By Yinka Olatunbosun
Albeit cliché, music reflects its society and the temperament of the period it evolves from. Throughout global music history, musicians have always been involved in various movements to reaffirm humanity – whether as activists or philanthropists. Music is a part of the equation conceived to tackle human-made challenges. It’s inevitable to mention the role music played in the civil rights’ movement in the United States of America: Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Nat King Cole and John Coltrane are only but a few examples of musicians whose works were politically charged, fighting for black emancipation and confronting the evils of racial discrimination. Musicians in this era, according to the Civil Rights History Project, are cultural reservoirs and pointers to the common history of non-violent protests against racial segregation.
In Africa, music played a similar role in confronting injustice, even to the detriment of the artists involved. Over the years, many African artists faced censorship and were forced into exile as they embraced their roles (and responsibilities) as flag bearers, proclaiming messages of truth and emancipation through their songs, performances and music videos. Mariam Makeba, Lucky Dube, Dorothy Masuka, Brenda Fassie and Hugh Masekela were some of the voices of the generation that challenged South Africa’s discriminatory apartheid policy and their efforts have been chronicled in several documentaries about the subject.
Nigerian musicians made such tremendous parallels in creating socially-relevant music, especially music that reflected the socio-political situation of the day. Perhaps, the greatest example of this is Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Afrobeat pioneer and a true provocateur whose music served as a weapon in the struggle against military rule, corruption, neo-colonialism, religious hypocrisy and bad governance. When he transitioned from being a jazz musician to creating Afrobeat, he incorporated his African philosophy into this new genre which was inspired by Sandra Izsadore, his collaborator and a member of the Blank Panther Movement.
In his memoir Dis Fela Sef!, music critic Benson Idonije, who was also Fela’s first manager in Nigeria, recalled how the song ‘Zombie’ triggered a series of attacks, including an outright ban of the music from the airwaves and public spaces. It was also reported that roadside sales of the album were outlawed. And heaven help anyone humming the tune while passing by a military barracks because the song depicts soldiers as an emotionless collective, nothing more than robots or machines.
“This was the last straw that broke the camel’s back as it was seen as a public declaration of antagonism against the military government,’’ Idonije (2016) wrote. On February 18, 1977, hundreds of armed soldiers stormed Fela’s commune, Kalakuta Republic, burning, looting, beating, stripping and raping women, most of whom were members of his band. Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the 78-year-old activist and mother to Fela, was not spared; she was pushed out of a window. Undaunted by military suppression and brutality, Fela created even more ferocious songs such as ‘Army Arrangement’, ‘Coffin for Head of State’, ‘Beast of No Nation’, and ‘Shuffering and Shmiling’. His music activism, life, and politics were explored in the 1982 music documentary film Fela Kuti: Music is the Weapon.
The 2014 documentary, Finding Fela, was likewise about Fela’s life and musical achievements. It examines the way in which he created and used Afrobeat as an outlet for revolutionary political views (especially in reaction to the dictatorship of the Nigerian government), and shows how his influence transcended generations of music fans – while promoting Pan-Africanist ideals globally. The film, directed by Academy Award winner Alex Gibney, helped many people embrace Fela’s music and message while also separating Fela’s revolutionary music genre of Afrobeat from the emerging global sound termed ‘Afrobeats’.
Fela, who died in 1997, might have been an iconoclast, if not a scapegoat in his day but he was not alone in the struggle against bad leadership. Orlando Owoh, the “palm wine highlife” musician, was also a non-conformist like Fela. According to some reports, Owoh’s residence was like Fela’s commune – open to more than just family members. Although his persona had sparked the interest of documentarians and filmmakers, attempts to get a full-length documentary on his life and career achievements have been futile. However, renowned filmmaker, Tunde Kelani made a 13-minute video on Orlando Owoh’s career, which features an interview with the controversial musician. In the clip, Owoh recalls how he was raised by his step-mother and encountered art with the likes of Ulli Beier and Demas Nwoko. He also speaks about his childhood experiences in carpentry, painting and bricklaying – trades he learnt from his father before pursuing a career in music. His love for music was piqued by his father, who enjoyed listening to music after work hours.
