The Revolution Is a Song! Music in Africa’s Liberation and Freedom Struggles

In their contributions to local African resistance, musicians today such as Uganda’s Bobi Wine, who face increasingly autocratic governments, draw from the legacies of older artists such as Fela Kuti, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba.

In many parts of Africa, particularly Southern Africa, music played an important in the struggle for liberation from colonizers. Music and song served as inspiration and provided a potent tool to mobilize society to resist, and fight against colonial administrations. This was mainly between the 1960s and 1980s when many African countries gained political independence. It is from this context that in 2009, when renowned South African artist and activist, Hugh Masekela,  chanted in Lugano, Switzerland, at a concert, ‘…I don’t know what happened to us the human beings, we seem to have lost our sense of outrage that we had in the 60s and 70s and now, we just look at our laptops and shake our heads,’ one can’t help but reflect on the importance, significance and purpose of music and song in the struggle for liberation and freedom.


Music can serve to inspire, motivate and provoke consciousness where people have been downtrodden and where they struggle to find a voice. The intensity of many forms of oppression is such that a people easily lose their consciousness. Music and song will not in and of themselves bring freedom. They are not a substitute for mobilization to fight for freedom, but only serve to cultivate a ready ground. When Bob Marley sang, ‘Get Up, Stand Up’, (Burnin’, 1973), the message was to provoke consciousness for action, and that it is not enough to just sit by and wallow, paralysed by inaction.

Miriam Makeba, one of the premier songstresses to emerge from the continent reflected on her struggle for freedom:

The conqueror writes history. They came. They conquered and they wrote. Now, you do not expect people who came to invade us to write the truth about us. They will always write negative things about us. They have to do that because they have to justify their invasion.  We do not write our history. It has always been handed down to us orally by our elders. Of course, the white man came, and he writes history. In fact, you do not know anything about any place until the White man gets there. Until the White man comes and to any place, nothing lives. It’s only when he comes and says “boom, I discovered you, now you exist”. Which is ridiculous!

Through this interview, Makeba exposes her own deep thoughts and political consciousness that got to be the influence of her music. In songs like ‘Aluta Continua’ (Welela, 1990), Makeba urges freedom fighters to continue fighting for liberation: ‘open your eyes and answer the call of the drum,’ she urges her people. It was clear to Makeba that on her shoulders, and probably more aptly, on her tongue, lay the responsibility to contribute to the liberation of not only her country, but also her continent.

In many African societies, song and music have historically been used to express social messages, including to the powers that be. The inimitable Zimbabwean musician, Oliver Mtukudzi, affectionately known as Tuku and who died in 2019, expressed this sentiment, talking about the role of music. It was Tuku who, at a performance in Harare to mark his birthday (One night at sixty, 2015) and almost as a warning, remarked, ‘where we come from, you don’t dare to sing a song when you have nothing to say.’ Tuku also talked about the social role of music, and how music can be used to defuse tensions. He continued in the same performance ‘We talk about our pain, we talk about our frustrations, we talk about our joys.’ It is the rich social consciousness that the music of artists like Makeba and Tuku brings to us as a society that has earned them the special place that they so richly deserve. Makeba, for instance, is one of the people honoured by UNESCO’s Women in African History programme. Tuku, on his part, served as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for Eastern and Southern Africa, until his death.


In 1977, after yet again attracting the wrath of the Nigerian state, truckloads of armed security forces were sent to arrest the afrobeat maestro, Fela Kuti, at a venue where he was performing. On arrival, the commanding officer shouted to his men to ‘arrest the music!’ in reference to Fela. This Freudian slip suggests that it was not the unarmed and defenceless Fela that the state had an issue with, but that it was, instead, the music and its sharp and critical message that the state refused to tolerate.

Governments, and those who claim authority, struggle to cope with the consciousness that music brings to a society. It is often thin the veiled attacks at misgovernance that music coveys, and probably seeing people dance to such attacks that makes such music even more unpalatable to governments. It is akin to dancing in excitement when everyone sees that the emperor has no clothes. Writing in Africa is a Country on censorship of music in Africa and referring specifically to Nigeria, Sean Jacobs, suggests that the situation is intolerable for those in power. He writes: ‘You can’t sing of the excesses of the various military regimes or the corrupt business class without pissing them off.’

