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A soundtrack to Nigerian protest music

Last week Nigerians went to the polls to usher in a new era of Nigerian politics. As the nation comes to terms with the results, PAM has provided a soundtrack of Nigerian protest music to highlight the country’s historic and ongoing struggle for political justice.

Music has always served as a means for artists to air grievances and to speak against the ills plaguing society. Today, corruption weighs heavy on the shoulders of Nigeria and the country’s government is infamous for depriving its citizens of basic amenities. In 2020, there was a nationwide protest against police brutality which birthed the #EndSARS movement. Yet there has remained to be any considerable change and Nigerians, particularly the youth, are eager to effect a change in the upcoming elections. As Nigerians anticipate the elections, we decided to come up with a list of political and protest songs that reflected the state of the nation at different political eras. From the violence-based military regime of the ‘70s-’90s to the civilian era of the early ‘00s till now, here are songs that remind us of why we should cast our votes. 

Sorrow, Tears And Blood (1977) – Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti is internationally recognized as the father of Afrobeat whose music heavily criticized the government and Nigerian elites. “Sorrow, Tears And Blood” is a 10-minute track that calls out the unjust killings that occurred in the era of authoritarian and totalitarian rule in Nigeria and Africa more broadly. Even though the song was originally made in response to the 1976 Soweto uprising that led to the deaths of over a hundred students, Fela also sang about the oppression and brutality that he and his family faced in the series of raids on Kalakuta Republic (his family compound) by the Nigerian police and army who eventually destroyed the singer’s home.  In January 1977, a major festival was held in Lagos. It was the second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC), celebrating African music, art, literature, dance and drama. Fela, however, condemned the festival as propaganda, ultimately pulling out and staging his own festival at the Kalakuta Republic. The government warned performers and attendees against attending but they defied the warning, including Stevie Wonder, one of the festival’s headliners who was performing in Nigeria for the first time. On “Sorrows, Tears And Blood,” Fela sang “Hey yeah. Everybody run, run, run. Everybody scatter, scatter. Some people lost some bread. Someone nearly die. Someone just die. Police dey come, army dey come. Confusion everywhere.” It happened during the military era when Olusegun Obasanjo was head of state and Shehu Musa Yar’adua was his deputy – both men became Nigerian presidents accordingly in the later years.  

Which Way Nigeria? (1984) – Sonny Okosun

The leader of the Ozzidi band, Sonny Okosun was one of the leading vocal Nigerian musicians around the late ‘70s to mid ‘80s who used his music as a channel to challenge the government. “Which Way Nigeria?” highlighted several issues troubling the nation as well as the unfulfilled promises made by leaders to the people. He urged Nigerians to be more active in socio-political matters and not sit idly while the country goes to ruin. He released the track in 1984 shortly after the military coup that saw the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari become the head of state. He pondered about the country’s development years after gaining independence, singing in a mellow tone “Which way is Nigeria heading to? Many years after independence, we still find it hard to start. How long shall we be patient till we reach the promised land? Let’s save Nigeria so Nigeria won’t die. Which way Nigeria? Which way to go?

Nigeria Go Survive (1985) – Veno Mariaghae

Things were particularly rough in the country at the time when the song was released. Oil prices had taken a nosedive which caused a drastic reduction in the country’s national budget. As a result, the economy witnessed a steep decline and people’s livelihoods were greatly affected as they clamoured for basic amenities. It was also in the same year that another military coup took place when Chief of Army Staff Major-General Ibrahim Babaginda overthrew General Muhammadu Buhari. Veno Mariaghaee’s “Nigeria Go Survive” served as an anchor for Nigerians – many of whom had grown desolate – evoking hope in the midst of political and economic crisis. With a honeyed voice, she sang “If them thief our oil ooo. Even if them burn the oil ooo (Nigeria Go Survive). I say if them drink the oil ooo. No matter how them try ooo (Nigeria Go Survive). Our roots them strong for ground ooo. Ancestors no go gree ooo (Nigeria Go Survive).”

