Art and Politics.
The arguments have raged on whether the two are distinct or are mutually inexclusive. The arguments of those who advocate the separation rest in the fact that, artists don’t understand the nuances of politics and are therefore liable to misinform, misjudge and miseducate the masses who believe in their words. This ‘flaw’ is enough reason for them to step away from politics.
For defenders of the second school of thought, art reflect the state of affairs at any period of time, therefore artists- writers, poets, painters, dramatists and musicians- forming a critical part of the society, must involve themselves in the process. Any call for them to be uninterested in the political dealings of their society is assinine.
Although, the first argument sound ridiculous, the actions/inactions of some artists to recline into the comfortable chair of inactivism has fuelled the believe among people that, artists must not enter the political fray. The only occasion that guarantees them the right to indulge in politics is when they become full time politicians.
Artists in Africa have always been political animals. Through the pre-independence era to post-independence epoch, records exist to show that, some African artists were very active participants within the political independence struggle.
One country that found it’s artists blurring the two gulfs (if there exist any) is Nigeria especially post- independence in 1960. From writers such as Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Ken Saro-Wiwa to foremost musicians like Fela Anikulapo Kuti along with many others, they never missed an opportunity to criticize their country’s leaders, whom they consider liable for Nigeria’s viscous transformation to a better society, both on the political, social and economic fronts.
Whiles Ken Saro-Wiwa paid the high price for his activities, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe fled into exile when their lives became threatened. Fela Kuti however, stayed in Nigeria, suffered for his commentaries (through his music), most times at the peril of his life, albeit taking shelter sometimes in Ghana when the political heat became unbearable.
The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of it’s leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership – Chinua Achebe, The Trouble With Nigeria
The torch of political consciousness lighted by Fela Kuti through his music continued to burn after his death. In his kids, Femi and Seun Kuti, his legacy lives. Other musicians, of recent generation, inspired by Fela have stepped into the fray, the prognosis of the Nigerian society serving as their artistic fodder.
These musicians are not oblivious of the consequences of their actions: trumped up criminal charges, accusations and losing fans. They, however, recognize their civic roles of edifying the populace of happenings in society. By discussing the everyday struggles of the average citizen and identifying with their plight, these musicians are demystifying the notion of living in a comfortable bubbe-their riches or success are shielding them from the harsh realities facing the ordinary guy.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw a video by one of the influential musicians in Nigeria, Tuface Idibia which carried a very important political theme. It was a video for his single “Holy Holy”. The song addresses the many allegations and challenges that Tuface encountered when he attempted to step near the political fire. He knew he’d sweat from stepping too close, yet he did.
Earlier this year, news emerged that Tuface was organizing a demonstration against the choking economic crisis facing Nigeria; the country was going through a recession. The march didn’t happen. Whiles he was criticized by both the political class and some Nigerians for his ‘politically’ motivated march (it was alleged he was being used by the opposition), there were rumours of him being paid off by the government to call off the protest march. On “Holy Holy”, the ‘African Queen’ singer addressed some of the issues. The video of the song conveyed much more than what the lyrics offered.
The video for Holy Holy:
The video for “Holy Holy” spotlight two interesting ideas: first, the criticism and the overall actions of sections of the public when an individual decides to critique the political system. Second, it brings into focus the state of Nigeria after independence per its overall development. Even though the song is about Tuface and his trials, it also extends to all who get attacked for their political opinions.
As you get opinion make you know say other people get opinion too/Jah Jah love so amazing/I keep elevating’ – Tuface, Holy Holy
The first image that’s seen in the video is of kids fleeing from an area under attack: the flume, the gunshots and the confusion. The scene reflect the often seen mayhem that the senseless terror attacks carried out by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria.
A Fela Kuti video interview follows. Fela, in this interview sums up the reaction of Africans in the face of serious issues which should court their anger: ‘we suffer and smile’, he observed. A shot of a black Mercedes Benz (Nigeria’s love Benz) with numerous daggers (matchetes) stuck into it comes along. A sparkling Eagle emblem (National symbol) ironically sit on this old car. The Benz bears the registration number 1960.
The Benz, the matchete sticking through it, the shining Eagle emblem and the number plate of 1960 is a metaphor for the state of Nigeria. The burnt Benz represent the corroding state of Nigeria (the blatant corruption, mismanagement of resources); the shining eagle represent the pride of Nigeria; the registration number of 1960 is when Nigeria became independent.
2Baba, in his black (mourning) jalabia (traditional gown) is shown gazing across a vast land from a hilltop. He’s ‘visited’ by people from diverse backgrounds– priests, ordinary folks, judges, sultans, security persons who pelt him with stones. But, their efforts are thwarted by the invisible shield around him. This scene ties in to the earlier criticism he suffered when he decided to organize the demonstration and eventually backing off.
Towards the end of this Clarence A. Peters directed video, the Benz catches fire with Tuface, emerging from the flame dressed in all white, waving the Green, White and Green flag of Nigeria. A new dawn, a new optimism, a new dream. A clear case of it must get destroyed before we elevate.
On “Holy Holy”, Tuface told his own story- his frustrations, his dream for his country, the current state of affairs of Nigeria and his ultimate wish of a corruption free, peaceful, and developed Nigeria.
Before “Holy Holy”, another artiste had broached the subject of Nigeria and it’s affairs. Tekno, has made a name off the back of his hit song “Pana”. With it’s minimal tone, well infused synths and mid-tempo groove, Tekno won hearts and admiration for his stellar output. Other equally happy tunes followed, including production and writing credits for other big name artistes (he wrote and produced ‘IF’ for Davido).
But, one song that defined Tekno’s versatility and political consciousness is “Ra Ra”, a highlife influenced song. The song focuses on the conumdrum that is Nigeria: a country which has, since 1960 been scared to rise to it’s potential as a developed country despite it’s reources-oil and people. Tekno, touches on the issues of eternal energy crisis, poverty and under-development.
He reminds the political authorities to satisfy the basic needs of the citizens before moving to the bigger things. His opening lyrics on “Ra Ra” dovetails into the observation by Fela at the start of the “Holy Holy” video. Tekno sings these words in pidgin: “my country people/dem dey talk talk/ dem just dey paramboulat/so so story every year”.
He touches on the energy crisis that has bedeviled Nigeria for decades and point to corruption as the reason. It’s a irony that, one of the worlds producers of oil can’t produce enough for the use of it’s citizens: ”NEPA no bring light/ Generator wan tear my ear/ Plenty greedy man for there”. He goes on to remind the political authorities that dreaming big is great but satisfying the basic needs is of greater importance: ” forget about the big things/ so make we talk about the small things”.
International something/ Is a big situation/ Dem dey pack our money/take it to other nation
Invest for your country o/Spend the money for your country/ Make it a better place – Tekno (Ra Ra)
There’s no dichotomy between Arts and Politics. These two are more like Siamese twins than identical twins. Whereas art mirrors the political temperature, politics provides the fodder for artists to feed on. Even if there are efforts to separate the two, some artists still remind us that, that separation is nothing but a mirage.
And it is heartwarming to see that, artists aren’t just finding inspiration in the political conditions in their respective country but are stepping within the political realm as activists; doing their bit in raising consciousness, projecting the challenges within their society and pressuring authorities to concentrate efforts in addressing these concerns.
Taking a decision to be an activist has it’s consequences, sometimes injurious to the artists and those closest to them. This fear cows a lot of African artists from being vocal on political issues. But, as stakeholders in the political sphere, shying away from human related issues betrays your calling as an artists. That’s why Tuface and Tekno deserve all the love and encouragement. Not mission shattering criticisms.