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In tough times, art matters


Fela Kuti performs onstage at the Riviera Theater, Chicago, Illinois, November 13, 1986. PHOTO: PAUL NATKIN/Getty Images)

Fela Kuti performs onstage at the Riviera Theater, Chicago, Illinois, November 13, 1986. PHOTO: PAUL NATKIN/Getty Images)

Next week is Felabration, by far one of my favourite weeks in the calendar, where the music and life of Fela Kuti will be celebrated through different events across Lagos.

Unapologetically political with unparalleled rhythms, Fela’s music is as danceable as it is steeped in consciousness. But more than that he used his music as a tool or as he himself said, a weapon. Like a lot of great artistes, his music served as a form of social commentary, vividly depicting the times he lived in (unfortunately for us not that much has changed) and tapping into the feelings and experience of everyday Nigerians.

His reasoning for this approach was simple. In the 1979 documentary ‘Music is the weapon’ he said: “As far as Africa is concerned music cannot be for enjoyment… Music has to be for revolution… Music is the weapon.”

In various cultures throughout the ages, music has been used as a tool in the fight for social justice, it has been at the heart of many social movements; civil rights, anti-war, feminism, to name a few. In South Africa, music was a key element in the anti-apartheid movement, uniting South Africans and raising awareness of the grave injustice overseas.

According to Dorian Lynskey, a music journalist, music ‘became an important means of inspiring and unifying the anti-apartheid movement.’In the US, politically charged music is making a comeback in the mainstream. Since the spate of killings of black men by law enforcement, artists from across the spectrum have become more and more vocal about the inequality and oppression faced by African Americans. From Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ to Beyonce’s ‘Formation’ to T.I’s ‘Warzone’ artistes are starting to seriously use their art for activism. “There is a historical continuum of black artistes being inspired by political movements … and shaping their art around political movements,” said Jason Nichols, a professor of African American Studies at the University of Maryland in an interview with The Guardian. “If you are an artiste and you have zero to say about politics … You have to be making an effort to be quiet, to be blind, to be dumb,” he said of artistes today.

Nichols was likely referring exclusively to American artistes, but isn’t the same logic applicable to their Nigeria counterparts? It’s not as if there aren’t things to protest about in Nigeria. It’s not as though people aren’t yearning to discuss the matters of the country (go to any busy corner selling newspapers in the morning or Nigerian Twitter if you don’t believe me), so why isn’t this passion against injustice and desire for change reflected in popular music?

I once wrote about the need to fill the void Fela left. Although his legacy lives on and his music is still very relevant in today’s climate, wouldn’t it be great to have a conscious, fearless, peerless artiste that becomes the voice of our generation?

While you think about that I’ll leave you with the words of The Roots drummer Questlove, who in an Instagram post last year rallied artistes to pick up their pens and mics and ‘speak the truth’: “I urge and challenge musicians and artists alike to push themselves to be a voice of the times that we live in… I mean real stories. Real narratives. Songs with spirit in them. Songs with solutions. Songs with questions. Protest songs don’t have to be boring or non-danceable or ready made for the next Olympics. They just have to speak the truth.”

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