Police Brutality (1989) – Majek Fashek

Nigeria experienced a reggae boom in the ‘80s and ‘90s that saw the rise of several artists who used their music as a weapon to protest against the government. One of those reggae artists is Majek Fashek, whose real name is Majekodunmi Fasheke. Majek released his debut album Prisoner of Conscience in 1989. “Send Down The Rain” might have been the album’s commercial hit, but it was “Police Brutality” that showcased Majek’s sensitivity towards the pain of the masses and the Benin-born singer adeptly depicted it on the track with his powerful vocals and conscious lyrics. “Insanity. Dem they loot dem they shoot. Dem kill all leaders of tomorrow. This dem insanity has cause a lot of disunity in community. Dem dey loot dem they shoot. Dem kill all leaders of tomorrow,” he croons on the 5-minute track. Majek Fashek became the people’s favourite as he continued to release albums that represented the average man’s state of mind.

Suuru Lere (1999) – Lagbaja 

“Suuru Lere,” which is Yoruba for “Patience is rewarding,” is a sombre record and typical folk music with arresting melodies. The track was released a few months after former head of state Olusegun Obasanjo became the president in 1999. Lagbaja vocally expressed his trepidation over the Nigerian political elite and their misuse of power, their greed and propensity for corruption, all of which have majorly contributed to the massive decline of the nation. The military regime of the tyrant leader Sanni Abacha had left a huge mark on the country before Nigeria returned to civilian rule. Singing solemnly in Yoruba, Lagbaja posed a set of rhetorical questions: “Ki’lawa se? Se’jo lawa f’aye gbo? Ki’lawa se? Se b’aye lawa je n’ibi. Eje a f’iyen le k’e je a jaye ori n’ibi. T’oba d’ola, k’a maa ba wahala wa lo” which loosely translates to “What did we come to do? Did we come to listen to stories? What did we come to do? We have come to the world to enjoy. So, let’s leave all our worries and be merry. When tomorrow comes, we’ll continue with our struggles.” The singer who always wore a mask and never for once revealed his face captured the average Nigerian adult’s outlook on life with those lyrics. Why waste your time fighting a lost cause when you can seek solace in the little joys of life?

Jaga Jaga (2004) – Eedris Abdulkareem

There was a significant change in the Nigerian soundscape in the early ‘00s as indigenous music gave way to hip-hop-influenced Nigerian pop music. At the forefront of that wave was Eedris Abdulkareem whose music stood against Nigerian politicians and their shortcomings. He was very vocal in his criticism of the Nigerian government and when he released his highly-controversial record “Jaga Jaga,” the rapper invoked the wrath of president Olusegun Obasanja who later banned the song from airing on radio stations. The country was at that time rife with political, ethnic and religious conflict. The local government elections which were held in 2004 were marred by bouts of violence that led to the deaths of dozens of people. Despite the ban, the track continued to gain momentum and became an anthem on the streets. The song conveyed the experiences of the everyday Nigerian. “Nigeria jaga jaga. Everything scatter scatter. Poor man dey suffer suffer. Gbosa gbosa, gunshot inna di air.” The rapper is known as one of the first mainstream Nigerian rappers.

Mr President (2006) – African China

A timeless record, “Mr President” shattered borders and was a nationwide hit. Evolving from reggae, African China’s style of music was known as Galala which was made popular by a bevy of artists such as Daddy Showkey, Marvellous Benjy, Baba Fryo, and it became a staple in the Nigerian music industry from the early ‘00s to the mid ‘00s. Growing up in the ghetto area of Lagos, African China drew inspiration from his daily experiences and his music perfectly embodied the struggles and suffering of the people. “Mr President” was conscious music that was at the same time vibrant and danceable. He painted a picture of the violence that was happening everywhere in the country, questioning the leadership and morality of leaders as he sang “Mr President, lead us well. If you be governor, govern us well. If you be senator, senate am well. If you be police, police well well, no dey take bribe.” The song was an illustration of Nigeria’s ailing state, brought about by political unrest and sheer violence. 

