Fela Kuti once said: “Music is the weapon of the future“. Popular music has always been a driving force in African societies shaping politics and society by giving the masses the opportunity to air discontent. In a recent New York Times article Nicholas Kulish argued that “… the growth of democratic expectations, the decline of dictatorships, the expansion of African economies and the explosion of the Internet and other technologies has created new space for African artists to thrive.” But we could likewise argue that this artistic freedom is not only the result of the open space but it is itself one of its foundations. Music, as culture in general, was/is/will be vital for revitalizing the social fabric of African societies.
However, if listeners do not transform lyrics into changed attitudes or political actions, songs with revolutionary spirits just sound nice. Every sociopolitical minded song is only as powerful as the attitude or behavioral changes it provokes. In 2013, Mali experienced the most serious political crisis since independence but Malian artists responded as a powerful voice against the oppression by extremists, e.g. the Voices United For Mali (‘Mali-ko – Peace/La Paix‘), Baba Salah‘s ‘Ay Derey‘ (Mali) or Ben Zabo‘s call for ‘Démocratie‘. Other African artists produced political minded songs that highlight global economic inequalities (Blitz The Ambassador, Baloji), build resilience against corrupt political systems (Femi Kuti) or remind the citizens on their own contributions to a corrupt system (Sarabi). Kenyan rapper Juliani proved to be one of the most outspoken musicians in 2013 – being featured three times in this list – sensitizing the Kenyan public about reasonable voting (‘Voters vs. Vultures‘) but still finding the right words to energize Kenyans to be constructive change makers in the system (‘Utawala‘).
The following list shows clearly: There are many sociopolitical tracks with powerful statements. The question is: Do we hear the messages and act accordingly?
1. Juliani *-* ‘Voters vs. Vultures‘ (Feat. Dela) (Kenya)
This Hip Hop/ Rock track Juliani is a powerful critique against the corrupt political leaders in Kenya, who are portrayed as greedy vultures. The comparison draws from Boniface Mwangi‘s anti-government graffiti which gained global popularity. Boniface Mwangi, activist/ journalist and one of the most outspoken government critic in Kenya is even featured in the video – acting the leader of the group of young people who remove the vultures’ campaign posters in order to initiate their own anti-vultures campaign. Juliani released the track+video very strategically, just three weeks before the General Elections in Kenya in 2013. In the chorus he demands ‘Tusi-bleed ndio walead‘ (Let us not bleed so they lead) and warns Kenyans to vote for leaders who would not lead them to fight each other. At the end of the video we see an energetic crowd shouting “People, Power, Possibilities” – summarizing what democracy should actually be about.
2. Blitz The Ambassador *-* ‘Bisa‘ (Feat. Nneka & Ty) (Ghana, Nigeria, UK) (Bandcamp)
After the two last leaks of his upcoming EP ‘Warm Up‘ Blitz the Ambassador drops this great globalisation-critique song (featuring Hip Hop veterans Nneka and Ty) highlighting the unjustified and cruel practices by global corporations. ‘Bisa‘ means ‘Ask’ in the Ghanaian language “Twi” and reminds all of us to question the current status of globalization: “Look at how we living, Bodies are free but our minds are in prison / Controlled by the system no longer we fall victim / From Tahrir Square to Madison Square the streets are crammed / Revolution will not be televised or instagramed / The tables are turning the people are rising and burning / Overthrow the corporations that are steadily earning / So death to Monsanto, Death to Halliburton, Death to De Beers / Death to Shell oil, Just look at what they did to Ken Saro-Wiwa“.
