Nigeria at 62: Reinventing Nigerian Music for Cultural, Social and National Change

Olubayo Stephen
May 8, 2023

The advent of the European world left Africa with little or no choice. It was indeed a brutal condition of either immediate adaptation or cultural annihilation. Therefore, the question that remained pertinent in the minds of early artists was the issue of African autonomy and cultural splendour. This was in line with Chinua Achebe's assertion of African art as "a tool for restoration of moral integrity and African ingenuity."

Nigerians celebrating Independence on October 1, 1960

Thus, at its core, African art became an instrument of aesthetics, an embellishment of worth and cultural glorification, as well as an exploration of anthropological details and the globalisation of African cosmology.

Of course, the voice of Africa and indeed the giant of Africa — Nigeria — did change. With many African nations gaining receiving their independence, the period of "paradise disturbed" gave way, slowly, like paper giving in to water, to the rhetoric of "paradise regained?". For Nigeria, as with many other African countries, the post-independent society did not bode the true independence we all would have wanted. The Nigerian system became a palimpsest where different individuals with different ideologies and affiliations recorded different levels of corruption.

This led to an outpouring of African art in music, text, theatre and more. Reputable 'righters' who were at the wheels of these outpouring included Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan, John Pepper Clark, playwrights such as Athol Fugard, the acclaimed folk opera singer Herbert Ogunde and many more. In music, notables included Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakeila of South Africa, Emmanuel Jai of Sudan, Olanrewaju Adepoju, Kunle Ologundudu, Opeyemi Fajemilehin, Sikiru Ayinde Barrister, Ebenezer Obey, Edreez Abdulkareem, Sunny Okosun and Fela Anikulapo Kuti — all from Nigeria.

Many years later, as arts such as theatre, literature, painting, and music remain recognised as dynamic forces and valuable strategies for fighting corrupt regimes, so, too, do the issues plaguing the country remain. Sixty-two years after independence, the Nigerian government and its leaders remain titular, unresponsive to the rising demands for improving living standards through the provision of basic social amenities, infrastructures and the intangibles such as preservation of fundamental human rights and, most importantly, the provisioning ofhuman security.

The unemployment rate in Nigeria, standing at 33% as of 2022, according to Statista, drives the country's youth population out in droves. Even worse, those who choose to stay and those who choose to return from the diaspora to establish themselves are caught in the clutch of kidnappers. In case you missed it, in the last ten years, over ₦13bn has been paid as ransom between June 2011 and July 11, 2022.

Meanwhile, amidst this doom and gloom, the Nigerian entertainment industry seems to be the silver lining. According to PWC, Nigeria's compound annual growth rate (CAGR) is touted to grow to 12.1%, becoming the world's fastest-growing Entertainment & Media (E&M) market over the coming five years. Unsurprisingly, an integral part of that number is the music industry, which has grown by leaps and bounds over the years.

Now more than ever, Nigerian artistes have found their best voice and making strides both home and abroad, globe-trotting North America, extending to Europe, expanding their territory and turning a one-time import into a sought-after export. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) disclosed that Sub-Saharan Africa generated $70.1m of revenues from recorded music in 2021, while Dataxis predicts that Africa's annual music streaming revenues will grow from $92.9m in 2021 to $314.6m by 2026.

The rise of technology, the whooping population of African music lovers, and the rising number of Africans in the diaspora are some factors that have influenced this blurring of frontiers by Nigerian music. Wale Ozolua, the Content Operations and Artiste Services Specialist for Audiomack Africa, concedes. To him, the rise of centennials has also helped push our music.  

"The demographic segment of Gen X, millennials and Gen Z has also helped push Afrobeatsvia paid subscriptions on social networks while consuming music content. Streamingplatforms have also helped everyone to earn; producers, DJs, songwriters etc."

If we agree that our music is being given the nod both internally and externally, and if we agree with Josef Hanson that "nowhere is the national identity of a country forged more resolutely than in its art", then, perhaps, it is the best time for our artistes to leverage on this music and intentionally 're-use' it as a form of national, social and cultural revival.

It has been done before. Music has been used as a tool for political discourses in many countries and cultures either for socio-political emancipation or to accentuate the social, cultural, economic and political hegemony of such countries. Before the First World War began in 1914, the anti-war attitude inspired some musicians to pen songs like Charles James' "Lay down your guns," which called for peace. During the post-war era, America employed Classical music as a means of re-education of American high culture.

Musicians such as Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, The Weavers, and JoshWhite used protest music to support the Civil Rights Movement in the US, while Blackmusicians in the diaspora, like Bob Marley, used their music towards decolonisation.

According to music author Bode Omojola, Ebre women society of the traditional Ibibio women of the South-South part of Nigeria performs Ebre music during its annual ceremoniesto "express themselves and assert their rights in a male-dominated society”. Similarly, for the Ga and Akan people in the coastal belt and Brong areas of Ghana, protest music forms part of the annual cleansing rituals, a forum for expressing ill feelings, public opinions, and open criticism of those in authority, as Kwabena Nketia has documented in The Music of Africa.

Therefore, as Nigeria's new age coincides with the rebirth of Nigerian music, it is time for ourartistes to use their creativity as an opportunity for peacemaking, social commentary, culturalrevival, peace-building and the creation of a counter-discourse against hegemonic representations and our irresponsible government. It might appear tough luck, but as James Curry notes, music can slowly do the job.

"Of course, musicology may just be a comfy cushion, and as we have seen, a cushion doesnot function particularly well as a sword. But it might work exceedingly well as a means ofslowly suffocating an enemy." Curry revealed.

It's independence day, but the nation's state might just be dependent on our artistes. They need to be better sensitised and intentional about the need to create art that explores the political setup of the nation and provides an engaging and enlightening glimpse into the history, traditions, and social framework of Nigeria.

Many Nigerian artistes are bent on maintaining their art for art's sake — which can't befaulted. But the country needs actual change and true independence where the window ofopportunity has risen to leverage our silver lining — music and entertainment.

It is time to use our music as a constant attempt to create for ourselves a different reality from that which is given to us. Our artistes must remember the words of the great poet and scholar Mazisi Kunene, who, during his interview with Dike Okoro in Durban, 2003, spoke on the dire need for Africans to use their art as a critique of society.

"When an African tries to change, they're trying to adapt to the idiom that is non-African…they write about flowers. Beautiful flowers. Who Cares? (Laughs). Who cares about beautifulflowers?" Kunene concluded.

Happy Independence Day, Nigeria!

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