Another flick inspired by this legendary highlife musician is Life History of Orlando Owoh. It features a series of interviews with Owoh’s children, his mother and band members. In it, Victor Karounwi Bajomo, a civil engineer who had been a member of the band for over 15 years, expressed a sentiment that was common to many conscious artists: “Initially, I played with other bands that played jazz, reggae; not this kind of music. I play bass guitar and drums. Most of the band boys love the music of Orlando most especially the lyrics, the message. I love his music regardless of the money. I have stayed in the band for so long now. Orlando is a very good musician,’’ Bajomo recalled.
While many filmmakers may have missed Owoh’s narrative, his life and work are chronicled on a dedicated website, drorlandoowoh.com. An article from this website gives information on his early career: “’Owoh’s first big break came when he was hired as a musician by Nigeria’s Kola Ogunmola Theatre Group, one of the country’s first theatrical troupes. Owoh played drums and sang with the group when England’s Queen Elizabeth visited Ibadan, Nigeria, in 1956, and he continued to perform plays mounted at the University of Ibadan. Performing with several bands, including one called Akindele (or Dele Jolly) and His Chocolate Dandies, and in another called the Fakunle Major Band, Owoh realized that music in West Africa was developing in a new direction, and sought out lessons on the electric guitar from musician Fatai Rolling Dollar. In Owoh’s music, the sophisticated Caribbean-style horn arrangements of Highlife were deemphasized in favor of Owoh’s guttural voice, guitar, percussion, and down-to-earth lyrics. Owoh formed his first group “Orlando Owoh and His Omimah Band” around 1960, and quickly recorded their first single, “Oluwa, lo ran Mi” (“God has sent me”) on the Nigerian branch of the Decca label […] Around 1975, Owoh named his backing group “His Young Kenneries”, a term that later changed to “His Africa Kenneries International”, or “His African Kenneries Beats International”. The word “Kennery,” (also spelled Kenery or Cannery) seemed to be related to the word “canary.””
Known as one of the post-independence musicians whose careers began in the ‘60s, Owoh’s lifestyle and criticism of the government struck a rebellious chord with the authorities. He, like Fela, had a taste of life behind bars and that experience inspired his hit song ‘Alagbon’. The song, an exposé on corruption, chronicles the musician’s ordeal in prison: his encounter with convicts, inmates awaiting trial and gross human rights violations by prison officials.
When his music became more politically charged in the mid-80s, Owoh ran afoul of the authorities. His song ‘Dele Giwa’ was a bold artistic statement on the gruesome murder of the investigative journalist, Dele Giwa, who was killed by a letter bomb on October 19, 1986. He pointed accusing fingers at the government and was soon imprisoned for six months on charges of cocaine possession. He denied this allegation, claiming he only smoked local herbs known as Ajuwa. His legacy in music activism helped to shape the soundscape of the era and until his death, the civil war veteran remained a watchdog for the Nigerian government. Among his hit songs are ‘Money for Hand’, ‘Back for Ground’, ‘Ma wo mi roro’, ‘Logba Logba’, ‘Who no know Go Know’.
Another musician who left an imprint on Nigeria’s music scene was Sonny Okosun, the leader of the Ozzidi Band. Heavily influenced by Elvis Presley and The Beatles, Okosun was a multi-genre musician whose oeuvre spanned highlife, reggae and gospel. His music career took off after the end of the civil war and peaked with his first African hit, ‘Help’ in 1976. He achieved international fame as one of the artists on the all-star anti-apartheid album, Sun City and scored another hit with the anti-apartheid anthem, ‘Fire in Soweto’. Another of his songs, ‘Highlife’, was used on the soundtrack of the Hollywood feature film Something Wild, directed by Jonathan Demme.
With other hits such as ‘Wind of Change’, ‘African Soldier’, ‘Power to the People’, ‘Revolution’, ‘Which Way Nigeria’, and ‘War of Nations’, Sonny Okosun secured his position as a socially-conscious artist who was also concerned about promoting African unity. In his song ‘Fire in Soweto’, he agitates for human dignity to be respected, across the African continent. His plea was not restricted to Nigeria, but included entreaties to other African countries such as Angola, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa. He alluded to the riots, shootings, deaths and other inhuman conditions that continue to impact many Africans.
While composing ‘Power to the People’, the band leader explained the reason for his revolutionary lyrics: “There must be a message in it [the music]. We’re talking to the rulers now. There’s so much inflation in this country. So much corruption, commotion, confusion, oppression. I think we have to put all that in there.’’
