimed at ensuring freedom or at the very least, a fair legal representation to all.

The actions afterward gave flesh and a sustained legacy to the individuals that were the faces of the protests and I couldn’t stop asking myself, could the celebrities who were visibly on the ground during the protests be more active at this stage when there was no camera insight?

They may appear as very tiny details but could easily be the difference between putting up a performance or having actual empathy that connects your action to your words.

Perhaps the closest we have had to this level is from 2baba. At certain times particularly in the build-up to elections, 2baba has partnered with groups like Enough Is Enough for his social advocacy, focusing majorly on voters enlightenment and preaching the anti-violence campaign while donating huge sums to Internally Displaced Persons [IDPs]. In 2017, this alliance was aiming for more when he announced a nationwide protest that never held due to political pressure, but ever since, there has been little attempt beyond social media captions.

The truth is we cannot continue to hold onto nostalgia to fight today’s battles. Very few of this generation were alive or grown enough to understand and appreciate Fela’s fight for the struggle and new ‘heroes’ [used very lightly] are needed, not one built or wanting to be Fela but one in the understanding of the dynamics of modern-day warfare.

No matter your thoughts about the music of the likes of Davido, Wizkid, Tiwa Savage, you have to admit that their lifestyle — affluence, reckless spending, sex idol — is consistently on-brand with their message. Socially conscious records have to be more than just album fillers but a thoughtful approach to speak directly to the ills of our society.

For conscious songs to be the engine of change and more than just classics that we keep going back in our sober and down moments, it demands more from the artist, it must be compassionate, engaging, and undeviating.

Fela was not perfect, he perhaps even had more flaws as a person than the people he fought for, but he was undoubtedly consistent with what he preached, and being one with the message he echoed through his personality such that perception around Afrobeat as a genre or anyone associated with it was impulsively considered political, cultural and best created for social critique.

Writer(Sports and Entertainment), Manchester United. Music lover. I believe you can speak things into existence...

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