Afrobeats diplomacy: Using music as a potent diplomatic tool
In 2010, shortly after a lazy documentary, “Welcome to Lagos” aired on the BBC – where a British filmmaker “discovered” a community of people living in a refuse dump – drew the ire of Nigerians, BBC Africa asked people to describe Nigeria in one word using the hashtag #onewordnigeria. Predictably, the most prominent words in the word cloud were “corruption” and “boko-haram” with the predictable “fraud” and “poverty”, punctuated by the patriotic “great” and “giant of Africa”. While these results are not an empirical proof of actual opinions, they reveal deep-seated preconceptions, reinforced by media or prominent events.
Nigeria wasn’t internationally known for corruption until the late 1980s and early 1990s when the military government was believed to have embezzled over $12bn in excess crude windfall during the first Gulf war. It didn’t become synonymous with the advance fee fraud; otherwise known as 419, until the popularity of email in the late 1990s.
In recent years, Nigeria has been in the news for a different reason – its music. With the popularity of young Nigerian musicians internationally, a new generation has a new word association with Nigeria – Afrobeats. As we harness the newfound fondness of Nigerian Entertainment for economic gain both domestically and internationally, we must also see its potential in shaping public opinion and international policy and helping advance Nigeria’s interests on the global stage.
Nigeria, like most developing countries its size and diverse make-up, faces a litany of real problems – high unemployment, high illiteracy, dilapidated infrastructure, insecurity, fraud, waste and abuse, ethnic and religious tensions; problems that are compounded by the gridlock that characterizes large democracies with entrenched interests. But Nigeria also has a perception problem.
In 2016 at the global anti-corruption summit in the UK, the then British Prime Minister, David Cameron, was caught on a hot mic telling the Queen Elizabeth II Nigeria was a “fantastically corrupt nation” – whatever that means. The comment drew the ire of many including the anticorruption watchdog – Transparency International, who accused the UK of being part of the problem by providing safe haven for corrupt assets at home and in its overseas territories. While corruption is a serious problem in Nigeria, the reality is that Nigeria did not rank in the bottom 30 of corrupt countries in the latest Corruption Perception Index. In fact, it hasn’t ranked in the bottom since the poll expanded to include a majority of countries in the world. Yet the stigma of being synonymous with corruption abides, because we continue to be disparaged on the world stage by western media.
While most stereotypes and perceptions like Germans being uptight, and Russians being cold, are harmless, the perception that corruption is rife in Nigeria or that fraudsters are on every street corner, have accrued to actual economic losses through foreign direct investments that have gone elsewhere, or services like PayPal being withheld from the country.
As we continue the climb up the corruption index, through aggressive anti-corruption reform efforts, the reality needs to be reflected in the public perception. While nuanced media reports do their jobs of accurately portraying the situation on the ground, the mainstreaming of contemporary African Pop music otherwise known as Afrobeats, presents an alternate narrative about Nigeria.
In June 2017, the New York Times ran an article about Nigerian booming Afrobeats scene. Although, as expected of most western reports on Africa, the article found a way to make the story about piracy, it acknowledged “Nigerian music – Afrobeats in particular – is having a moment.” The Washington Post was a lot more flattering in its piece last year, asking, “Is this the year that African music will conquer the United States?”.
With superstars Wizkid, Tiwa Savage, Davido, and Ayojay all signed to international record companies and amassing massive international followings, they have a huge platform to influence perceptions about Nigeria. Platform advocacy organizations like the One Campaign and Global Citizen have recognized this and enlisted artists like D’Banj, Femi Kuti, and Waje to perform at their festivals or advocate on their behalf. It is time for the country and the artists to recognize the power and position they occupy, and the moment, and use it to shape hearts and minds about Nigeria as more favourable perceptions ultimately benefit everyone.
During the cold war, the United States recognized the power and importance of cultural diplomacy in bridging divides, spreading its ideals and subtly advancing its agenda around the world and created what is now known as the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. It also recognized that high profile celebrities had a role to play in this effort, as they had the uncanny ability to attract public attention and support for any cause they deem important. That is why the US Department of State through its Sports Diplomacy program recruits professional athletes, active and retired, as envoys to reach out to the world community and bridge gaps between the U.S and other countries, where traditional diplomatic channels might be harder to penetrate, and also uses them to raise the profile of international concerns and causes.
Through its cultural exchange programs, the State Department also introduces global audiences to American music, film, art, poetry, and cuisine, by hosting programs and performances at its embassies around the world that helps break down cultural barriers, and build an appreciation for its heritage among a wide audience.
The work of celebrity diplomats is not isolated to those officially appointed by the State Department, celebrities like George Clooney and Ben Affleck have also used their status to call attention to crisis in Darfur and the Congo respectively, which are U.S. policy priorities that wouldn’t otherwise garner much international attention or support. The efforts of celebrity citizen diplomats complement and enhance the State Department’s goal of advancing US interests around the world.
In his acceptance speech as a Special Envoy for the Educational and Cultural Affairs, Baseball Hall of Famer Carl Ripken Jr. said, “When you put [these players] out on the baseball field… the communication obstacles go away and everybody communicates in a really nice way. There’s a great interaction between all the kids all around this country and around the world. And, hopefully, we’ll be able to send that message, plant a few seeds in different parts of the world and use baseball and sport to actually cross over cultural lines.” Music has the same powerful effect as sports in shaping perceptions.
So, as the world’s leaders and diplomats descend on New York for the 72nd Session of United Nations General Assembly, it is time for the Nigerian Foreign Affairs to be more deliberate in activating Nigerian Artists; who are perhaps the only Nigerians that still enjoy goodwill wherever they go, to use their platform, and the moment, to benefit their homeland.
Get the latest news delivered straight to your inbox every day of the week. Stay informed with the Guardian’s leading coverage of Nigerian and world news, business, technology and sports.