Marching to the Afrobeat

If Nigeria’s young artists find their critical voice, a Nigerian Spring might arrive soon.

A Nigerian Spring might arrive sooner than imagined, writes LeVine [AFP]

Unless you’re a fan of West African highlife music from the 1960s, there’s a good chance you haven’t heard of Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson. But for Nigerians who came of age during the first decade of the country’s independence, Lawson was Nigeria’s Otis Redding – a singer with a powerful voice who captured the mood of his generation but died tragically in a car accident, in January 1971.

Highlife is the ultimate cosmopolitan music, with roots stretching across much of West Africa, and across the Atlantic to Brazil and the US. Yet, Lawson hailed from the epicentre of one of the great ethnonational conflicts of the 20th century, the breakaway Niger Delta region of Biafra. Its drive for independence led to one of the last century’s cruelest, genocidal wars. With three million dead from 1967-70, its carnage dwarfs that of Syria today.

Oil was at the heart of the Niger Delta’s war-time misery: Discovered only two years before Nigeria’s 1960 independence, the British pressured Nigeria’s military government (which came to power in a 1966 coup) to crush Biafran independence at any cost. The massive influx of petroleum revenues with the mid-1970s oil price boom further enriched the military, disconnected it from the mass of Nigerians and ensured a system governed by corruption and violence, even after the return to civilian rule in 1999.

The Afrobeat must go on

Even US intelligence analysts admit that the existence of Boko Haram is intimately connected to the aftermath of the Biafran war, and subsequent decades of military and civilian misrule.

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The music of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, who so powerfully chronicled the violence, corruption and militarism of Nigeria’s political system, is as relevant today as it was when he wrote many of his classic songs almost two generations ago.

Fela began his political career in the midst of the oil boom, which made the ongoing poverty all around him that much more unforgivable. But in the 1970s, the Nigerian government still had a modicum of commitment to education and other public goods.

That all changed with the oil price crash of the next decade, which saw the predictable imposition of IMF-sponsored structural adjustment programmes that demanded the government cut social expenditures.

Ade Bantu, one of Nigeria’s best and most political rappers, explains: “I’m the generation that’s a product of the cuts on music education; so I became a rapper instead of a musician.”

The renewed spike in oil prices in the last decade and a half has produced enviable macro-level growth of seven percent per year, enriching Nigerian elites to unprecedented levels. Yet predictably during this period, extreme poverty and unemployment rose to “bleak” levels along with systemic corruption.

Weaker education

The cost of the weakening of the education system, and particularly the arts, is hard to calculate but impossible to ignore. At a conference at the University of Port Harcourt in the heart of the Niger Delta, celebrating Rex Lawson, lamentations over the sorry state of education and cultural ignorance among the younger generation were an ubiquitous refrain.

The fact that so few young Nigerians have the basic musical skills to continue to develop the country’s national art forms is considered symptomatic of the country’s broader political and economic malaise.

The fact that so few young Nigerians have the basic musical skills to continue to develop the country’s national art forms is considered symptomatic of the country’s broader political and economic malaise. 

But it’s clear that a new-found assertiveness and creativity is emerging during the past few years among Nigeria’s rising generation of artists. Like Egypt in the second half of the 1900s, a youth-led artistic and political awakening is beginning to outstep elite cooptation or repression, even as violence rages across the country.

“For a real artist, the art forces you to speak up. You have no choice,” guerrilla theatre-maker Segun Adefila explains.

Seun Kuti, Fela’s celebrated youngest son, points out that increasing numbers of young artists are starting to join their voices with him and his brother Femi, both of whom have collaborated with leading rappers such as Tuface and Sound Sultan while continuing to press themes such as blind obedience by soldiers to their superiors, and the thievery of the IMF – two themes that have been constants since Fela’s heyday.

Nigeria also has its own Occupy movement, which has scored some successes in the last several years and is spreading a counter-cultural, “revolutionary” message that demands, in the words of Nigerian pop singer Aduke’s 2012 hit, that the government “hear the voice” of the young generation before it’s too late.

As we learned with the Arab uprisings, musicians and other artists are often the canary in the coal mine for impending political change. If Nigeria’s young artists are starting to find their critical voice, and relatedly, increasingly turning to the elder statesmen of highlife for inspiration and collaborations, a Nigerian Spring might arrive sooner than many imagine, especially if the upcoming elections fail to produce any substantive change in governance or the economy.

Whether the political and cultural infrastructure exists to enable it to avoid either cooptation by elites or decimation by religious extremism remains to be seen. 

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University. His new book is One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States, coedited with Ambassador Mathias Mossberg.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.