The Message(s) in the Music: Lyrics Promote Accountability in Nigeria
A lack of accountability undermines a fair and equal society. In Nigeria, in a society that’s been strangled by corruption, people feel distrustful, impatient and unequal. Twenty years after Nigeria’s first democratically-elected President, Nigerians have seen rage and disillusionment from citizens as a result of a lack of accountability on national budgets, unemployment, inflation, exclusion, poverty and human rights, amongst other issues. Ordinary citizens feel helpless in the face of poor governance and its ugly consequences – stalled or failed service delivery.
Undercutting this situation, however, is a passionate youth culture in the country that is making its voice known through innovative social enterprises and different media – whether social, digital or traditional. Musically, the scene is also active with socially conscious music offering interesting clues of how young people are thinking about and expressing accountability challenges in Nigeria. In particular, the messaging within certain popular songs reflect on themes of integrity and responsibility in a fluid language designed to get people thinking about their behaviour.
In order to inspire an engaged, active citizenry that is invested in change, Accountability Lab Nigeria has launched a project that hones the skills and governance knowledge of young musicians called Voice2Rep. The campaign attracts music artists who are actively trying to influence young people through their music on various issues of accountability. Voice2Rep identifies and supports these artists for greater representation, participation and accountability across Nigeria. The artists use their songs to increase civic awareness and are invested in shaping a more collaborative future. The project relies on strong partnerships with established producers from mainstream production houses.
In 2019, 10 young artists were trained on how to use their voice – and their words – to engage an audience and inspire change. The Voice2Rep project has so far produced 15 professional songs (available on Spotify, Amazon Music, Tidal, and Apple Music), with keywords and titles about accountability issues. The artists used a 2-week training camp to come up with challenges, learnings, and needs to inform their songwriting process.
In All You’ve Got, Voice2Rep finalist Cill Soul addresses the effects of vote buying. “Government by the people, not government buying people,” she croons. She explains further, saying we should all take responsibility to ensure that there is a shift in the system. “The blame we push around today will come back to torment us. The bridge we fail to fix today will fall upon our children,” Cill continues. Another young vocalist, Celeste, gives an apt description of the conspiracy of silence in her song Weapons in which she asks: “How do we shut our mouths when we have internalized wars within us? The best ones among us are leaving, the corrupt cycle continues.”
Joel Prodigee exposes poor policies in his song Just So You Know. He also reminisces on the #BringBackOurGirls movement, stating: “Our girls can’t go to school because Boko got em’ scared; maybe you’d do better if your daughters and sons were involved.” The Boko Haram movement, still very prominent in northern Nigeria, was held responsible for the kidnapping of 276 female secondary school students in Chibok, in Borno state in April 2014. In his song, Joel ruminates on whether the Government would have been more proactive had their children also been subject to the same ordeal.
There are other examples. In MC Lauda’s Progress, the contemporary musician calls for a blanket refusal to accept a lack of transparency from elected public officials. “Can’t deliver?” he sings, “Make them go rest… accountability! We no want no less. Anybody wey rule us o we want progress.” Lauda also calls for unity of purpose in electing officials based on competence and efficiency, while expressing a strong distaste for the status quo.
Of the Voice2Rep campaign songs this year, Freedom by Olajumoke is one that relies strongly on slogans. The most popular slogan in the song is “joro, jara, joro” which is repeated rhythmically in the chorus. The term has its history in the Yoruba parlance, despite not having a particular meaning ascribed to it. Colloquially, the phrase means “left, right, left” – instructions for marching soldiers the world over. Olajumoke uses it as a metaphor for cyclical despondency or unthinkingly following a leader. Movement without purpose, in other words. “Joro, jara, joro” has been used in other Nigerian songs before, such as Fela Kuti’s famous Zombie where he uses it to express how soldiers perform nefarious deeds under the pretence of following official orders. Olajumoke uses it in a similar vein, to show stagnancy and pass comment on why Nigeria needs to break away from the status quo. The song goes on with darker undertones. “We dey beg for mercy, them dey do like say them no dey hear us. We say we want transparency, but them talk say we too dey lazy.”
The song reflects strongly on the gaping disconnect, both financial and ideological, between the ruling class and the general public in Nigeria today. It indicates how dismissive the government is of citizen complaints. “Them talk say we too dey lazy” is a throwback to President Muhammadu Buhari’s statements at the 2018 Commonwealth Business Forum in London where he was quoted as saying that while more than 60% of the Nigerian population was below 30, many hadn’t been to school and felt entitled to free housing, healthcare and education because Nigeria was an oil producing country. He basically implied that young people were lazy without reflecting on any of the many structural economic problems in the country. Other lyrics like: “My leaders how una dey? Shey na like this we go dey dey?” further shows that disconnect and questions if the government is truly comfortable with the current state of affairs.
Olajumoke also addresses the scourge of vote buying through the following lyrics: “You dey sell your vote, I dey sell my right on top wetin? Shey na the shikini money wey dem dey give us go determine our future?” Many Nigerian elections have seen citizens selling their votes for small sums of money and food items such as bags of rice and cooking oil. In this song, Olajumoke asks if these little items are commensurate payment for a looming decline in living standards. Is there any justifiable price for selling your mandate as a citizen? To date, vote buying is seldom seen as an electoral blight, and neither does it feature as an argument in court processes by political parties. It also hasn’t inspired any new policies to curb the practice and is often taken as a normal feature of Nigerian elections – joro, jara, joro!
Some of these outspoken lyrics in Nigeria’s socially conscious music scene are not approved of by the government and are forced to undergo scrutiny by the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. They are perceived as having the power to prompt citizens to push back against a stubborn and opaque government. In order to avoid penalties from the government, songs either have to be censored on air or lyrics have to be changed. Bits of these songs are currently being used on a BBC Media Action nationwide program, Talk your own; make Naija better. BBC Media Action works with partners to reach millions through creative communication and trusted media, helping people have their say, understand their rights, responsibilities and each other, and take action to transform their own lives. It is relevant to know these songs are being used to inform and empower people in order to live in healthy, resilient and inclusive communities.
In a context where so much is tied to politics or corruption in its broader sense, not much space is left to debate integrity and honesty. We don’t allow ourselves the freedom to really study what an integrous Nigerian society looks like. From our market places and schools, to our estates, religious centres and offices, there’s an opportunity to rediscover our moral “true north”.
Music themed around accountability works as one remedy for the sense of helplessness around an insecure, sometimes untrustworthy government. For the artists, it makes for songs that permeate our culture and lexicon long after the radio hit lists have come and gone. For the public, it inspires a sense of purpose around how to strengthen a developing nation such as ours. It is imperative that we begin to use this remedy against any foreboding feelings. Take the music, and its message, and run with it.