BANTU: The system is broken, the sound is resilient — Mark Levine

Every song on What Is Your Breaking Point? which was released on June 9, spreads its own bit of Nigerian stardust over the listener.

As the unprecedented #EndSARS protests against police violence and criminality that began alongside Covid-19 showed, Nigerians have finally reached the breaking point. In this sense, What is Your Breaking Point is as much a statement as a question, forcing the listener to pay attention to the changes in politics and the evolution of music in Af- rica’s most populous and culturally important country, and from a global perspective. In this regard, each song opens a rich tapestry of sounds, lyrics and narrative that woven together portray a compelling, angry yet hopeful vision of Nigeria and in extension Africa and its possible futures.

Exploring the album track-by-track, the first track on the album, “Wayo And Division” fo- cuses on the deceit that’s at the heart of Nigerian politics and social life. Referring to how successive governments have used tribe and religion to divide people while elites share the loot they have stolen from the common wealth. Since they don’t actually care about tribe or religion, neither should we, the song argues. So we should stop being “hood- winked” and falling for their deceit and being led to the slaughter like lambs, but instead come together and face the corruption head on, as happened with the #EndSARS cam-

paign despite the great risks it entailed. The government “Dem go cast away all suspi- cions and doubts,” but like all authoritarian regimes in Africa, India, the US and beyond, it’s only by coming together that we can make plain their deceit for society as a whole. The track may sound like a political polemic, and it is, but it’s matched by the propulsive grooves, guitars and especially horns, over which the rich vocal harmonies soar in a way that even Fela never conceived. It is, in every sense, the perfect opener for a powerful al- bum.

The album’s second track, “Japa Japa,” means “migrate” in Yoruba, as well as to run away and not look back at what you’ve escaped. This idea represents the new reality for too many Nigerians, who are migrating to Europe, the UK and North America by any means possible, causing a serious brain drain to the country in all sectors, from health to banking. While such movement might promise greater freedom and life chances, “Japa Japa” argues that the reality is too often one of a second enslavement – for centuries they kidnapped our bodies, now they take are finest minds, a vicious circle that must be broken. Bringing these sentiments to life is an urgent heavy funk track, one that gets the listener immediately trapped in the groove thanks to BANTU’s new bass player, Mayowa Osuntokun, and to the intricacy of the horns, arranged by trumpeter Opeyemi Oyewande, a former protégé of the great Orlando Julius.

Track 3, “Ten Times Backwards” is inspired by the resurgence of coups d’etat in West Af- rica in particular. “We thought we were done with coups,” Ade Bantu explains, but then we saw Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea Conakry, Sudan and other countries and we realized that not only are these militaries once again taking over our societies but that they always seem to do so right when youth movements and democracy are coming to the fore. We thought the days of occupations are over but now they’re drawing us 10 times back- wards.” To capture this reality the music on this track is very spiritual, lamentational, what we might call “Afrobeat lamentations.” BANTU perfectly captures the spirit of frustration and the form of powerlessness that too many imagine is the inevitable future for their country, although the horns alone should give hope for a better, or at least funkier future.

What Is Your Breaking Point’s 4th track is “Worm & Grass,” the album’s first with a de- fined 6/8 rhythm. “We love these rhythms, as they represent the heart of authentic West African rhythms,” Bantu explains. Lyrically the song reminds the elites stealing from the country, as well as the ordinary Nigerians who fall prey to the same practices with their own greed that people can loot all they want but the worm will get us all and the grass grow over even the richest corpse. Ultimately, those who steal will pay the price, but lis- tening to this sermon is made much easier by the beautiful vocals by one of BANTU’s two female singers, Damilola Williams.

“Borrow Borrow,” track 5, kicks off with a classic Afrobeat sound – the gorgeous thick horns and snare dancing sticks that have made Afrobeat the world’s most infectious dance music for over half a century. Over this groove, the lyrics question why are we afraid of our greatness as Africans, why we have to imitate the West and other cultures, and why are we so obsessed with copying when we have such greatness within our- selves. We need to criticize the internet fakeness, the surface level empty pleasures of so much contemporary culture (including, sadly, music), the parodies, jesters, and other MCs of the status quo when we should be focused on the seriousness of the situation. The music and the message of “Borrow Borrow” just hit you from the top and just keep going.

Track 6, “Africa for Sale” is a “classic BANTU blues” in every sense of the word, one of those songs where the band shows how fragile and vulnerable life can be. The lyrics dis- cuss the largely sad state of affairs in Africa, with the rampant looting, theft by old colo- nial masters and today’s imperial powers like Russia and China, and counterposes to that the potential for a true African renaissance. For now however, Nigeria and Africa broadly are being picked apart by “friends” new and old alike, and the future will be as grim as the past if we don’t move beyond our blissful ignorance that allows our past, pre- sent and future to be extracted by others. The music fits the message perfectly, a classic Afrobeat tempo and guitar lines are crossed by a lustrous piano progression that rolls into the kind of horns only Orlando Julius could inspire.

