‘Iziegbe’, an eclectic twelve-minute dance film by choreographer, Izzy Odigie, reminds us that dance is a language that can be used for political imagination and storytelling.
‘Everything is art. Everything is politics.’ Chinese contemporary artist and activist, Ai Weiwei once said while discussing his definition of art. He also opined that art is about freedom of expression and serves as a new way to communicate. For Weiwei, art is a powerful tool for expressing views on political, social and cultural issues within and across societies.
While authors and musicians have historically served as prime examples of creatives as political commentators, Izzy Odigie’s dance film, Iziegbe, positions dance as a productive tool for political expression—whether it be in opposition to police brutality or hegemonic notions of what African life is on the continent and in the diaspora. Released in late 2020 by Odigie, a 25-year-old Nigerian-American afrobeats choreographer, the film showcases the significance and impact of the body and its movements. Iziegbe represents the importance of dance as an embodied practice of music and serves as a reminder to viewers who often forget that dance is an aesthetic form that has its own language and power.
‘MORE THAN JUST EYE CANDY’
In Iziegbe, which she directed and starred in, Odigie speaks to the erasure of dancers as critical artists, explaining that ‘we’re…more than just eye candy or props’. Expressing the power of dance and the dancer through film allowed Odigie to create a conceptually driven body of work where she and her artistry take centre stage to the music rather than the reverse. Further, her film highlights the need for dancers to diversify the content they release—beyond quick social media clips to more meaningful and profound bodies of works—in order to help shape the future of afrobeats dance as a more imaginative and experimental art form.
An early scene in Iziegbe begins with an image of a blooming violet before cutting to Odigie dancing to Burna Boy’s ‘Another One’ (On A Spaceship, 2015) in a field against a royal blue background, wearing an eccentric green outfit by Nigerian designer TJWHO, her afro blowing in the wind. Odigie’s inclusion of solely Nigerian-owned creations, her song choice, her clothes and her placement on 100 acres of sprawling land sends multiple messages. First, that self-created content by afrobeats dancers can extend beyond the traditional dance tutorials on YouTube, and second, the importance of African creative ownership. The latter is significant because ownership allows Nigeria to exercise soft power within global dynamics through culture. This is especially important considering the failure of the country’s current administration to exercise any form of economic or political power in world politics, thereby leaving the responsibility of positive representation of Nigeria solely on the Nigerian people.
THE MESSAGE OF DANCE – DANCE AS POLITICAL EXPRESSION
For the younger generation, ‘afrobeats dance’ may only evoke imagery of viral TikToks, Instagram videos or social media challenges. However, for more experienced viewers, it also evokes memories of Fela Kuti, father of afrobeat, and his famous dancers, the Afrobeat Queens. Today’s afrobeats (which has roots in afrobeat) would not be possible without the work of pioneers like Kuti. Kuti established a legacy as an activist, musician and commentator, and is celebrated for his ability during his lifetime to use music as a form of political activism.
It is also important to remember the women who danced in the background and helped to create the ambience for Kuti to express his anti-corruption, anti-colonialism and pro-human rights stances. Their emotion-filled movements helped orchestrate the sonic experience that audiences witnessed, felt and heard when watching Kuti’s performances. Unfortunately, despite the visibility of the ‘Queens’ at Kuti’s shows, they are often forgotten and relegated to the background when afrobeats history is discussed. The erasure of women dancers being a disappointing trend that still exists within modern dance today.
Historically, dance has been an important form of peaceful, political protest throughout Africa and the diaspora. We witnessed this last year through Black Lives Matter and in South Africa with toyi-toyi, a rhythmic foot-stomping dance which has been used by students, for example, to protest university fees. Brazilian capoeira is a dance of resistance utilized during periods of protest; and following the independence of Ghana in 1957, the Ghana Dance Ensemble was created to promote national unity and culture, arguably a form of protest against colonialism as a newly sovereign state. These examples show that dance is an art that enables us to regard our bodies as inherently political objects and utilize our bodies for political expression and protest.
