by Ikemesit Effiong
You’ve got the words to change a nation
But you’re bidding your time
You’ve spent a lifetime stuck in silence
Afraid that you’ll say something wrong
If no one ever hears it, how’re we gonna learn your song?
– From Read All About It (Pt. III) in the album Our Version of Events by Emeli Sande, British-Guinean musician and top selling UK artist of 2012.
On my Twitter bio, I describe myself in many ways. One of my personal favourites is my designation as a music addict. After a hectic day navigating through my own version of the rat race, I like to sit back, kick up my toes and tuck my sleeves in the refreshing arms of good, rhythmic and soothing music.
What qualifies as soothing depends of course on the circumstances. If my mind needs a kick-start after an extended bout of lethargy, I go for the injection to the heart – rock or hip-pop or even rap. If I’ve had a day that I honestly want to forget about, I try something more benign – rhythm and blues or country comes in handy. When I desire a more contemplative mien, classic, gospel and jazz are faithful companions. If I’m feeling fly and memories of a more sublime childhood breeze by, late 80s and early 90s oldies become the menu of the moment.
One of my friends thought I had absolutely lost it when I got really excited after downloading George Michael’s 1984 hit single, ‘Careless Whisper’. He confirmed my need of medical attention after seeing me almost bang my head on a wall while mouthing that all-time favourite from The Staple Singers ‘I’ll Take You There’. Not like I cared really – about his opinion or my head!
A good song, after a good book, represents the only real teleporting mechanisms that exist on Earth. They take you away from the often sobering every day realities of the world we encounter to a plane of possibilities, of hope, of aspirations unmet and sometimes unrealizable.
They are conduits of human understanding carefully packaged and seamlessly delivered, in a short space of time, often expressing in my opinion a largely ignored profoundness and originality which could serve as a spark of inspiration, of ingenuity, of a renewed resolution to tackle life at its crosshairs and overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Scientific research has shown that music aids the healing process – both for sufferers of physical injury and psychological conditions; top athletes and celebrities have testified to music aiding them in conditioning their mind just before sporting events.
So Thierry Henry had Wu Tang and Tu Pac Shakur, Roger Federer has John Legend and Alicia Keys, Lionel Messi has Ricky Martin and Shakira and Usain Bolt is a big fan of Taio Cruz and Rick Ross among others (Ross? Really Bolt?)
On a personal level, growing up in the 1990s under the scepter of Abacha’s iron clad hold on every facet of Nigerian life, there was one lifeline when it came to music – Afro Juju and its mercurial prophet, Fela.
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s guts at challenging the political status quo, questioning the prevailing social equation of Nigerian society and quips at the many idiosyncrasies of the Nigerian existence resonated with ordinary people on a fundamental level.
It was a kind of music that entertained. It was a kind of music that comforted. Even more importantly, it was a kind of music that spoke – and it spoke aloud!
There is a certain kind of scarcity that is prevailing in Nigeria today. No, it is not our perennial best friend, the fuel scarcity but it is the scarcity of celebrity social activism or if you will, that brand of cinema, music and art that queries as well as entertains.
The deafening silence of our musicians to the plight of the common man and the overwhelming and ubiquitous “noise” of songs that serenade about the rides, the cribs, the girls (they are always in the plural), the gigs (popular speak for hustling or money-making) and the “owo” not to forget the “effizy”, in my honest opinion, render our artists at best complicit, at worst comfortable and patronizing of Nigeria’s current national condition.
For me, that is a monumental breach of the public trust.
I am happy at the evolution of the Nigerian entertainment industry. It has grown in a little over two decades to be our number one cultural export. Only Hollywood and Bollywood produce more movies in a calendar year than Nollywood. Our celebrities are recognized faces in Africa and are making significant inroads on the global stage.
You can walk the streets of Accra, Nairobi, Harare and Dakar and be inundated with the sounds of P-Square’s ‘Alingo’ and D’ Banj and Naeto C’s ‘Tony Montana’, the posters of Genevieve Nnaji, Omotola Jalade Ekeinde and Ramsey Noah and be greeted with pirated copies of works by Wale Adenuga and pretty much every significant director in Nollywood. We are that good.
However, we need artists whose songs and films and documentaries do not just tell a story of booze, breasts and bucks. We need stories told in an ordered and compelling manner, which forces society into an attitude of introspection and soul-searching.
To borrow a leaf from Nigerian literature, Chukwuemeka Ike’s ‘The Chicken Chasers’ does tell a story of immorality and debauchery on a grand scale but against a backdrop of the withering social and moral script of 1970s Nigeria.
That is art that speaks with a meaningful message. Unfortunately, it is fast becoming an endangered specie in our contemporary society.
Our musicians in particular, need to step up to the template and pick up Fela’s baton. Projects like ‘Maga No Need Pay’ – a collaboration of some of Nigeria’s finest artists including Banky Wellington, Rooftop MC, and Omawunmi Megbele; and African China’s classic ‘Mr. President’ are flashes of what really should be an avalanche of music with a social and political focus.
In a country where all forms of authority types have lost their credibility with the ordinary Nigerian, our celebrities as that last bastion of public figures that still command a semblance of respect with everyone – rich and poor- need to realize the unique position they occupy in an increasingly fractured Nigeria and provide leadership, inspiration, admonition, entertainment and ultimately generational healing.
This would be in keeping with Michael Jackson’s well strung admonition that we should help, “Heal the world and make it a better place – for you, and for me, and for the entire universe”. As Oscar Wilde once sarcastically put it, “Life always mimics art”.
– Follow this writer on Twitter: @JudgeIyke