As well as advocating for socio-political change through his lyrics, Okosun’s music videos illustrated the messages embedded in his songs. Okosun generally built the framework for his music and videos against the backdrops of African aesthetics and history. For instance, his red beret- a constant feature in his militant songs, was a symbol of comradeship or revolution.
The music video for his hit song, ‘African Soldier’ features an array of heavily-costumed dancers. The carnival-styled presentation of Zulu warrior-dancers reinforced the song’s message of paying homage to statesmen like Obafemi Awolowo, Kwame Nkrumah, Ahmadu Bello, Dr. Steve Biko, Herbert Macaulay, Julius Nyerere, Robert Mugabe and Martin Luther King, while calling for action against political and economic challenges.
Before dying of colon cancer at the age of 61 in 2008, he gained recognition across Africa with his socio-political “liberation” songs and crossover style of internationalised pop highlife. And although he had almost 40 albums to his name as a secular artist, he switched to gospel music and became known as Evangelist Sonny Okosuns.
Although the three aforementioned music icons were not the only Nigerian musicians that made socially relevant music, they laid some groundwork for future generations of artists. The advent of reggae music in the 1980s introduced a new generation of artistes to the nation’s soundscape. Majek Fashek, Orits Wiliki, Ras Kimono, and The Mandators are some of the musicians who used their music as revolutionary tools, exposing societal problems in society, as well as the implications for the common man.
Between the late 90s and the early 2000s – after reggae music became less popular – there was a resurgence of Nigerian artists who wanted to use other genres of music to express their dissatisfaction with bad governance. Songs like Eedris Abdulkareem’s ‘Jagajaga’, Sound Sultan’s ‘Mathematics’, TuBaba’s ‘For Instance’, Africa China’s ‘Mr President’, Femi Kuti’s ‘Sorry Sorry’, Timaya’s ‘Dem Mama’ and Six Foot Plus’s ‘E don do Me’ are just a few songs that were part of that period’s soundscape of activism. Over a decade after these songs were released, Falz’s hip-hop song ‘This is Nigeria’ reimagined Childish Gambino’s Grammy-winning single, ‘This is America’. The video, though not as graphic as the American version, reflects the shared sentiments of artists in another climate where police brutality is rife.
Despite the courage of Nigerian artists in confronting bad governance, censorship continues to muffle their voices. For instance, Nneka’s album titled Soul is Heavy was denied airplay in most local radio and television stations and Falz’s ‘This is Nigeria’ was banned by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC). While Fela and Orlando’s run-ins with the government made national headlines, Eedris Abdulkareem received multiple jibes and harsh criticism from former President Olusegun Obasanjo for the ‘Jagajaga’ song.
The socio-political realities that fuelled the music of revolutionaries such as Sonny Okosun, Orlando Owoh and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti reinforce music’s role in shaping the society while stimulating cinematic responses. Without dismissing the ongoing work by a few to document Nigerian cultural history, there is a dearth of locally produced films on Nigerian music or the lives of the remarkable people who shaped that history. It speaks to a larger issue: our inability to appreciate and document our history enough to make it accessible to different audiences and generations. While we may dither about what to document and how music activism does not die but rather morphs into different music genres, our soundscapes definitely serve as historical and cultural markers, repositories of relevant music that rarely fade into obscurity.
- Contemporary Black Biography. Okosuns, Sonny (2008) https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/okosuns-sonny
- Gerdy, J (2017). Music as a Tool for Activism. https://www.johngerdy.com/blog-overview/music-as-a-tool-for-activism
- Idonije, B (2016). Dis Fela Sef. FESTAC Books
- Oronbaba. (2007, October 2). Sonny Okosun – Power to the people [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Weq4v99v2Mg
- UKEssays. (November 2018). Folk Music And Civil Rights Movement. Retrieved from https://www.ukessays.com/essays/history/folk-music-and-civil-rights-movement-history-essay.php?vref=1
This essay is an original contribution published in ‘Audiovisual Crossroads’ #1. Read the rest of the collection here and send us your comments at email@example.com
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Yinka Freda Olatunbosun is a Nigerian music enthusiast, arts and culture journalist and a freelance content writer. She is the 2018 African recipient of the music research and travel grant by the North-Rhine Westphalia Kultur Sekretariat in Germany during its International Visitors’ Programme.