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date: 17 November 2019

Political Song in Africa

Summary and Keywords

Song is not a topic that is automatically associated with politics in many countries in the world. If it is, it may be an occasional association, one linked perhaps to times of war and the marching songs of soldiers, or to the rise to power of a particular leader who might manipulate his followers by appealing to their love of a particular brand of folk heritage and so to love of a nation. In Africa, however, song and the political are closely associated, and it is true to say that in many African nations a knowledge of how political song works is essential to being part of a particular community or political party, or even to having a sense of who one is and where one comes from. Some might even say that if you cannot sing, in a political sense you are not a fully operational member of society. Song in Africa has a presence in the political space and the public sphere of many countries, but it need not be evident all the time. It can be a resource that knowledgeable citizens draw on at times of pressure or of celebration or even of mourning, when, for instance, singing for a lost leader provides comfort to singers and the wider community alike. A nation can grieve in song, as was the case in South Africa at the death of former president Nelson Mandela. Political song can be a veritable arsenal of energy for those struggling for a better order, and it features frequently in histories of the nationalist struggles of the 1950s and 1960s on the continent, particularly in southern Africa. It has a place too in the histories of the continent’s cities, which were often centers of dynamic growth and social change, where it provides a rich mix of political music and popular culture. The many different expressions and guises of political song on the African continent are in some ways as unpredictable as they are prevalent. Political song has also a certain fragility. Certain bodies of song can be passed over, erased, or substituted by those more dominant. If song can encapsulate memories, ideas, events, and people, those songs can also fall away. Song can in a sense enable a community to imagine itself, and change and sometimes a particular gifted singer can bring about this shift of class, consciousness, and identity, as is the case in the late-19th-century community in Zanzibar. It can also be used as a weapon of protest and defiance in times of struggle, but also as a means of control. All these points about political song in Africa illustrate why it is important as a topic of research.

Keywords: political song, resistance, popular voices, reinterpreting tradition, African languages, African politics, indigenous song, radio

Song is not a topic that is automatically associated with politics in many countries in the world. If it is, it may be an occasional association, one linked perhaps to times of war and the marching songs of soldiers, or to the rise to power of a particular leader who might manipulate his followers by appealing to their love of a particular brand of folk heritage and so love of a nation. In Africa, however, song and the political are closely associated and it is true to say that in many African nations, a knowledge of how political song works is essential to being part of a particular community, or political party, or even to having a sense of who one is and where one comes from. Some might even say that if you cannot sing, in a political sense, you are not a fully operational member of society.

Song in Africa has a presence in the political space, the public sphere of many countries, but it need not be evident all the time. It can be a resource that knowledgeable citizens draw on at times of pressure or celebration, or even of mourning, when, for instance, singing for a lost leader provides comfort to singers and the wider community alike. A nation can grieve in song, as was the case in South Africa at the death of former president Nelson Mandela. Political song can be a veritable arsenal of energy for those struggling for a better order, and it features frequently in histories of the nationalist struggles of the 1950s and 1960s on the continent, particularly in southern Africa. It has a place too in the histories of the continent’s cities, which were often centers of dynamic growth and social change, where it provides a rich mix of political music and popular culture.

Song impacts on African politics and intertwines with it in ways that cultural and political analysts are constantly trying to understand. Political song can be seen as always having a link to power, but it connects with it in a variety of ways. There is no single model. This article outlines briefly how the field of study has developed and what some of the key points of contemporary research are, and then finally suggests where future research could go and where the silences and the gaps exist.

To illustrate what constitutes political song and the very different ways in which song features in social and political life, this article sets out a number of case studies, some fine grained and very local, as well as others that follow a particular region or place, and examines how song and politics intertwine in each case. The case studies are intended to provide evidence of the very different cultural repertoires that African communities have drawn on to make political song. They also show how political song works differently according to region and the precise cultural and historical context in which song is tied in with the political moment. In each case the link to power exists, but as a factor of fluidity. Nor can we see song simply as speaking truth to power. At times, the affective and connotative influence of song, its sheer cultural weight and its impact, make it attractive to those who wield power and wish to consolidate it. At other times, however, the visionary, the aspirational, and the utopian can all find expression through this broadly defined term “political song.”

