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The danger of singing truth to power


Nigeria’s singer Charles Oputa, popularly called Charlie Boy, carries a placard to demand that ailing President Mohammadu Buhari resume work or resign in Abuja, on August 7, 2017.<br />Dozens of protesters in collaboration with civil society marched through the streets to demand that Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari who has been away on medical vacation in London for more than three months resume work or resign his job. / AFP PHOTO / PHILIP OJISUA

President Muhammadu Buhari returned to Aso Rock last Saturday after 103 days away on medical leave. His return brought a period of intense uncertainty to an end, although we’ll know in a few weeks whether the president is back for good or if Nigerians were momentarily blessed with the most august of August visitors.

A couple of days prior to the president’s return, one of his most vocal critics, the self-appointed President of Frustrated Nigerians, nearly lost his own life on the job. Under the banner of his “Our Mumu Don Do” movement, Charly Boy had given the president an ultimatum to either resume work or resign, and he led protests in Lagos and Abuja to drive home his point. The protests started in June and were largely drama-free but early this month, when the Area Fada and his supporters convened at the Unity Fountain, Abuja, they were reportedly tear-gassed by men of the Nigerian Police Force. There was trouble again a few days later; when Charly Boy set out for the city’s iconic Wuse market, he was lucky to leave there with his soul still in his heavily-tattooed body.

According to eyewitnesses, Charly Boy was confronted by staunch Buhari supporters, his car was vandalised and policemen had to shoot in the air to disperse the crowd baying for blood. Charly Boy had learned the hard way that despite being absent for months, the president still remains widely popular with his core base: low income northern Muslims. This base is a very important part of what makes Wuse market Wuse market. Charly Boy is non-Muslim and also comes from the same tribe as a far more dangerous thorn in the president’s side – Nnamdi Kanu. With this ethno-religious sentiment as the backdrop, the crowd mounted a violent counter-protest and the veteran singer almost became a martyr for a different cause than the one he was fighting for.

Frustrated by the way his motive was being misinterpreted, Charly Boy suspended the Abuja branch of his protest, but it didn’t matter anyway because President Buhari finally returned days after the Wuse Market incident. Nonetheless, the singer’s ordeal sent a message to anyone planning on going down a similar path in the future. That message will probably be heard loudest within the community that Charly Boy is a senior member of: Music.

Artists have received a lot of criticisms of late for not using their music enough for social and political activism. The recent 20th anniversary celebration of Fela’s passing presented another opportunity to contrast the political and social activism that was the hallmark of his Afrobeat sound and the general apathy towards those issues in the ‘Afrobeats’ culture of today.

I think it is fair to say that Nigeria is experiencing a period in time when there’s a mismatch between the reality of most of its people and the content of its upbeat, happy-go-lucky pop sound. While it is important for pop music to serve as an escape route for a people in the struggle, a quasi-protest record like Tekno’s Rara ought not to be an anomaly, not with the challenges we are facing right now. Also, if we truly want more artists to speak their mind, songs that touch on real issues like Timaya’s Pity 4 Us and Oritsefemi’s Our Government I Beg ought to receive more support.

There is power in music and in the voices of those who make it, politicians know this. They know that if a singer with 1,000,000 followers takes a stand against their government, they can spark something in their follower’s minds. They also know that if they get that same singer to sing their praises instead, they can win cool points and get several thousands of those followers to sing along too. Artists know this as well and they milk it, a few of them make significant amounts of their money by performing at private gigs for politicians and their families, and also by endorsing their political campaigns. It’s ironic how the anti-corruption drive of Pres. Buhari has caused some of those income streams to dry up but that’s a topic for another Saturday. It is, however, interesting that Nigerians are learning to hold artists accountable for the actions, or inactions, of the politicians they choose to stand next to.

Another thing that artists are being held accountable for more and more is their philosophical consistency. With no ideological differences between politicians and parties, the public often sees government as a continuum. So, when an artist who, in the past, used to flirt with one politician or a political party wants to take an anti-government stance in the future, some of us become sceptical of timing and motive. That’s part of the reason why a Charly Boy who carried GEJ on his bike in 2014 is seen as an imperfect messenger in an anti-government crusade in the regime of his successor, and why 2Baba’s relationship with Sen. David Mark brought his own protest, earlier in the year, into disrepute.

Charly Boy has expressed his disappointment with 2Baba for not joining his ‘Our Mumu Don Do’ protest and for keeping quiet since cancelling his February “I Stand with Nigeria” protest for “safety” reasons. 2Baba blinked at a crucial moment and since then, he’s had to carry the cross of disappointing his supporters. I questioned 2Baba’s motives and politics at the time but never his right to protest. I feel the same way about the distractingly colourful and controversial Charly Boy. The right message doesn’t always need a perfect messenger; all it needs is someone with the heart and courage to sing truth to power.

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