About a year ago, I taught a history course – Sources of African History - at Machakos University College. In one of the classes I had with the students, we learnt about slogans as a source of African history. We ended up discussing excerpts of Daudi Kabaka’s song Harambee (pull together). I recall quoting one of the lines of the song:
“Wengi walisema Kenya itakuwa matata” (many said that Kenya would have problems)
Admittedly, before learning about the nuances of decolonization as a student of history in the University of Nairobi, I was under the impression that there was a national euphoric and joyous consensus over the attainment of independence. Like my students, my view of history was largely influenced by a clip, that is usually played on our TV stations during some of our national holidays, that shows the then Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta receiving the Kenya Constitution in front of an applauding crowd. In actual fact, there was no such consensus. Sectarian interests represented by Kenya’s two main parties – KANU (Kenya African National Union)and KADU (Kenya African Democratic Union) – manifested themselves in a fierce rivalry which divided the country along ethnic lines. In certain quarters there was a palpable fear of different regions seceding a la Congo that had gained its independence a few years before in 1960. Part of this lesson – the anxiety that independence was viewed with - can be gleaned from the above song. The rest of the song however, was an endorsement of a national consensus, imposed majorly by Jomo Kenyatta, which came on the heels of a raging rivalry between the two blocs.
Songs are veritable sources of history as the artists behind them write about the times that they are living in. What of those songs that, unlike Harambee, eschewed or eschew a brand of patriotism favourable to the ruling elite and speak ‘truth’ to it, ‘truth’ here being issues that few people have or had the courage to broach? I want to refer to these songs as songs of protest, songs that castigate state excesses, injustices or subversive songs that challenge the legitimacy of political establishments that are considered oppressive.
What do these songs say about their times? How useful are these songs and the artists behind them for sociopolitical change? In this respect, how do African artists of the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s compare to the millennials? Of course, we should expect some differences across geographies given the different histories of each of the African states but can we establish some sort of pattern in this regard?
Just like in Kenya, a blend of music supportive of the independence regimes emerged in many countries across Africa. This perhaps came as a result of the legitimacy earned by leaders of such regimes who in most cases were former freedom fighters. However, as the headiness of independence wore off, fault lines would emerge as a result of dashed hopes for a better life after independence, state excesses and rivalries among the political elite which all took place against the backdrop of the Cold War. This provided a fertile ground for artists to speak to such realities for decades to come. In Ghana for example, highlife musician Dr K Gyasi in 1964 recorded the song Agyima Mansa which was about the ghost of a mother expressing her grief over the suffering of her children, an ‘obvious allusion to Mother Ghana.’ The song was banned on radio but it would set the stage for other politically charged releases in Ghana such as Ebi Te Yie (Some are Well Seated) by Nana Kwame Ampadu sung in an allegorical style that decried the unequal distribution of wealth and power in Ghana. The title of the song is still a popular phrase used in Ghana to express feelings of inequality in society.
In Southern Africa where most countries were still under colonial rule at this time, artists such as Oliver Mtudukuzi, Hugh Masekhela and Miriam Makeba sang against apartheid and white minority rule. Nkosi Sekeleli, a song adopted by the ANC in 1925, was one of the songs sung by South Africans in exile and also in South Africa although it was later banned by the apartheid regime. It served as a symbol for the anti-apartheid movement and was later taken up by other independent countries such as Tanzania as National Anthems. In Angola and Mozambique, there were songs that denounced the oppressive colonial regimes in both states.
In the following decades artists such as Fela Kuti from Nigeria, D O Misiani, based in Kenya though Tanzanian-born and also, partly, Franco Luambo from Congo Brazzaville would criticize regimes of their countries for their corruption, their brutality and their repression. Fela Kuti, whose music was perhaps the most incendiary of the three, endured beatings, harassment as well as imprisonment for his subversive songs such as Zombie and International Thief Thief. While D O Misiani and Franco Luambo would later in their careers be supportive of regimes that they once attacked, Fela Kuti remained a rebel to the end releasing an album in 1989 called Beasts of No Nation. The album took a swipe at, amongst others, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, for their policy of constructive engagement with the apartheid regime. Fela Kuti died in 1997 from an AIDS related illness.