A key point relating to political song and power is its mode of circulation, how it is mediated, and who controls its flow and range. Before we turn to the case studies, a few examples of the links between song, power, and the political give a sense of how it can operate in the political arena as a dynamic force. The examples drawn on range regionally from the north of Africa to the south—from Cape Town to Algiers; and from east to west—from Abidjan to Mogadishu.

Snapshots of Song and the Political Moment

Song can enter parliament and state an uncomfortable truth that begins to tip the scales against a seemingly untouchable leader. This happened in the South African Parliament in September 2014 with the chant/song “Pay back da money,” aimed at then president Jacob Zuma by a minority opposition party. A popular radio station played the chant and backed it with The O’Jays’ song “For the Love of Money.” The point of the song, and its wider message to the president and the country about misuse of public funds, was widely transmitted, and the power of song as a catalyst for wider public debate was immediately evident (“We Want Da Money,” 2014). Another example of a song playing a role in parliament is from Somalia in the early 1970s. In this case it toppled a sitting president, or so it was said of the song “Leexo” in the popular heelloo genre. The song, played over the airwaves nationally by a junior broadcaster and broadcast as well in parliament during a caucusing recess, was ostensibly a love song chastising a lover for neglect. However Somali parliamentarians interpreted it as a comment on the sitting president. MPs voted President Aadan Cabdulle Cismaan out and Cabdirashiid Cali Sharmaarke in as Somalia’s new president (Johnson, 1974, pp. 123–125; 2008, pp. 115–117). Here we see the power of the medium of radio, and the key role of media and circulation. But also key is how a much-loved poetic genre and a “love song” can be interpreted by a knowledgeable audience that is deeply in tune with the possibilities of metaphoric language and with the layers of possible interpretation of a particular poem or song.

At other times one or two songs can give voice to the anger and disaffection of a community on a national scale and can be a key factor in initiating political change. A comment on the urgent political moment can take place through the voices of great throngs of people gathered in the heart of a country’s major city, as happened in Algiers in early 2019, when citizens sang their opposition to a fourth term of government by the existing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The provenance of a song can give insight into how social and political memory plays itself out by means of a song. One such example was a contemporary adaptation of a song first composed in the war against French colonial rule in the early 1950s. The earlier song, with the chorus “Want to free Viva l’Algerie” became “One-two-three, Viva l’Algerie.” This was the chorus of the song that became known as “l’hymne de la révolte” in the recent (March 2019) demonstrations against an unpopular president. A second song that was much used in the same demonstrations showed how youth football culture and popular culture can enter the political moment. The song “La Casa del Mouradia” was first composed by the city of Algiers football club USM Alger, known locally as Ouled El Bhadja (Les enfants d’Alger). With its catchy chorus and its trenchant comment in its Arabic verses against “Boutif,” it became one of the anthems of the national demonstrations against an unpopular leader, who relinquished power soon after the rash of public opinion made itself heard and seen on the streets of Algiers. In the Algerian case, both songs speak with some level of directness, and not the veiled metaphorical language of the Somali “love song,” “Leexo.” But what is notable is the adaptation of a song of revolt from the earlier key period of the 1950s. Longevity provides traction, and the new song rolls into the present bolstered by the associations of its former life. Political song can collapse past and present, and this makes it a valuable resource, as the “One-two-three Viva l’Algerie” song shows. Certainly the ability of a particular song (or bundle of songs) to travel through time, and in some instances across regions, has been noted as a key feature of the loose and unstable genre of African political song (Chikowero, 2015; Gilbert, 2007; Ranger, 1975; Vail & White, 1991). Veiled and metaphoric language can mark a large body of song tradition, as in the case of Somali sung poetry, but also with Zimbabwean political song in the Chimurenga and other genres. A fairly recent example of this is the song “Bvuma” on the album (with the same name) released by the late Oliver Mutukudzi in 2001, the year in which violent election campaigns began in Zimbabwe. Here, as in the earlier examples, a song has a strong political message but its articulation is different. It is a record, not an anthem sung by throngs of demonstrators. The intention is the same—to achieve instant political change. Mutukudzi, singing in Shona, one of the two major languages of Zimbabwe, implores an unnamed elderly politician, whom listeners knew to be in fact President Robert Mugabe, to step down and make way for others. Opposition leaders from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party were delighted. But President Robert Mugabe did not step down. Moreover, around this time the national radio station, the ZBC, stopped playing “Tuku’s” music (Khumalo, 2019). In a sense, the song backfired, and the incident showed the power of a sitting ruler, however unpopular, to manage unruly musicians and attempt to silence them and ignore a disaffected public. Nevertheless, the song was out in the public domain, and an important point, voicing popular opinion, had been made through a popular song. This use of political song, one of indirection, has some links with the “Leexo” example from Somalia but contrasts in its method and technique with the examples from Algeria. It shows how the tactics of songs and singers depend on the resources of a particular tradition and on the political climate in which the song occurs. A final example of recent state politics and song in the political moment is that of reggae music and its role in the politics of Cote d’Ivoire and in particular in its capital, Abidjan. Anne Schumann notes how reggae music and certain dynamic singers of the genre in Cote d’Ivoire, who in one specific case also had a following among French youth, played a significant part in the political turmoil of 2010 to 2012. Here singers chose sides, mediating and popularizing the policies of their chosen candidates, showing the capacity of a global resistance and entertainment genre with Jamaican roots to act as political broker in an African context (Schumann, 2015).

