Morality in Yoruba Movie Soundtracks

By Akintayo Abodunrin

Many Nigerian works of art, particularly movies, literature, and music, tend to be instructional, satirical, or commentative. ‘What lesson does it teach?’ is a common question raised by many Nigerians after seeing a movie. Moreover, the elderly, in particular, often give (sometimes unsolicited) advice to younger people when they see them watching a movie with no “lesson” or “moral, or to warn them about the dangers of listening to ‘gutter’ music, when they hear them singing popular Afrobeats or hip-hop songs.

While society typically favours ‘moral’ or ‘lesson’ movies,  some scholars have taken exception to how these lessons or morals are portrayed in Nollywood films. Omoera and Anyanwu (2014) note that in order for lessons or morals to be conveyed effectively, elements of moral compensation – which they define as “a feeling of satisfaction the viewer or the audience gets when vice is punished and virtue rewarded wherein the punishment or reward is commensurate or proportionate to the crime engendered” – must be incorporated into the story. They further state that, though moral compensation exists in Nollywood, its impact on the viewer would have been grossly weakened by the time justice is served. Sule and Adeyanju (2007) agree with the pair, attributing this to the tendency of Nigerian movies to dwell on elaborate scenes of evil acts or crimes committed before the law catches up with the perpetrators. 

While the plot may delay moral compensation, soundtracks, when cleverly composed, elevate a movie and play a crucial role in highlighting morality in Nigerian films. Many Nigerian filmmakers use music to reinforce the ‘moral’ or ‘admonishing’ themes in their films. Several ethnicities of filmmakers use this method,but the Yoruba of Southwest Nigeria are renowned for using soundtracks in their movies to preach morals, nay sermonise. 

Tunde Kelani, a pioneer in Nigeria’s film industry (otherwise known as Nollywood), adopts this tack. In his 2006 movie, The Narrow Path (adapted from Bayo Adebowale’s novel, ‘The Virgin’), roots musician Beautiful Nubia performs the contemplative theme song, ‘Ikoko Akufo’ (Lamentation for a broken pot). The movie revolves around Awero, a beautiful damsel from Orita Village who is pursued by two suitors: Odejimi, a brave hunter; and Lapade, a wealthy trader. In a setting where virginity is revered, Awero is robbed of her most valuable gift by Dauda, her childhood friend who succumbed to corrupting influences while living in the city. He lures and rapes her weeks before her wedding, then flees to the city.

Fere_Copyright Beautiful Nubia

In hindsight, maybe she shouldn’t have trusted him enough to think he was still the innocent childhood playmate she was fond of. Anyway, the deed was done and Awero (as shown in Ikoko Akufo’s lyrics), is likened to a broken, worthless and unwanted pot:

Ikoko to fo i s’oun a mu se’be 
Ikoko to fo i s’oun a mu to’le
Ikoko to fo i s’oun a mu r’odo
Ikoko to fo i s’oun a mu yan’gan
Ibadi aran d’eni a mu se yeye o
Bi eye ti o l’apa
Ibadi aran d’eni a mu se yeye o

In English, this portion of the theme song is translated as follows: A broken pot cannot be used for cooking/A broken pot cannot be used as an ornament/A broken pot cannot be taken to the stream/A broken pot cannot be shown off/Velvet hips have become a laughing stock/Like a bird without wings/Velvet hips have become a laughing stock.

Comparatively, ladies who are seen as the epitome of society’s cherished values are described as follows:

Seb’ade ori oko ni won
Obinrin to n’iwa t’o l’ewa
Iwuri obi ni won o ma je
Mobinrin to gb’eko to mu lo
Ori re dara, ori re sunwon, o d’adufe olori oko
Ori re dara, ori re sunwon, o d’abefe o

This verse loosely translates to: They are their husband’s crown/Ladies with character and beauty/They are a source of pride to their parents/Ladies who receive and adhere to instruction/You are extremely fortunate, you are now of marriageable age/You are fortunate, men are begging for your hand in marriage.” 

The song, which recorded major success, appears on Beautiful Nubia’s 2006 album, Fere. There are hardly any of his live performances in Nigeria, where fans don’t request that he performs the number. On a lighter note, a colleague disclosed that her grandmother always plays the song to emphasise the importance of purity.

In his 2005 film, Boju-Boju, Film and TV producer Ademola Aremu, also uses music to underscore the fundamental message that crime doesn’t pay. Also performed by Beautiful Nubia, the theme song, which was later released as the track ‘Onile Ayo’ in Fere, advocates for good behaviour. It sternly warns that criminals and their crimes will eventually be exposed. 

Boju-Boju, unlike the standard Nollywood fare, is a detective film. It focuses on resolving a confounding murder, with each suspect having a clear motivation for committing the crime. However, it is the male domestic help, Pade, played by Aremu, who allows himself to be used to murder his boss with poison. He was the least suspected, but the dogged detective, played by Yemi Solade, finally nailed him, and he got his just desserts.