Fela’s Beasts of No Nation release came a few years after newer acts such as Alpha Blondy, Lucky Dube, Youssou N’dour and Angelique Kidjo emerged and used their influence and music to speak against apartheid and much later the US invasion of Iraq. Genres of music such as jazz, reggae and soul, which came from different parts of the globe, had an influence on these artists. Globalisation was taking root as the Cold War era came to an end. This held sway on the wave of political liberalisation that took place in the early to the mid-1990s as the United States, the only superpower then, pressurized governments in Africa to adopt multiparty political systems. These governments no longer had the luxury to play favourites between the United States and the USSR as the latter had already collapsed. Many of them had capitalized on the Cold War dynamics which bolstered their standing despite their repressive excesses. The end of the cold war did not immediately translate into democratic gains in the states that these regimes ruled over. Actors in these countries had to agitate for political liberalisation and expansion of democratic space. In Kenya, for example, clergymen and professionals alike clamoured for the amendment of the country’s constitution to allow a multiparty political system. Artists were not left behind; singers such as Albert Gacheru, Tom Kimani and Joseph Kamaru came up with songs that castigated the repressive regime for its excesses. These songs, stored in cassettes, were played in public service vehicles – matatus – ahead of the country’s Saba Saba Demonstrations which is considered to be one of the most important events that turned the tide against the KANU regime in the struggle for multiparty democracy. The songs evidently helped in shaping the public’s perception towards the establishment. In Ivory Coast, Zouglou, a genre of music that originated in the 1970s, was used by University students to demand more political freedoms from the government of Houphouet-Boigny.
As African states continued to be subjected to globalization, a newer slew of artists emerged. The exposure of these artists to newer genres of music such as Hip Hop, RNB, Dancehall and other styles influenced them to come up with their own styles of music which spoke to their experiences. In his book East African Hip Hop, Mwenda Ntarangwi argues that globalization is, on one hand, a force that replicates unequal structural, economic, and political relations that the West has had with Africa, and on the other, a force that creates opportunities for youth to enter into public space, make some economic gains, and offer sociopolitical critique. This was the context that these musicians navigated.
In Ghana artists such as Reggie Rockstone pioneered a genre of music called Hiplife which he used for sociopolitical critique. In South Africa, Kwaito artist, Zola, used a genre hitherto believed to be apolitical to release politically charged music that addressed some of the challenges of growing up in a Township. Thandiswa Mazwai, in her music, also depicted the same. East African Artists such as Kalamashaka, Professor Jay and Eric Wainaina spoke to issues such as corruption, crime and neocolonialism in their music. While Eric Wainaina’s song Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo (a country of bribes) decried corruption in all levels of society, his Kenyan counterparts, Gidi Gidi Maji Maji provided an anthem for the country’s opposition to campaign against the KANU regime and defeat it in the 2002 elections. The song, Unbwogable (Unshakable in English), resonated with a large number of Kenyans many of whom had had enough of a repressive regime that had ruled for over 24 years. Around this time, Hugh Masekhela released ‘change’ a song off his Time album that castigated African leaders like Daniel Moi and Robert Mugabe for staying in power for too long. About four years earlier, Ivory Coast’s Alpha Blondy had made a hard-hitting album that politicians in his country took exception to. Despite his somewhat chequered record – earlier on in his career he had heaped praise on Houphouet-Boigny – he railed against his country’s government by releasing a slew of protest songs that took up various causes including freedom of expression for Africa’s journalists.
In 2003 Tanzanian rapper Professor Jay put out his Mapinduzi Halisi album (real revolution) which had the song Kikao cha Dharura (Emergency meeting), a satirical critique of politics in Tanzania through dramatising a meeting between a politician and his constituents at the end of the politician’s first term in parliament. In the song, the constituents are hostile to the politician mainly as a result of the plight of his constituents and his unfulfilled promises that he had given them before his election. Two years later on the heels of the disputed 2005 Ethiopian elections, reggae singer, Teddy Afro released Jah Yasteseryal (which translates to ‘Redemption’ or ‘healing’) which became a popular anthem for anti-government protesters at the time. The song appeared to be critical of the establishment and was banned on the state controlled radio FM Addis. In addition, Teddy Afro was jailed three years later for a crime widely thought to be a trumped up charge – a hit-and-run accident that had taken place almost two years before his arrest. The results of many elections in African countries at around this time would be disputed by citizens of those countries. Zimbabwean artist Viomak released a hard hitting album Happy 84th Birthday R G Matibili an album that attributed her people’s hardships – brutality, hunger and even disease – to Mugabe’s misrule. She released the album from exile in Britain. Although her songs were banned on state owned radio, her music was still widely listened to.
