Much has been written about the role of social media and offline community-building in sustaining the #EndSARs protests. However, the role of music during the protests needs more attention.
‘My God, policeman go see white / E go tell you say, I say that thing na red / Tell me something I don’t know’ (African China, 2006)
One of the affirmations of the #EndSARS protests was that everyone has a story to tell. For many years now, young Nigerians have been grappling with the socio-political realities of their country and if anything reflects the pains, agitations and plights of the youth, it is our music. During the most recent wave of #EndSARS protests, music played a critical role in enabling young Nigerians to express their frustrations and, at the same time, their hopes for a new Nigeria. #EndSARS has been widely written about but less discussed is how music played an important role in helping the protesters to express Nigeria’s history of police brutality and social injustice. The music at protest grounds reiterated not only the social consciousness of the youth but also the roles that artists, musicians specifically, can play in demanding a better Nigeria. Music has always been instrumental in fuelling Nigerian politics but music has also served as a foremost instrument of social and political criticism. As such, the political significance of music even going by #EndSARS alone, is one Nigerians must aptly recognize.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
From being a unit created to protect Nigerians, SARS (the police force’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad) has become a nightmare. Amnesty International claims that the extrajudicial killings by SARS started between 2001 and 2002. In Al Jazeera, Sada Malumfashi explains that in the early 1990s, SARS was responsible for curbing armed robbery and kidnapping. However, the immense powers given to the SARS unit coupled with a lack of oversight on their actions meant that abuse of power was inevitable.
In an article for Africa Portal, Sanya Osha adds that the Nigerian Police Force has had a long history of violence. For Osha, however, SARS took police brutality to unprecedented heights, justifying their actions with the rise of internet fraud in Nigeria. SARS is known to target young Nigerians between the ages of 18 and 35, and for dishing out violence against accused ‘suspects’. Such offers may threaten to implicate their suspects in crimes they have not committed. Reportedly, some officers even go as far as demanding ransoms from their suspects’ family and friends.
The internet has meant new avenues for earning incomes, but young Nigerians often navigate harmful stereotypes while using the internet. An example of such stereotypes is that they are committing internet fraud. But though federal and state governments remain the largest employer of labour, many Nigerians remain formally unemployed. In Quartz Africa, Yomi Kazeem highlights that one of every two Nigerians in the labour force (or 21.7 million Nigerians) is unemployed. Kazeem also notes that the unemployment rate has tripled during President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration.
Given the inadequacies of the Nigerian government, young Nigerians have been increasingly creating employment opportunities for themselves. With this, the traditional model of employment—which is in many cases relying on the government for employment—has gradually waned in popularity. With the ever-growing influence of information technology and social media, young Nigerians have been creating jobs for themselves as IT experts, content creators and social media influencers. As such, a driver of the #EndSARS protests was the opportunity to highlight harmful stereotypes young people face, which have emboldened SARS operatives to harass and brutalize youths.
MUSIC IN THE #ENDSARS PROTEST
Much has been written about the role of social media and offline community-building in sustaining the #EndSARs protests. However, the role of music during the protests needs more attention. Music has the power to appeal to emotions and capture social, political and historical conditions. Also, the relevance of music in socio-political rallies and protests cannot be overestimated. The history of music as an expression of cultural resistance against policies and norms is rich. One great example is the song titled ‘We Shall Overcome’. It is a song with origins in folk songs among enslaved African Americans and was an integral part of what W.E.B DuBois called the ‘sorrow songs’. The song has, however, become universal and applicable to despotic situations beyond its American roots.
Music in Nigeria, too, has a long history of socio-political consciousness. Fela Anikulapo Kuti remains one of Nigeria’s most popular politically conscious musicians and according to Tejumola Olaniyan:
[From Fela’s] many statements in interviews, lectures, lyrics, and other social activism activities, we can deduce that by ‘political musician’ he means a musician who devotes his or her musical resources to evoking, interrogating, and pronouncing judgments on the partisan political arrangements and attendant social relations of his or her context. In this regard, Fela was right: he was a political musician, and I am sure that many of his fans and scholars were drawn to him in large part for that reason.
Fela’s discography is full of songs protesting bad governance, the condemnation of the corruption of Nigeria’s political elite and the rejection of military dictatorship. Fela understood the power of music as a tool for demanding change. Music for Fela was a site of social commentary. In his time, he was severally brutalized and arrested by Nigerian police. Motunrola Bisi-Afolabi submits that Fela’s first arrest was over forty years ago but police brutality has increased radically.
During the protests I attended, the most played songs are ‘JagaJaga’ (JagaJaga, 2004) by Eedris Abdulkareem; ‘Mr President’ (Mr President, 2006) by African China; ‘E Be Like Say’ (Grass 2 Grace, 2006) by 2Baba, ‘Democracy’ by Dagrin, ‘Monsters You Made’ (Twice as Tall, 2020) by Burna Boy, ‘Fem’ (A Better Time, 2020) by Davido and ‘This is Nigeria’ by Falz.
