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Xenophobia In South Africa – More Nigerian Artists Take A Stand

It has been a rough week for Nigeria-South Africa relations, the two African giants are in the middle of a diplomatic face-off that was triggered by a fresh round of violence toward foreign nationals in South Africa. On Sunday, angry mobs in Pretoria looted property belonging to foreign-owned businesses. The riots killed at least 5 people and affected scores more. It’s not clear how many of them were Nigerians.

This isn’t the first time this has happened either, incidents like this flare up occasionally in a country still struggling with the aftermath of decades of apartheid. While social media, through the proliferation of fake videos and clips, undoubtedly poured petrol on an already volatile situation, the saying goes that there is no smoke without fire — except it’s shisha. Okay, I made that last part up.

In search of leadership, many Nigerians turned to artists to condemn the violence. The artist community, for the most part, was initially reluctant to speak. The legendary 2Baba, for one, responded to Hushpuppi when the social media celebrity voiced his displeasure at this behaviour. He exclaimed: “You do not have the right to harass another person for not speaking up yet because you do not live in their heads… Please let us be guided.”

But Nigerian fans have historically expected their pop stars to speak on social issues, or sing about them at least. Rightly or wrongly, artists are sometimes seen as quasi-prophets with the ability to bring awareness to the people’s plight, even if they lack the infrastructure to solve them. It needn’t be advocacy on the level of Fela Kuti either, but an acknowledgement of the issues — some of which have plagued the country since the days of Abami Eda — could provide succor and let fans know that they are not alone.

Artists such as 2Baba embrace the expectation, but many more just stay away. Addressing social issues in the public square could come at a cost, and artists can fully expect to receive backlash, especially from those on the other side of the ideological divide. Furthermore, being in a career where success is largely predicated on popularity, giving a portion of the public a reason not to like you can be suicidal. So you can fully understand artists who choose to “unlook” even when everything around them is in flames.

However, this isn’t one of the situations where artists have the luxury of sitting things out. The music industry in Nigeria and SA share a close commercial connection. This connection has been deepened over the past 15-20 years primarily through the emergence of connectors like Channel O, MTV Base Africa, BET Africa and MTN. Their presence in both countries created a rich platform for artists, videographers, executives and other professionals from Lagos to Jo’burg to collaborate heavily.

That relationship has now matured to the point where, in 2017, a Davido could have songs like “Fall” and “If” go platinum (30,000 units sold) and diamond (300,000 units sold) in South Africa. And, the following year, AKA could get “Fela In Versace” to be embraced by Nigerian radio, even though a song about one of the country’s most renowned activists had a socially redeeming value of approximately zero.

But in the last week, AKA has gone from that exalted space to public enemy #1 in Nigerian music. The colorful MC had used xenophobic dog-whistles in the past, like when the Super Eagles threw Bafana Bafana out of the African Nations Cup (2019) and he claimed that it hurt particularly bad to lose to Nigeria because South Africans lose to Nigerians in “every way”, and when he reignited his beef with his arch-nemesis Cassper Nyovest, after criticizing him for wanting to be Nigerian.

The recent violence was, therefore, an opportunity for Nigerians to give AKA a piece of their mind too. They were led by ex-Sony Music signee, Ycee, but AKA’s former collaborators Burna Boy and Ice Prince had also had enough of the rapper’s baiting. MI Abaga would end up being one of the few to show support for AKA but he was soon isolated. More Nigerian artists would speak up against xenophobia in general, artists like Wizkid and Davido said their piece, and even the previously reticent 2Baba put up a strong message condemning the attacks.

Frustratingly, AKA didn’t help the situation with a slew of sarcastic replies. But perhaps what was even more disturbing was the more blatant hostility from an artist of the stature of Babes Wodumo, who exclaimed: “Nigerians need to leave South Africa!!! Everything would be smooth without them.” The singer would later claim to have been hacked, and AKA too would try to calm the situation down eventually, but a number of things had already happened by then – AKA had become persona non grata and acts like Tiwa Savage, Vector and Basketmouth started withdrawing from upcoming commitments in SA.

However, these aren’t the types of issues that a conversation and a common understanding can’t solve. While career diplomats discuss the way forward for both countries, both sets of artists also have important roles to play within their communities. It might not be one that they’re comfortable with playing but it is one that they might be surprised could have a profound impact, whether good or bad.

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