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Protest Music Not Dead in Nigeria. Here’s Why

By Ezinwanne Onwuka

It may surprise American club goers who admire feel-good songs in the AfroBeats vein to find a few Nigerian artists who have embraced music activism, particularly on issues of corruption, mismanagement, and government failure.

Folarin Falana, 32, a lawyer-turned-rapper who goes by the stage name “Falz,” readily comes to mind. Since starting his music career in 2009, Falz has never shied away from taking up the onus to speak against power and to beam the searchlight on the problems bedevilling Nigerian society, from political corruption to insecurity to fraud.

Falz’s 2018 single This is Nigeria is a scathing critique of the nation’s political vermin and the social detritus of their infestations:  collapsing bridges, police brutality, internet fraud, venal clerics and terrorism. Witness these lyrics: “This is Nigeria/Never ending the recession o/When looter and killers and stealers are still contesting election o/Politicians wey thief some billions and billion no dey go prison o.”

Falz highlighted Nigeria’s political and socio-political problems at a greater length in his 2019 nine-track album Moral Instruction. The album made it clear that the rapper would be able to ruffle feathers with his art. And the Vector-assisted Yakubu attested to this. Yakubu, released shortly after Nigeria’s controversial 2023 general election, was dis on the chairman of Nigeria’s electoral body, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, for his alleged manipulation of the February 25 presidential election results in favour of current President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the candidate of the All Progressives Congress, APC.

Damini Ogulu, the 32-year-old self-acclaimed “African Giant” better known as Burna Boy, is another artist known for his witty ability to use music to identify the ills in society and address them with creative lyricism. From his debut studio album in 2013, L.I.F.E: Leaving an Impact for Eternity to his latest album Love, Damini, Burna Boy has given voice to the flagrant exploitation of the have-nots by the political class.

The M.I-featuring My Cry from L.I.F.E: Leaving an Impact for Eternity, gives a biting social commentary on Nigeria’s corruption. “Just the dirty politicians/Just give them a pen and the money goes missing/Aii… World’s greatest magician,” Burna Boy sings.  On Soke, a three minutes-9 second track from his On a Spaceship album, he unpacks the hell of Nigerian poverty, the epileptic power supply, and the dearth of basic clean water.

In Collateral Damage, the singer talks about the brazen embezzlement of Nigeria’s national resources by politicians. On his Grammy award-winning 2020 album Twice as Tall, he gives us  Monsters You Made, an lyrical rant against the despoiling of the Niger Delta by oil companies, government grifters and the culture of thievery.

Inspired by the Lekki massacre of October 20, 2022, in Lagos State, Burna Boy released 20:10:20“Twentieth of October 2020/You carry army go kill many youth for Lekki/Na so water o, water runaway my eye/Nothing you go talk wey go justify the case of their murder,” he sings, alluding to the killing of several young Nigerians camped out at a tollgate in Lekki, a suburb of Lagos, to protest police brutality and the defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS, by security forces.

Still, there is more.

Jaga JagaMr President, and E Be Like Say rend airwaves in the 2000s. “Nigeria jaga jaga/Everything scatter scatter/Poor man dey suffer suffer,” rapper Eedris Abdulkareem, 49, in Jaga Jaga [a Yoruba term for shambles], paints a harrowing image of how difficult it was – and still is – to live in Nigeria. The song was banned from radio and TV stations by the then president, Olusegun Obasanjo who saw it as a felony.

Chinagorom Onuoha, 45, better known as “African China,” passed a similar message in 2006 in Mr President. In what appears to be a message to ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo, he sang: “Fuel e no dey/Brother eh transportation no dey/And our road e no good o/What about the NEPA [the defunct Nigerian electricity distribution company] people o/We no get light.”

The same year, “2Face Idibia,” 47, born Innocent Ujah Idibia, dedicated  E Be Like Say to “all of the shady politicians wey go promise and fail and make the people to dey live in harsh conditions.” The singer implored them to “change your ways now” and to “make the people live the way they are supposed to live.”

Meanwhile, there is Olufela ‘Anikulapo’ Ransome-Kuti [1938–1977], the oga pata pata [grand patron] of protest music in Nigeria. His songs such as Sorrow, Tears and BloodConfusion Break Bones,Beasts of No Nation and V.I.P (Vagabonds in Power) among others, opened up conversations and spurred reflection and action on issues such as corruption, bad governance, oppression, and aide range of civil rights and human rights concerns.

Fela’s songs, a searing attack on the Nigerian government, put him at loggerheads with the Nigerian Army, which he likened to mindless Zombies. In the words of his biographer, Carlos Moore:  “Until his last breath, Fela was a proud thorn in the flesh of every military or civilian despot that occupied the revolving presidential chair in Nigeria, a distinction that made his position nearly untenable.”

True, Nigerian protest anthems might not be as forceful as Jamaican singer Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up or American hip-hop group Public Enemy’s Fight the PowerSay it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud by James Brown, to mention a few. But Nigerian artists have expressed passionate concerns about the social abyss and have labored to hold the powerful elites accountable in song.   They continue to speak against the injustices of the day and to voice the plight of the masses in city slums and forlorn hamlets on the forest savannah.  Along with poets and prophetic critics of institutional corruption, they are the conscience of the nation.

Ezinwanne Onwuka writes on music, lifestyle, and culture for TruthNigeria.

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