To summarize from these examples of political song in action, we can note that the range of languages used can be closely identified with a particular nation, but use can also be made of global languages such as English, French, and Arabic. Language use in political song can thus be tied intimately to a nation or region within a state, but it can also cross borders because of old precolonial language groupings. Language use can also be variable according to factors such as the power of recording companies, the demographics of a city, or simply the emergence of a particular language as dominant through choice or convenience. In the case studies that follow, language use can be a factor of great significance. The power of a song can depend on the language in which it is sung. It is also true, though, that a song can have great affective power because of its melody, rhythm, or association either with a historical event or a past era of suffering, even if its words have no connotative meaning and even if the language in which it is sung is not widely understood. Landeg White’s narrative of the “Paiva” song and its provenance as a song of insult and mockery sung by workers in the fields of a brutal Portuguese landowner, and the long life of the song, always associated with resistance, is an example of this (Vail & White, 1991).

An important body of work on music, song, and politics has made a strong case for the link between popular culture and resistance. Johannes Fabian’s influential “Popular Culture in Africa: Findings and Conjectures” (1978) and his Moments of Freedom (1998) ; Terence Ranger’s Dance and Society in Eastern Africa (1975); Karin Barber’s early work (1987), followed by her edited Africa Popular Culture (1997) and her later works on African popular culture (2007, 2018); and Leroy Vail and Landeg White’s Power and the Praise Poem: Voices in Southern African History (1991) all provide evidence of the synergy between forms of popular culture that include political song, and resistance. Vail and White also make a strong case for the presence of poetic license and its use in song and poetry, where criticism, as a form of resistance, is tolerated by those in power. Other work, however, follows song and power in a different direction and concludes that political song is a more open-ended tool and its workings more various. Paolo Israel’s study of Makonde dance and song in Mozambique (2014) suggests something quite different. He shows that what a dominant regime, trading on the nationalist legacy of a hard-fought anti-colonial war, terms “popular political song”, may in fact be an imposed view of the popular that presents a hegemonic blueprint closer to populist and not truly popular. The latter may be buried under layers of later national heroic song that only patient and detailed ethnographies of genres, composers, and the intertwining of history, song, and language can uncover (see also Israel, 2009, 2010). Marissa Moorman’s (2008; see also 2012) work on culture, politics, and music in Angola also sets out a different model of song and the political and the imagining of national belonging. Popular dance forms and bands, particularly in the 1970s in the informal neighborhoods, the musseques, of Luanda, were most important in providing a sense of Angolanness, “Angolanidade,” in the face of a watchful Portuguese colonial presence. Other work, by Achille Mbembe (e.g., 1992, 2001), sees culture—including political song—in relation to the state rather than the nation. This is one area where a new body of work is beginning to emerge; see, for instance, Wendy Willems’s (2015) essay on Zimbabwe and the emergence of “the performative state.” So this more complicated picture of flows of power and how song articulates within politics, together with the new awareness of the key role of the electronic media in the circulation of song and performance show the further new possibilities for research on song and the political.