It was certainly an angry Nigerian government that banned Fela Kuti from performing and considered him Nigeria’s foremost dissident in 1977. The government even sent a battalion of soldiers to confront an unarmed man whose only crime was singing, and whose only weapon was his voice and a saxophone. It is the same Nigerian government that today gets ‘angry’ and reportedly orders the military to shoot at unarmed civilian protesters. It is equally the Nigerian government who cannot stomach that Twitter takes down a post that appears to incite violence, and in reaction, decides that Twitter ought to be banned.


One cannot enquire into the role of music in rousing consciousness without interrogating the material conditions under which many musicians grew up in. In the book, Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela, Hugh Masekela describes the horrible conditions that he grew up in, in the black townships of South Africa, facing an anti-Black government that dehumanized people and dispossessed people of their land. ‘It was in those days in Witbank that music first captured my soul, forced me to recognise the power of its possession,’ he explains. It is these dire social conditions that Masekela sings about in his song, ‘Stimela’ (I Am Not Afraid, 1974). ‘Stimela’ describes in agonizing pain the reality of men who were victims of South Africa’s migrant labour system, which reduced their lives to being tools of extracting coal and gold from the mines around Johannesburg.

In the song, Masekela laments about these men who were trapped and destined to seek comfort in alcohol as a means to cope with the brutality they faced as a result of a system desperate to accumulate wealth that would, according to Masekela, never ‘revolve around their dinner tables’.

The same description Masekela made of 1940s Emalahleni (then-called Witbank)—the township he grew up in—as a place where he faced police brutality, dispossession, discrimination, racism, violence, poverty, and exploitation, in Still Grazing, could be made of Emalahleni today. Similar could be said of many colonial cities from Lagos to Nairobi to Harare to Cairo and, indeed, Johannesburg.

‘Life in Alex (the township created for black people in Johannesburg)’, Masekela explains in Still Grazing,

during the late 1940s began taking a form that would shape my political and racial ideology, the legacy of dispossession and racial and social engineering ensured that blacks would not – for the foreseeable future – enjoy the benefits of the continent’s wealth.

It is these material conditions that affected the majority of the urban blacks that turned Bra Hugh, as Masekela was fondly known, into a formidable enemy of the minority and racist government.

Apartheid and its exploitation created its own worst enemies. Had it not been for its excesses, Masekela would probably not have been as politicized and thus would not have sung as impassioned as he did and appeal to global audiences who learnt, through the power of his trumpet, of the evil and criminal nature of apartheid. The exploitation and oppression created its own enemy, as is wont to happen with any authoritative regime. The attempts to control dissent only pushes people underground. It is the same phenomenon that Burna Boy, who grew up more than six decades after Masekela’s own childhood, in a so called ‘post-colonial’ Nigeria, sings about in his song, ‘Monsters You Made’ (Twice as Tall, 2020). Music becomes a means to invoke the people and to also enable the people see themselves in the suffering of others. In this sense, it not only awakens a consciousness from the exploited, but also arouses solidarity from those watching from a distance.

In addition to the material conditions that artists grow up in, equally worth considering is how artists let these conditions cultivate a consciousness that led them to use music as a vehicle for protest. It is only this reflection that can lead one to even attempt to answer the question that Masekela asked back in the concert in Lugano in 2009: what has happened to the human race?  In asking this question, Masekela sought to invoke the spirit of protest and rage at the very things that we have normalized, including injustice, poverty, discrimination, and violence at the hands of the state. It cannot be that the artists of our times are blind to the xenophobia, corruption, and suffering of the societies wherein they live. How could it be that they do not have a sense of the history of the likes of Fela Kuti, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and their pan African struggles for liberation?