The moral reinforcing part of the song, sung in Yoruba is as follows: 

Ohun buruku t’o gbe se ni’koko
O se b’oju enikan o le ri e o
Iwa ibaje t’e wu ni koro, o se b’owo eda kan o le ka e o
A o tu wo, a o gbe yewo, a o si o s’oju aye
A o gbe yewo, a o tu wo, a o yiri e l’oju aye
E ba je a wu’wa t’o dara, ore mi e wu’wa to sunwon
Ani ke wu’wa to j’oju k’aye ye wa
Ara mi ke wu’wa t’o dara, ore mi e wu’wa to sunwon
Ani ke wu’wa to j’oju k’aye ye wa o

In English, the song means: “All your secret dastardly acts/You think nobody sees you/ All your shameful secret actions, you think no one can hold you accountable/All shall be exposed/ You better behave responsibly and shun all vices.”

Likewise, Dotun Kolade, a musician who has worked on over 70 movie soundtracks, sang a memorable warning song for Akeem Alimi Ajala’s Nifemi (circa 2009) about a man who takes a second wife and whose first wife then proceeds to make his life a living hell. Like the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s ‘Trouble Sleep’, the song warns of the consequences of deliberately looking for trouble:

Ijongbon sun orun e, jeje, o jeje
Eniyan lo ji o, lo ji o, lo ji
Nigba ti ijongbon ji tan, o wa di yanponyanrin t’apa o ni le ka
E maa wa esu o

Yoruba movie and theatre practitioners who also incorporate moral themes and soundtracks into their work include illustrious forebears such as late Chief Hubert Ogunde, also known as ‘the doyen of Nigerian theatre’ and the late Chief Jimoh Aliu,  another old stager who used alluring soundtracks (sometimes just instrumentals) to captivate viewers while also warning or advising them. In his popular TV series Yanponyanrin, there’s a scene with rapid, staccato drumbeats warning of the horrors that trail the villain, Fadeyi Oloro. Back in the day, children and some adults interpreted the beats to mean: Warapa ni/ Were ni/ Digbolugi ni/E yago fun. It simply means that a deranged, evil fellow was coming, and people should flee.

The-Narrow-Path Sleeve_Copyright MainframeProductions
Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid_Source: Warner-Archives

But then, this trend is not exclusive to the aforementioned Nigerian filmmakers as some of their foreign counterparts also do the same. Nobel Prize winner, Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door originally written for ‘Pat Garett & Billy the Kid’ (1973) foretells a character’s imminent passing. It has been covered by some gun control advocates, including Guns N’ Roses and Wyclef Jean. Ted Christopher also recorded a cover version, with a new verse, in memory of the schoolchildren and teacher killed in the Dunblane massacre in 1996.

In the original movie, the scene-specific song plays when Sheriff Colin Baker, Pat Garett’s ally, is seriously wounded in a shootout with Billy the Kid and his gang. The Sheriff and his wife are shown by a riverside, preparing themselves for his death, which is not shown on screen. Scholar, Jonathan Hodgers, disclosed that the track had undergone several iterations to foretell death or other dangers: “It ranks among the most covered of all Dylan composed songs, with more than 150 recorded versions… Such permeation increases the song’s aggregate familiarity with a large number of listeners, conferring on it a long afterlife removed from its original context. The song has also appeared in films other than westerns. It has appeared in action movies such as ‘Days of Thunder’ (Scott, 1990) and ‘Lethal Weapon 2’ (Donner, 1989), dramas such as ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ (Jahn, 1997) and Lawn Dogs (Duigan, 1997), as well as the documentary ‘Constantine’s Sword’ (Jacoby, 2007) and the comedy ‘Be Cool’ (Gray, 2005).”

The words of the less than three-minute song are as follows:
Mama, take this badge off of me
I can’t use it anymore
It’s gettin’ dark, too dark to see
I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Mama, put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them anymore
That long black cloud is comin’ down
I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door

Though Nigeria’s movie industry has recorded giant strides with efforts from the likes of Tunde Kelani, Kunle Afolayan, Kemi Adetiba, Funke Akindele and Bolanle Austen-Peters, among others, moralising still shines through their stories and soundtracks. As a society that values morality and good behaviour, it appears that this will continue, even as the industry evolves and improves its production values.


  • Hodgers, J. (2014). Remembering ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The Soundtrack, 7(2), 89–103.
  • Omoera, O.S. & Anyanwu, C.: Moral Dilemma in Nollywood: Virtue Celebration or Vice Glorification? Pan-African Journal, October 2014.
  • Sule, I.D. & Adeyanju, A.M: Nigerian Home Video (Nollywood) and the Dissemination and Sustenance of Moral and Ethical Values in our Society, The Nigerian Journal of Sociology & Anthropology.
  • Tunde Kelani. (2018, August 4). Narrow Path [Video]. YouTube.

This essay is an original contribution published in ‘Audiovisual Crossroads’ #1. Read the rest of the collection here and send us your comments at

Akintayo Abodunrin earned his first and second degrees in Sociology from the University of Ibadan and has lived in the arts as a journalist and content creator for almost two decades. He began his career as a culture, arts and entertainment reporter with Nigeria’s oldest surviving newspaper, the Nigerian Tribune, in 2003. He has also worked at the defunct NEXT newspaper and Lagos-centric platform, CITY VOICE. Abodunrin has assisted in writing biographies and written scripts for radio. He started, dedicated chiefly to music with support from the Goethe Institut. He also has a weekly arts and culture page in Sunday Tribune. The Ibadan, Oyo State-born journalist writes as Araayo Akande for The Culture Newspaper