Tiken Jah Fakoly, an Ivorian Reggae artist, also spoke against Laurent Gbagbo’s regime. As Viomak, he was an artist in exile. Both of these artists’ countries experienced election related violence that stemmed from their country’s histories as well as the disputed results from their elections. In East Africa, Burney MC wrote a song that was named after the ‘Walk to Work’ protests that took place in Uganda after the country’s elections in February 2011. The song addressed the widespread discontent that had fermented in the country as a result of inflation, corruption as well as Yoweri Museveni’s prolonged stay in power. In Tanzania Hip Hop artistes such as Kala Jeremiah and Roma Mkatoliki emerged whose respective songs Wimbo wa Taifa and Tanzania invoked the memory of Julius Nyerere while criticizing the existing politicians for corruption and greed. In the North, Tunisian Hip Hop made its contribution to the country’s revolution with the song Rais Le Bled by El General, a song that criticized the then President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and decried unemployment, corruption and poverty.
In what can be considered as one of the biggest contributions of artists to national politics in Africa, a Senegalese youth movement, Y’en a Marre (We are Fed Up), in 2011 thwarted an attempt by the country’s president to change the constitution that would have given him undue advantage against the country’s split opposition in the elections that were to be held in February of 2012. This group actively engaged in protests against Adoulaye Wade’s move. As explained by Rosalinda Fredrick’s article on Hip Hop and The Arts of Citizenship of Senegalese Youth, the group, formed by two Hip Hop artists and a Journalist, drew much of its power from its connection to rap music and culture. It released songs critical of President Abdoulaye Wade and organized concerts where the artists engaged with the public on civic issues. Na Dem (Go away) and Goor gi dee na songs by Red Black, then a 30 year old Senegalese Hip Hop artist, were songs that galvanized citizens against Abdoulaye Wade’s regime that was voted out as it sought an unconstitutional third term in power. A somewhat similar model of civic engagement was replicated in Burkina Faso, a neighbouring country where the youth group Balai Citoyen (The Citizens’ Broom) helped forestall a parliamentary vote scheduled by President Blaise Compaore that was intended to change the constitution’s presidential term limit. In solidarity with other countries in Africa facing the same problem, Y’en a Marre and Balai Citoyen have tried to offer support to other groups in the continent. For their efforts, members of both groups alongside Congolese activists were detained in March 2015 but were later released and declared personae non grata. Earlier this year, an Angolan Hip Hop artist and activist – Luaty Beirao – was arrested with 16 fellow activists while having a book club discussion on Gene Sharp’s book From Dictatorship to Democracy. The activists were tried and were handed sentences ranging from two and eight and a half years for ‘rebellion against the government of President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos’ but were released after being held for three months.
Are we witnessing resurgence in the continent of politically charged music and proactive musicians dissatisfied with their nation’s status quo? Are these artists, the quintessential products of their regions’ times? Years after Y’en a Marre (We’re Fed Up) was formed, a group of Kenyan Activists echoed the essence of the movement’s name by launching the slogan Tumechoka (we are tired) and a group of artistes came up with a song with the same name. In the South, the Rhodes Must Fall movement was also driven by discontent and dissatisfaction over the structure of their university education system; the spirit of this was encapsulated in Gigi la Mayne’s song – Fees will fall.
There’s a Kiswahili saying that is normally used in reference to artists in Kenya and Tanzania - Msanii ni Kioo cha jamii (An Artist is the Mirror of Society). If the artists’ recordings are anything to go by, it would seem that Africa has approached an age of discontent. Africa is angry and that is probably why, unlike most of their forerunners, this new crop of artists has taken the continents’ fate in its own hands - the lines are now blurred between the artist and the ruler.