(Blast from the Past) Protest Music in Nigeria: From fela to Eedris – Tam Fiofori

There is the wrong notion that Fela as Godfather of social commentary-and-protest lyrics/music in Nigeria, literarily covered all the bases! Yes, he did a huge bit, but on meticulous examination they were mostly about settling personal grudges against his kinsmen; Abiola and Obasanjo in particular and, reactions to military/army raids on his premises and the resultant damage/injuries to his dearly loved ones like his women-activist mother.

 Nonetheless, Fela’s articulate boldness, deliberate rudeness and in-your-face challenges and verbal confrontations with government, particularly military government, became a benchmark for protest music in Nigeria and, to a great extent Africa itself!

This personal touch in his areas of protest- combat against government and its institutions for ensuring law and order and, maintaining the status quo, is evident in his lamentations about “dem kill my mama,” and ‘unknown’ soldiers burning down his house. His mockery of the military in Zombie is much in the same vein as his social commentary on “pen robbers and armed robbers,” go-slow in which “o le make it,” public transportation “with ninetynine standing” and, the “suffering and smiling” in the land!

In ITT-International Thief Thief he is insulting Abiola who incidentally, was a fellow Egba man and major shareholder of his erstwhile recording company Decca. Coffin for Head of State, again, is a verbal confrontation with kinsman General Obasanjo “with him big big stomach” and a dig at his second-in-command General Yar’Adua “with his long long neck!”

Lady and Gentleman were caustic spoofs on wannabe been-tos who preferred western social habits to indigenous mores. Perambulator was meant to rubbish the on-going penchant of our civil servants and leaders for travelling abroad to learn the rudiments of governance. Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense was apt commentary on our falling and misguided educational system that continues to produce unemployable ‘graduates.’ His song about the Archbishop, Pope and Imam enjoying is sheer family rebellion against his Reverend gentleman father!

As Remi Akano remarked in the late seventies, “Fela’s graphic lyrics” were an expose of societal ills; bold and brutal and, said just the raw way he saw it. In his lucid dissection of the ills of military governance in particular, the contradictions and ridiculous social behavior of certain classes and groups there was always a scathing sense of humour that made both those he attacked and the listeners chuckle at his wit.

In Palaver where he paints pictures of inevitable combustive confrontation between a just-released prisoner and a policeman who wants to charge him with wandering and, a bank manager who is demanding the repayment of a loan a customer has used to bury a lost parent in grand style, we enjoy his understanding of entrenched social behavior.

Na Swegbe/Na Pako is a commentary on quacks and real professionals while Yellow Fever could well have been adopted by the Ministry of Health in a campaign to fight skin cancer occasioned by bleaching. Why Black Man Dey Suffer Today is a kaleidoscopic observation of the state of black people globally.

That Fela’s social commentaries have survived the test of time and still remain relevant as yardsticks by which we should evaluate government and social behavior, does not automatically lend them the umbrella classification of wholly being “human rights fights!” This observation mooted in a discussion about protest music, social commentary and human rights, earned me vicious vitriolic verbal violence from a Furious Frank who simplistically concluded that I did not like Fela.

Our love for labeling and tendency to attribute complete influence and competence on social issues to our heroes does not deify them. Rather, they exhibit our narrow perception of the Chinese adage that “many more flowers make a garden more beautiful.” Nigeria has and will continue to produce human rights activists in politics-Mbonu Ojike, law-Gani Fawehinmi, sports-Abraham Ordia; just to name a few.

On the global music scene Protest Music is as old as music itself; a medium that lends itself as an easy and enjoyable means of mass communication. Most popular musicians have one or few songs that can be classified as Protest Music while some make a trademark of it.

The blues musicians, the folk musicians from Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan, Jazz musicians (Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit), Rock, Pop, Soul and Highlife musicians; all have produced varieties of Protest Music. Some, like Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind and Masters of War, are classic indictments of racism, and the  billion-dollar American war and armament industry respectively; that inevitably supports young men being sent into war and ultimate death!

That popular musicians in Nigeria, over the years, have continued to explore the genre of social commentary and Protest Music is very good for our society. After all it is not just the press that should play the role of watchdogs in our society! Now that the financial excesses of our elected lawmakers are a threat to the growth and sustenance of our ‘new’ democracy there is definitely a need for popular musicians to voice their disdain of corrupt politicians.

One of the most important social commentaries on the misbehavior of our political class remains the song Politicians You Lie, released in the eighties; unfortunately not to much sales success, by G. Amas, then a student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. His observations ring true right now that our newly elected state and federal political office-holders have just been sworn in for four years in office.

As has been their track record it will not take the electorate too long to realize that all the promises the politicians made during their campaigns were mostly lies and unfulfillable promises.

Two decades after Amas laid bare the antics of our political class, the young African China in his classic Rule us Well/Govern us Well, took a swipe at the Paddy-Paddy government the country is saddled with. Now, are these Protest lyrics/songs getting through? One wonders.

It is worth recalling that when some of the Afrobeat Protest songs were being played in the yesteryears they were accompanied by hip-gyrating dancers in their ‘cages’ and the general public also doing their thing on the dance floor. Maybe our Protest music should be ballad-like songs rather than dance-inducing songs.

Are the powers that be listening to and reacting to Protest Music. Of course they are! I remember a comment made by a Fela fan, to the effect that if Fela were alive, Obasanjo’s civilian presidency would have received a real roasting in song from Fela. Obasanjo for all his humour and expensive jokes is not famous for absorbing criticism.

When Eldris came out with the apt social commentary about Nigeria being in a state of Jagajaga, President Obasanjo was far from amused. He even became personal in confronting Eldris. Whoever is upset by the Protest songs of our popular musicians, they cannot stop the tide of these musicians doing the right thing in song!

(TAM FIOFORI circa June 7th 2010)

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