3. Voices United For Mali *-* ‘Mali-ko (Peace/La Paix)‘ (Mali)
Fatoumata Diawara, who organized this joint Peace track, said about the motivation behind the track: ‘I saw in the population’s faces that people were giving up, There was no hope. No politics to believe in. Nothing. So, with my fresh mind, I thought: let’s bring some hope. Music unites everyone in Mali, from every generation and every background, from big stars to ordinary people.’ In the refrain, the artists sing: “The time has come for us to speak up about the crisis in Mali / We, the artists, must speak now from the heart about what is happening to our Mali.” (Lyrics)
4. Juliani *-* ‘Utawala‘ (Kenya)
‘Utawala‘ has become a very popular political track in Kenya, which gives Kenyans the centre stage and voices out the challenges many wananchi face in their daily lifes. Again, Juliani criticizes the greedy political class but still reminds citizens that they have the strength to change things. According to a KenyaBuzz ‘Utawala‘ “has become almost like the National Anthem“. (Lyrics)
5. Fémi Kuti *-* ‘No Place For My Dream‘ (Nigeria) (iTunes)
Femi Kuti‘s track ‘No Place For My Dream‘ is yet another musical manifestation of Femi Kuti’s fight against poverty, oppression and inequality. In ‘No Place For My dream‘ he expresses: “I want people to understand the times we are at and the kind of environment we live in and it’s me setting out to achieve peace, unity, love and all the egood things … This is a true life experience of my life fighting against corruption and people trying to discourage me.” In the series ‘My Songs‘ by Radio Network Worldwide, Femi Kuti explains the motivation behind the track.
6. Baloji & L’Orchestre De La Katuba *-* ‘Buy Africa‘ (Feat. Kuku) (DRC, Nigeria) (iTunes)
In his remix of Fela Kuti’s energetic track ‘Buy Africa‘ the Congolese rapper Baloji sticks to Fela’s message to uphold African pride and invest in home-grown companies rather than multinational enterprises. He follows Fela’s example and stresses that it is crucial to nurture African identities despite Western influence: “We need to take control of our symbols / When these demolition companies oppose our tribes & their nations“. Translated lyrics in the video.
7. Sarabi *-* ‘Fuata Sheria‘ (Feat. Juliani) (Kenya)
Kenya’s Sarabi Band from Nairobi’s Eastlands and Sheng rapper Juliani take a critical look at Kenya’s current state. The track ‘Fuata Sheria‘ (means ‘respect the rule of law‘ in Swahili) is a powerful and bittersweet call to all Kenyans, if political leaders or ordinary wananchi (citizens), to take responsibility for their contributions to the corrupt status quo. At the end of the song Juliani drops some heavy Sheng rhymes. In his line ‘ You are not my tribe, but you are my blood type. But it doesn’t have to take a tragedy to know that‘ he seems to refer to the Westgate attacks which was followed by unity calls among Kenyans.
8. Slumdawg *-* ‘Peace Song (Amani)‘ (Feat. Yabadoo) (Kenya) (Reverbnation)
After the widespread violence that followed the elections in Kenya in 2007, Kenyan citizens were hoping and praying for peaceful elections in 2013. Artists came out strongly and advocated for a violence-free election period. Two of these artists were Slumdawg and Yabadoo, two rising Hip Hop artists, who are members of Hip Hop conglomerate Y.G.B. (Young, Gifted and Black). Their video starts with a short flashback of the post-election violence in 2007/08. In the song Slumdawg and Yabadoo communicate strong messages to the Kenyan society: “Peace is what we need every time, everywhere / Anything to do with violence, I say NO … no-no-no-no-no. I want peace … Politics is of no importance to me / These guys are using us like tissues / They don’t wanna submit to our issues / All they ever do is take care of themselves‘. For Slumdawg, the motivation to produce the song has a lot to do with his own story: “I did Peace Song to urge Kenyans to vote peacefully and to maintain peace there after. I lost both of my parents due to the post-election violence, so I know the pain of losing loved ones to such horrific events.“
9. Irene Ntale *-* ‘Politiqx‘ (Uganda)
The song ‘Politiqx‘ is unusually political for Irene Ntale. The young Ugandan shooting star became popular with beautiful pop love ballads like ‘Eno Y’esawa‘. In the series ‘My song’ she explained why she wrote the sociopolitical minded song: “To get a job in Uganda, you’ve got to know somebody who knows somebody”. She blames phenomena like corruption and “High-class tribalism”, to be responsible for political malpractices in Uganda. However, she remains optimistic and encourages her audience in the song to oppose the status-quo.
10. Ben Zabo *-* ‘Démocratie‘ (Mali) (iTunes)
Ben Zabo, who became famous in 2012 with his Malian version of afrobeat, dropped a fresh EP in 2013 titled ‘Democratie‘. Based on the situation in his home country, Ben Zabo dedicated a track to the political crisis, in which he advocates for justice and a reasonable democracy in Mali – and he does it in his usual energetic and entertaining manner.