Case Studies From Across Africa on Political Song

The case studies that follow are intended to show a range of kinds of political song within culture and history. They aim to give a sense of the range of genre and situations in which what we call “political song” can be made. The case studies come from different parts of the African continent and from different eras. Each illuminates political song as it is made in particular circumstances and across time. Each throws up different issues and questions in relation to how we can define political song, and its multiple ways of operating. Power and resistance are common threads in discussion of political song. How does song work if we are discussing song in a state of regeneration after the trauma of attempted genocide? Can political song have a role in rebuilding a broken nation? And can this process stall and calcify into trite slogans (as Israel suggests happened in Mozambique), which may in turn need to be challenged by a new wave of different but combative political song? In the first case study on regeneration after genocide and the roles of song in Rwanda, we see the versatility of song usage and how different varieties of song from a vast cultural repertoire can be brought into use. What is notable too is how different political actors—from rebels to ruling party, to dissident youth—all draw on song to define aspiration, ideology, and challenge. Songs thus carry a range of important messages and are a cultural tool to which differing political actors turn.

The second case study on wealth, violence, and song—oil and the Niger Delta—focuses on how songs from a range of cultural repertoires are reshaped or composed from an existing model either by professional musicians or a combination of activist groups—youth, women, traditional elders among them—all of whom turn to song in their fight for a just cause. We see here song in use as cultural and political capital deployed in the long struggle to assert economic and land rights in the Niger Delta. Here too there is no single “thing” we can define as political song. Rather, the ingenuity of the singer or group catches hold of the best expressive means and turns them into a weapon in their struggle.

Cities in Africa, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries, but also in far earlier eras, such as the cities of Timbuktu and Kumasi, have been associated with dynamic shifts in social, economic, and cultural life, in some cases with learning and power, trade and business, and burgeoning musical forms. Migration to cities brings new cultural formations and shifting power relations within and across identities that impact on each other, city life, and regimes of song and political expression (Bryceson & Potts, 2006). Cities such as Johannesburg, Lagos, Luanda, Accra, Brazzaville, and Cairo each have a particular history in this regard, and in each case their musical life has been extensively documented (Coplan, 1985, 2007; Moorman, 2008; Martin, 1995). In the case of Cairo, it may be the oeuvre of a particular singer, the brilliant taarab exponent Umm Kulthūm that becomes most strongly associated with its musical life (Danielson, 1997). The third case study here is on Kinshasa: politics, song, and the city as theatre. Kinshasa, formerly known as Leopoldville, is a city with its own complex ownership of political song and theatricality (Gondola, 2003; White, 2008). We note again that it is music of different types that becomes political or has the capacity to feature as such. However, Kinshasa’s history shows a particular connection between politics and rumba, and between a powerful ruler and a brilliant musician, namely, President Mobutu Sese Seko and Franco, leader of the OK (Orchestre Kinois) Jazz Band. In this study we chart different moments of “political song” and kinds of power in the life of Leopoldville/Kinshasa. We note the role of language, in particular Lingala, and music in creating a sense of belonging and a particular new “Kinois” city identity in a city composed largely of migrants from the Congo’s different regions and language speakers. We follow Franco’s trajectory as molder of new trends and astute social commentator through his rumba compositions, and as a political activist through his music, and then see him seemingly embrace Mobutu and his values of “authenticite” in the last phase of his career.

The case study that follows has again an urban focus and is intended to show how song can work with language, power, and gender to shift political discourse and power relations. The island of Zanzibar and the place known as Stone Town are the site of the fourth case study, on Zanzibari identity and the songs of Siti Binti Said and her taarab band. Here we see how a genre of song can serve as a vehicle for sociopolitical comment and a means by which a largely African community recently freed from slavery can reshape its identity and dignity in the face of British colonial rigidity (over court cases, e.g.) and the arrogance of an old Arab elite. Here a mode of performance provides the formerly slave community with a new sense of dignity and self-worth. It shifts old hierarchies and sensibilities, as the genre of taarab begins to be performed in Swahili, the common language of former slaves, rather than in Arabic. The politics of gender, also present in the political-music history of Kinshasa, finds a place in song through the often outspoken lyrics of Siti Binti Said, which criticize gender abuse. Power here moves with the often highly politicized song and flows back into a marginalized community, newly freed from slavery. The wider ramifications of this shift in the use of taarab are that it becomes associated with the later close link between music and nationalism in Tanzania, and in imagining the nation through song (Askew, 2002).