In ‘JagaJaga’, Eedris Abdulkareem addressed the political situation of the country and concluded that Nigeria is in total disarray. Seventeen years after releasing ‘Jaga Jaga’, its themes still ring true: corruption, nepotism, incompetence, insecurity and human rights violations are still part of Nigerian everyday life.
Similarly, despite being released over a decade ago, African China’s ‘Mr President’ is still very relevant within our socio-political climate. In the song, African China claimed:
My God, policeman go see white
E go tell you say, I say that thing na red
Tell me something I don’t know.
It is not surprising that a song as old as ‘Mr President’ was played at the #EndSARS protests: ‘Mr President’ captured the bad leadership in the country when the song was released in 2006 but it has become an evergreen song because it continues to reflect the concerns and worries of Nigerians. The song also points to one of the most common allegations levelled against SARS—framing innocent Nigerian youths for crimes they did not commit.
If your people cannot get quality education
The power is nothing
If your people keep on dying of disease and starvation
The power is nothing
If your people have no peace (no peace)
The power is nothing
If your people cannot live in unity
These are lines from 2face Idibia’s 2006 ‘E Be Like Say’. The lyrics of the song are reminiscent of the current situation where there is no peace. The song in its entirety condemned the negligence and incompetence of Nigeria’s political elites as well as their lack of compassion and empathy. It is the lack of change and Nigeria’s long history of frustrations that made this song one of the favourites of the protesters.
Dagrin’s 2008 ‘Democracy’ was equally popular among protesters. In the song, the late Yoruba rapper stressed how corruption is the bane of Nigeria’s development. He also addressed police brutality, bribery and extortion. This is one of the songs I have seen throw people into a frenzy and many of the protesters sang the lyrics of the song without missing a word. In retrospect, it was not about the many rhymes and word play of the rapper; in the song protesters found language captured what they have been going through for years.
More recently, Burna Boy arguably has emerged as one of the continent’s biggest artists. For almost a decade, we have witnessed music fans tag their favourite artists ‘the next Fela’. Fela is a symbol of resistance and defiance. The idea of a ‘next Fela’ while it shows appreciation of the legend of Fela, does a disservice to the uniqueness of these new artistes. In his 2020 album Twice as Tall, Burna Boy addressed Afrocentric politics and social conditions. During the EndSARS protests, ‘Monsters You Made’ was one of the most relevant songs with lyrics such as:
You turn around and you blame
Them for their anger and rage
Put them in shackles and chains
Because of what they became
We are the monsters you made…
‘We are the monsters you made’ is true for both the political elites and the masses. The worshipping of politicians has created a messiah complex in Nigeria, such that politicians are idolized and untouchable. In this sense, politicians are the monsters we, the citizens, made, in large part by remaining silent for too long. On the other hand, when government officials and politicians express their surprise at the anger of young Nigerians, it is just appropriate to remind them that our actions are born out of their incompetence, corruption, negligence and lack of compassion. Thus, we are the monsters they made.
At a protest in Ibadan, when a state commissioner attempted to address the protesters, Davido’s ‘Fem’ came on. The song is not particularly politically conscious, but playing it (Fem, being a play on the French ‘Fermez la bouche’) suggested the protesters did not want to listen to mere words but, instead, wanted actions. From the onset, Folarin ‘Falz’ Falana has maintained the use of music not just as a means to entertain but also as a means to assess living conditions in Nigeria. In ‘This is Nigeria’, a song played often during the protests, Falz sang:
This is Nigeria
There is plenty Wahala sha
Fulani Herdsmen still they slaughter
Carry people they massacre
This is Nigeria…
SARS stop me for road any explanation you go talk am for station o
Sir am, Sir look am sorry, am just a student. Am a student of the University of Lagos. We are just coming from the club…
Falz’s ‘This is Nigeria’ was a Nigerian take on American musician, Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ (This is America, 2018). That Falz’s song was released in 2018 with no subsequent solution to police brutality indicates how long Nigerian youths waited for the government to intervene. It also seems right for Falz to have imported Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ because of the persistence of police brutality in America.
MUSIC AND MEMORY
As much as music was important during the #EndSARS protests, the protests culminated in a painful irony—how young Nigerians at the Lekki toll gate believed that the Nigerian army would stand down if they sang the national anthem and waved their flags. Even our most important song could not save many from being killed or injured.
If there is anything to demand after the #EndSARS protests, it is more politically conscious songs. Music as an art is an important aspect of history making; it is also significant because it participates in history and it records history. In the Nigerian case, music cannot just be a form of entertainment but must also be an art that is constantly recording the social conditions of the people. Nigerian ruling elites employ musicians during elections because they understand the power of music in appealing to the sensibilities of people. Music is at the heart of their political propaganda.
The usefulness of music to politics and politicians, however, evinces the role music can play not only in capturing the frustrations of young Nigerians but also in helping Nigerian youths demand change, and continually renew their political consciousness. Songs at protests captured and expressed the mood of the people. They showed that art can play an essential role in driving socio-political struggles.
Especially now after the protests, Nigeria needs more music that pays attention to social, political and economic realities⎈
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