West Africa is considered as the region of Africa with the most natural resources but unfortunately its history has always been involved with conflicts and hardships. It is also recognized for its prosperous marketing domain, fascinating landforms and amazing types of clothing. Music all over West Africa has a history of expanding in the sense that it now involves different types of music from all over the continent. The music of Africa as a whole has consistently energized and inspired an amazing feeling throughout the world from artists such as Fela Kuti from Nigeria, Youusour Ndour from Senegal, Salif Kieta from Mali and few others. These artists who started by singing in rural and little halls in their various countries, then became known to the world as time passed by they became relevant and prominent to the music of Africa in general.
Throughout the years, Music in Africa has seemed to operate as a source of sarcasm and resistance towards the political sphere mainly because music is considered as the most extensive acknowledgeable form of art in the region. Music began to be used in accomplishing many political goals in the West African region considering the lack of easy access to other forms of media. According to Charles H. Cutter “Music is a connecting link between cultural values and political life; it is a vital medium of communication that contributes to the maintenance and persistence of the political system of which it is a part” (Cutter 1968). Africa is recognized for its consistent bad governance, mismanagement by elites, electoral violence’s, and the domination of the sphere by the European and western powers. According to Lara Allen, in western styles of public contestations, issues of mismanagement involving the government are mainly through the mass media forms such as freedom of speech, freedom of speech whereas in Africa this is not the case, people find other ways of voicing out what they want, who they want to be and what they believe in. This is mainly through music (Allen 2014)
This paper will analyze the use of political and social messages through music by famous western African artists mentioned above but specifically Fela Kuti of Nigeria and how he was able to expose the issues of the country and at the same time mobilize the masses more than other forms of media. Fela was principally moved by growth of social consciousness around the world infused the black world during his time and also tried to transfer his own political struggles to his environment where socio-historic circumstances were different. “He had to devise his own type of revolutionary struggle suitable to his social environment as well as the possibilities of his own existential condition. Music was the instrument he chose, and music, like other varieties of art, is located in the conjunction of structure and culture; music influences structure and culture and they in turn shape music” (Justin 1982)
Fela Kuti was born into a middle class family in the year 1938 in Abeokuta, Nigeria. His mother was a well-known feminist activist and his father a teacher. Fela acquired his educational background in the United Kingdom, primarily with the intention of studying medicine but then diverted to music and continued to flourish in that aspect until his death in 1997. Fela Kuti is one of the most prominent figures in West African popular music and is well recognized for his songs and chants about the mismanagement and corruption of the Nigerian government, he was fearless and the masses got attracted to that.”Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a fearless maverick for whom music was a righteous and invincible weapon, his self-given second name was Anikulapo- which meant” the one who carries death in his pouch”- spoke of indestructability and reliance”(Moore 2009). According to the article written by the University of Wisconsin, Fela tried his best in changing the political structure of Nigeria and the wave of African music called the Afrobeat. It is said that Fela mainly found this new wave of music and it is mainly derived from his works also gaining international recognition; the article states;
“Afrobeat music would not be regarded as what it is today, had Fela Kuti not served a great purpose in its creation. Through this unique musical genre, Fela used his popularity and fame to spread messages about the social make-up and construction of Nigerian life. It was mainly through the messages he carried and the image he backed. However, that are also responsible for the building of Afrobeat music. Kuti’s ideas about gender in particular, visible in his songs “Lady” and “Gentleman”, challenge cultural values, making Afrobeat music explicitly political”. (Madison 2009)
Fela Kuti particularly focused on challenging the government in every aspect of mismanagement and bad governance, he sang songs like “craze world “where he criticized the government under the military regime and queried them for the use of obnoxious laws and also referred to them as “animals in a crazy man’s skin”. The lyrics are as follows;
Nigerian president is in outside world?
Crazy world now that is a crazy man.
Animal in craze man skin-e
Now craze world be that
No be outside Idiagbon dey?
Now craze man be that
Animal in craze man skin-e
(Viviane et al 2008)
Other songs where he chants about corruption and bad governance in the country include, Suffering and Smiling, Army Arrangement, Zombie, Unknown Soldier and Teacher Dont teach me Nonsense. Specifically in the song teacher “teacher don’t teach me nonsense” was targeted on the British colonies whom do not want to let country off its burden of exploitation and also the corrupt Nigeria government.
For Fela, music was a powerful and appropriate tool for political struggle, in addition, it was also a means of empowering the masses and threating the government. Fela was highly influential that he created his own republic in the country called the “Kalakuta Republic”. According Vivan et al, “Artists who produce socially significant texts that critique authoritarian state regimes and structures in their lyrics play a key role in resisting state violence: “Cultural struggle is about raising the political awareness of the mass population, exposing the apologists for injustice and inequality, and creating an alternative set of values and different perspectives of the world” (Ghunna 1996-97, 7)
Thus, musicians hold and influence a very critical role in politically delicate countries, due to the ability they have on changing or expanding it more within its background. One other example we can refer to is the Griot who are recognized to dominate various stands in the West African culture, they have been referred to names such as traditionalists, in charge of ceremonies, musicians and other significant titles. As we also see in the documentary of Soundjata Kieta that his Griot was of paramount importance Music was clearly seen as medium of interpreting and expressing the people’s level of unhappiness regarding a problem, in the past. In most countries musicians are given some sort of freedom to produce and manage their music themselves, but in some countries where the music industries are controlled by the government; for example in Morocco the music industry is highly influenced by the government in the sense that it does not allow musicians to say or sing anything that goes against the government or its leaders. Here we can make a comparison between level of liberty present in the political unstable countries where it is quite accepted to criticize the government and its leaders and there would be no repercussion towards that. Although, the case of Fela vs the government in the year 1984 was different, when he was charged at random and sentenced to five years in prison but ended up serving twelve months.
Another influence we can relate the great Fela Kuti is Papa Wemba of Congo although his perception about life and how he lived was different to Fela,s they both shared a similar political and social message to the masses. Papa Wemba sang about Africans being slaves and the misdemeanor of the colonists, he mainly encouraged young individuals back in Congo to migrate to France in order to better their lives. As we know Congo was under the ruthless regime of Mumbutu where living standards were unbearable for the people and the same time the country was running on a high level of bad governance and corruption. Papa Wemba,s influence as a Sapeur highly attracted a lot of young individuals as he had large population supporting and following him. The Sapeur movement got across countries such as Ivory Coast and Uganda.
In conclusion we can have discussed the main reasons why it is considered preferable by the masses to intercept political and social messages by listening to music and having a feeling freedom. As we have seen how the influence of Fela,s chants and songs made the masses to be politically aware of what is happening around them including what they know and don’t know. Nowadays musicians all around the world mainly transmit political and social messages consistently in order to make sure their audience is constantly politically aware.
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