“Na Me Own My Body,” What Is Your Breaking Point?’s lucky #7 track, is a song by and for women, one centering on their greater empowerment amidst continuing oppression, whether in Nigeria or the US. At the heart of all patriarchy is refusing women the right to own their own bodies, and “Na Me Own My Body” takes this oppression head on, with BANTU’s two main female vocalists taking the lead in a direct riposte to Nigeria’s President Buhari’s infamous quip during a visit to Germany that his wife’s place was in the kitchen and bedroom. The response starts with the high energy up tempo intro, with horns cascading like the words of reproach by every woman forced to defend her human- ity, freedom and equality to a man with half her abilities and talent but twice her power in society. “Na me, na me, Na me own my body, My spirit and my mind all belongs to me.

Can’t keep on gagging me, Stifling and threatening me, Abusing, oppressing me. You no fit sideline me at all” – Words for a revolution-in-the-making that lead into a powerful rap by American MC and educator Akua Naru, who brings the same energy she first showed performing at Afropolitan Vibes to the recording studio.

With track 8, “What Is Your Breaking Point?” we arrive at the album’s title track. A com- plex rhythm and arrangement captures the spirit of frustration of contemporary Nigeria as a nation – months of fuel and cash shortages, backs against wall, with that wall perpetually about to collapse over a cliff into an oil soaked river. “Somehow, we keep moving on,” Ade Bantu explains. “We’ve been battered to the point of utter resignation, so we just shrug our shoulders and give up on politics, but we keep going on with our daily lives.” The chorus, however, provides an alternative scenario: “When can you take it no more: CoVid, the decline of the economy, the violence against the #End-SARS protests, and how young people treated, marginalized, and brutalized.” For BANTU, “going beyond raging and shouting” is a collective musical and political mission, as is igniting that inter- nal fire necessary to stand for your rights, and “What is Your Breaking Point” provides the spark.

Famed poet Audre Lorde, a personal heroine for Ade and the rest of BANTU, declared in one of her works that “your silence will not protect you,” and that became the title for the album’s penultimate track. “I’m a big fan of her works,” Ade explains. “She helped estab- lish the Afro-German consciousness movement, so that’s how I got introduced to her, and what I notice is that a lot of Nigerians, especially upper and even the aspiring middle class act as a buffer between poverty and ruling elites. They are complicit in this disas- trous system because they all think as every one for themselves alone. So as long as they have a chance for theirs, they don’t care how it comes or who gets hurt. Young Nigerians have internalized this as well, which accounts for why so many prefer music that just serves as an escape from rather than confronts reality. Our job as the artist is to re- mind them that their silence builds their walls. Far from protecting you, your silence will lead you to become the victim, and no one will protect you then.

Finally, track 10, “We No Go Gree,” builds on a famous line from Nigerian students pro- test chant. Beginning with a classic Afrobeat clave/rhythm intro, a distorted guitar line and bopping horns and a classic almost New Orleans chord progression changes the feel and brings in exactly the kind of distorted energy you need to speak harsh truths to repressive and corrupt power. With a chorus every bit as powerful and catchy “We No Go Gree” rol- locks along, aligning to the spirit of a people, who are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. “We wanted that spirit to end the album, to capture the defiance among young people, the sense of urgency and refusal to be intimidated that we saw with #End- SARS movement. If we began the album with deceit and division, then we end with this call to stop putting up with what is destroying us. You can see the attitude in the image of me staring at the camera – at the listener in our album cover. We have no simple an- swers, we’re all struggling to find our way, but we know we won’t get there till we’re pre- pared to go to the most uncomfortable places, starting with our own complicity in the sys- tem that oppresses and will ultimately destroy us if we let it. If too many Nigerians today look to music as a drug to help them cope, “We No Go Gree,” and the entirety of What is Your Breaking Point? breaks the addiction, reminding us that great music doesn’t just help you cope. When necessary it provokes and angers you; slaps you upside the head and makes you move forward, no longer just numbing the pain but giving the means to fight back – the real “weapon of the future” Fela called for, but now finally realized in the present.

“We No go Gree” ends with Ade Bantu reading out a statement – indeed, a manifesto – declaring this generation of Nigerians will no longer remain silent as the country is looted and inequality and suffering persist at such high levels. But in wearing their politics on their sleeves – literally on the album sleeve – BANTU runs into a very real risk of intense censorship and marginalization within the Nigerian music ecosystem. The military no longer will burn your studio down or beat, rape and kill your band and family, as so infa- mously happened to Fela. But the “system” has even more effective ways to silence you today – demanding “radio-friendly” edits that remove lyrics critical of the government, making sure you’re never played on the radio if you don’t accept the changes, declaring any music that might “enflame the population” as unfit for broadcast, and otherwise mak- ing it extremely difficult to maintain a presence, never mind a career, if you’re not willing to support the system, or at least keep quiet about it. Whatever the cost has been, BANTU continues to refuse the Devil’s authoritarian bargain that has trapped too many artists around the world, and because it does so with such style, power and funkiness, the music of What Is Your Breaking Point? is much more than a weapon; it’s a medicine, and antidote, to musical ecosystem that has little in the way of aesthetic or social innova- tion, and sees autotune and Dembow as the eternal formula to Afrobeats riches. As long as BANTU keeps putting out new albums and bringing their music to the public, the fu- ture of West African music can still be assured.

What Is Your Breaking Point?Produced by Aman Junaid & Ade Bantu Mixed by Manu Schlindwein

Mastered by Tony Dawsey

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