Ilifa lezithutha lidliwa ngabahlakaniphileyo,’ (the wealth of the foolish ones will be enjoyed by the clever ones) sings South African musician, Letta Mbulu,  in ‘Not Yet Uhuru’ (Not Yet Uhuru, 1994), sounding the alarm that the job is not yet done. Mbulu challenges us yet again to consider the lack of socio-economic progress in the conditions of the people whom she describes as not seeing the benefits of the end of apartheid. In almost prophetic prose, she warns that the wealth of the country is at risk of being embezzled by the so-called clever minority.

In ‘Nizalwa Ngobani’ (Zabalaza, 2004), Thandiswa Mazwai echoes similar sentiments to Mbulu. Through lyrics such as ‘The world changes, revolutionaries die, and the children forget’, she asks us to remember our great history and reminds African listeners that we are the sons and daughters of great heroes and heroines, including Winnie Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah and Nelson Mandela. It is this kind of reminder that we collectively need as a continent so that we continue with the efforts to decolonize the post-colonial state. It is only through continued efforts to fight for liberation and freedom that we can ensure that our governments continue to seek to be of service to citizens.

In many ways, a large part of the current political and socio-economic challenges that we see today are also linked to, and a symptom of, the failure to decolonize the nation state. Institutions like the police are still in service of the political and capital class, and when citizens in Nigeria launch a public campaign to, for instance, ‘#EndSARS’ (which was meant to call for action against police brutality), the state considers this a political challenge and reacts in exactly the same way a British colonial administrator in Nigeria would have reacted in the 1920s, killing innocent civilians!

In his 2021 paper, ‘The Dialectics of Maguphilia and Maguphobia’,  Issa Shivji considers how African societies can raise the consciousness of people and concludes that the current times only serve to show that ‘our polities in the periphery remain fragile and masses remain disorganized.’ The task before us, therefore, is how to organize and agitate so that we achieve the Uhuru that Mbulu sings about. Without organization building and organizing, this battle cannot be won. Shivji concludes, ‘working people will have to depend on themselves rather than wait for a Messiah to deliver them.’ We should not make the mistake in presuming that a hero will come to save us. In 2017, Zimbabweans sang in joy and celebration following Jah Prayzah, in ‘Kutonga Kwaro’ (Kutonga Kwaro, 2017).  Many interpreted Prayzah’s song to be in praise of the current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who ousted the power-hungry Robert Mugabe. Today, however, Zimbabweans curse the song for Mnangagwa has turned out to be anything but a knight in shining armour.

In June 2021, a Tanzanian artist, Diamond Platnumz, was accused of using his popularity to whitewash, prop up and deodorize the brutal repression that millions suffered at the hands of the late president of Tanzania, John Pombe Magufuli. After the demise of President Magufuli, Diamond Platnumz found himself exposed and with no company to keep. An online campaign to bar him from a nomination for an award got support from over 20,000 people. The moment of reckoning has indeed come, and probably too late, for the artist. The lesson to musicians is that even if it may appear too easy to cosy up to the state and the political class, the consequences are dire and often irreparable. One is safer if they take a principled stand, and if their music is based on cogent values instead of seeking fame and popularity. This is clearly not the path Diamond Platnumz took. It appears he has sacrificed himself and the power of his voice, and used his artistry to legitimize and feather the nests of the political class, instead of speaking truth to power.

For contemporary artists who continue to use music to raise social and political questions, the state remains a threat. Bobi Wine of Uganda’s music, for instance, has made him a thorn in the flesh of his president, Yoweri Museveni. It is this same music from Bobi Wine that has captured the imagination of millions of Ugandans who, in the recent 2021 elections, saw Museveni resort to abusing the monopoly on violence that the state enjoys, leaving many dead as they tried to ‘arrest the music!’ It is only when contemporary artists take a leaf from the likes of Bobi Wine and have the courage of their convictions, that they can contribute to the eventual liberation of the continent.

It is time indeed for people to rise up and take what is theirs as Tracy Chapman commands in ‘Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution.’ The tables are indeed finally starting to turn!

You can listen to a playlist with the songs highlighted in this essay, here

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].