Jailer (2007) – Asa 

Asa is known for her poetic and cryptic style of music and when she released her self-titled album Asa in 2007, one of the tracks that immediately resonated with the people was “Jailer”. The track conveyed a profound message about the rampant oppression in Nigerian society. Asa highlighted the paradoxical state of oppression, vocalizing that both the oppressor and the oppressed are in the same boat: “I’m in chains, you’re in chains too. I wear uniforms and you wear uniforms too. I’m a prisoner, you’re a prisoner too, Mr. Jailer.” The lyrics on “Jailer” were as literal as they were figurative. Asa made mention of prison guards and jailers while pointing out that every human being has the same fears and that we are all essentially equal regardless of status or class. She took a shot at Nigerian political elites who treat the masses with disdain and deny them of their rights as citizens, but will suddenly turn around when it’s election season and offer people peanuts to gain their votes. 2007 marked an important year in Nigerian politics as Musa Yar’adua became president.

Se Na Like This (2009) – Wande Coal 

As much as Nigerian pop evolved over the years, giving rise to artists like Wande Coal, who is recognized as one of the early creators of Afrobeats, Nigeria’s problems only continued to aggravate. On Wande Coal’s debut album Mushin 2 Mo’Hits, “Se Na Like This” garnered attention for its conscious lyrics. The song delved into the issues afflicting the country which have hampered its progress and development. While corruption was the order of the day, it was in that same year that Boko Haram, a terrorist Muslim group, and Nigerian security forces clashed in Northeastern Nigeria, resulting in over a 1000 deaths. Wande Coal touched on the terrible state of the economy, singing “Se na like dis we go de dey (Na like dis we go de dey). I no fit wait oh make things for change oh. Now make we join hands make am beta. Once upon a time dem tell us say 1 dollar is equal to 1 naira.” Although Yar’adua’s tenure wasn’t characterized by violence, his battle with chronic health issues prevented him from performing in that capacity of a president. 

This is Nigeria (2018) – Falz 

Falz has distinguished himself among Nigerian rappers as he uses his music to pass commentary on socio-political issues. Drawing inspiration from American rapper Childish Gambino’s emotive track “This is America,” a song confronting several issues including systemic racism, racial violence, abuse of power by the police as well as gun violence and mass shootings. “This is Nigeria” addressed societal issues such as the constant SARS brutality that Nigerian youth endured, drug abuse and incessant killings by Boko Haram. In the music video, Falz made a visual representation of many of the issues he addressed. In one scene, there was a character representing a Fulani herdsman beheading another man – the scene incited a Muslim group who claimed that it was insensitive and highly provocative.  At the time that Falz released “This is Nigeria,” Nigerians had started to get frustrated by the ongoing crisis in the country. There was a school kidnapping that involved over 100 girls of Government Girls Science and Technology College. They were kidnapped from their school hostels somewhere in the Northern region of the country. Falz broached the condition of the Nigerian society and how unfavourable it can be, rapping “This is Nigeria. No electricity daily o. Your people are still working multiple jobs. And they talk say we lazy o.

20 10 20 (2020) – Burna Boy

October 2020 will forever remain an unforgettable month in the history of Nigeria. The #EndSARS movement that brought the Nigerian youth together to protest against police brutality was marred by uncontrolled violence. Soldiers opened fire on peaceful protesters as they scampered for their lives, causing several casualties at the Lekki Toll gate. Even in the face of endless evidence, the Nigerian government continuously denied their involvement in the violence that transpired as they devised numerous tricks to dissuade Nigerians. The event inspired a number of artists who immediately took to the studio to record their pain and frustration. Burna Boy’s “20 10 20” appeared to be the most poignant as the Afrofusion artist gave a recount of the depressing event, “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.” The #EndSARS movement restored faith in some Nigerians who believe that we can effect change as long as we maintain a united front. For some other Nigerians, it served as a cue to migrate out of the country because of the government’s unaccountability. The government not only denied their involvement, they refused to address the matter publicly nor did they reach out to the families of the victims. 

Last week, Nigerians took to the polls in an effort to control their fate by making the right decisions and voting for the leaders that have the people’s best interests at heart. As the results come in and a new president is confirmed, this soundtrack serves as a reminder of the ongoing struggle Nigerians will have to attain political freedom, social justice and a better Nigeria.