Within Nigeria specifically, other examples of creatives who have ‘translated their political fury into exquisite rhythm’ include Tony Allen, Falz, Nneka, Lagbaja, and Asa—this non-exhaustive list highlights the political power of Nigerian art. The intersection of art and politics can clearly be seen when artists respond to events that affect society through their work which, in turn, become vehicles for social change. An example of this is Falz’s ‘This is Nigeria’ (2018), a cover of Childish Gambino’s popular song, ‘This is America’ (2018). In the accompanying music videos to both songs, both artists used dance as a vehicle for expression. Falz’s rendition both sparked outrage and garnered support because of its cogent embodiment of pressing economic, social and political issues in Nigeria.
Works like ‘This is Nigeria’ help lay the foundation for future protest and revolution, which explains the Nigerian government’s strong adverse reaction to the song and accompanying music video. Two years after the release of the song and music video, Falz became one of the faces of the #EndSARS protests, appearing regularly on international news channels, showing the strong connection between his art and helping to incite social change. These types of responses by Falz and other creatives are a form of political imagination: dancers, singers or songwriters can imagine a society where the issues they are championing are resolved or use their work to speak out against these problems and propose solutions. These creatives are intentional with the aesthetics used in their visuals and content in order to send a specific message.
Nigerian artists like Tems and Wavy the Creator also demonstrate the intersection of politics and art in their works which challenge tradition. Part of the alté movement, their music represents a more liberal approach to life that defies what many Nigerians are taught growing up. One of the greatest impediments to Nigeria’s growth and development is the weight of regressive cultural norms and practices, in particular the failure to allow youth representation within political spaces. The symbolism of the aesthetics and style these alté artists use in their works are important political tools because they represent alternative ways of being in the world that ignites cultural shifts.
AFROBEATS DANCE: WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
In line with the movement of Nigerian artists using their artistry to discuss broader issues, Odigie’s Iziegbe, which premiered on 27 November 2020 nearly two months after the #EndSARS protests began in Nigeria, opens to black and white footage of Nigerian youth in the streets with the words ‘SORO SOKE’—a Yoruba phrase meaning ‘speak up’, which quickly became the slogan of the protests—plastered on the screen in red text. Odigie’s soothing voice narrates in the background, discussing her support for the protests. The film is, however, not limited to a dedication to #EndSARS. Iziegbe proceeds to express the complicated nature of what it means to be a youth, to be a woman, to be a creative, to be a ‘diasporian’, and to be African, through expressions of the body.
Today’s afrobeats dance scene largely takes place on social media and in music videos. Dancers play a crucial role in making songs popular—influencers post 30-second dance clips to Instagram and TikTok that quickly go viral and result in streams and downloads on Spotify and Apple Music for artists. Dancers also feature in music videos, sometimes as the protagonist like in Burna Boy’s ‘On the Low’ (African Giant, 2019) or Rema’s ‘Lady’ (Bad Commando, 2019). They also perform at live shows and festivals and teach dance classes. However, the positioning of dancers in the music industry, where they are relegated to social media challenges and as background dancers, fails to properly acknowledge dancers as creatives in their own right. Dancers are powerful mediums of political expression, who deserve the level of visibility that other creatives like musicians and authors receive. This issue is a gendered one, considering that it is often women dancers who are relegated to the background. It brings to mind the erasure of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat Queens when discussing his legacy and the history of the afrobeat genre despite their contribution to the globalization of afrobeat. It signals, more recently, the failure to accord proper mainstream recognition to Picture Kodak (birth name Love Divine Ike, ‘a fierce, bold and daring dance icon’ and a staple in the African dance and music scene who made vast contributions to the street dance culture being witnessed today) until her untimely passing in April 2020.
The narrative in which the dancer is considered an accessory needs to change. Just as music and dance go hand in hand; the musician and dancer need to go hand in hand as well. The role of the dancer should extend beyond simply being in the background on the stage. African music—afrobeats, afrofusion, afroswing—has found global success, and dance has played a key role in this, with African dances like Azonto, Jerusalema, Kupe going viral. Odigie’s film reminds us that there is value in musicians and artists collaborating with dancers and choreographers. Such collaboration would help to shape the quickly evolving world of afrobeats and enable the dancer to play a key role in creating an ‘experience’ for the audience, beyond the typical ‘performance’. It would expand our understanding and reiterate the notion of what it means to have and use your voice and body. It would make clear the expressive power of the body as a medium that can propound, relay and propel political messages⎈
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