The final case study focuses specific aspects of the role of song in the politics of South Africa and Zimbabwe. This is a vast topic that has been extensively documented for both South Africa (see, e.g., Andersson, 1981; Allen, 2004; Coplan, 1985, 2007; Gilbert, 2007; Gray, 2004; Makeba & Hall, 1988; Ramoupi, 2013; Schumann, 2008) and Zimbabwe (see, e.g., Chikowero, 2008, 2015; Chitando, 2002; Dube, 1996; Kwaramba, 1997; Maedza, 2017; Pongweni, 1982, 1997; Turino, 2000). This final case study focuses on the topic of resistance and spectacle: liberation and the period following in Zimbabwe and South Africa. It points to the themes of continuity as well as rupture in the history of political song in each country. It asks how power moves through song. Can the dynamics of song and power be controlled, or do they become new sites of contestation? Here too modes of circulation and the roles of recording companies and the digital and electronic media are important factors to consider.

Regeneration After Genocide and the Roles of Song in Rwanda

Some song traditions, such as those of the Herero people from Namibia and north-west Botswana, contain songs that record memories of death and trauma in order to heal and to teach later generations of Herero speakers about their past (Alnaes, 1989). But what happens in a post-genocide situation where the new ruling party is made up largely of those who escaped annihilation? The situation here is that of the political party known as the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) in Rwanda, where songs play an important role in helping us to understand how ideas and ideological positions can transmit by means of song. Recent work based on the collection of a large body of songs from the RPF, now the governing party of Rwanda, shows how there can be a strong connecting line between the themes and ideas held in political songs and the policy of a ruling party (Chemouni & Mugiraneza, 2018). In other words, the authors argue, political songs can provide insight into ideology. This may seem a very obvious point: for instance, a Marxist-Leninist party might be expected to produce a bundle of songs with a limited vocabulary and set topics that allow for no deviation from a party line. This may be what happened in the case of the songs of Frelimo in Mozambique, which later set the tone and thematic frame for all official nationally used songs that commemorated the war of liberation against the Portuguese. In the course of this process, a swathe of songs that were more tolerant and open-ended, and encoded a range of life philosophies, fell away. In some cases new genres popped up between the cracks of political rhetoric, to replace them and held on to the untidy themes of life and love, which were disallowed by the new dispensation of political song. Others vanished (Israel, 2009, 2010).

In the case of Rwanda, however, there is a fascinating link between the songs composed and sung in exile, and the return of soldiers and supporters of the RPF and the range of policies of the RPF in government after the genocide of 1994. The ideas held in the songs that were practiced in the camps concur with later government policies. The ideology of national inclusivity rather than divisive ethnicity marks the songs performed in the camps, as well as the policy of the present government. The calling up of a deep past harking back to the embryonic Rwandan kingdom of the 1500s; the sense of protection by a divine power; the country’s beauty; and a deep suspicion of colonizing outsiders tied in with the desire to use indigenous concepts in the process of governance are all themes present in the body of songs drawn in the most part from the early 1990s (Chemouni & Mugiraneza, 2018). These founding ideas, Chemouni and Mugiraneza argue, also mark present policies that guide the government of Rwanda. Thus the lines of a song, which may throw in a comment on current history, can clarify a whole governmental position. For instance, as in the following fragment, a long history of Western misunderstanding can be set compactly in a song and tied into a comment on contemporary regional politics, in this case President Mobutu’s meddling in Rwandan affairs before the 1994 genocide:

The whites took to their books

To try to understand this war, Zaireans took a risk, in vain

Let Mobutu recount their misfortune.

(Chemouni & Mugiraneza, 2018, p. 20)

So we can see how song from an earlier period of exile can be seen not as something dispensable, but rather as intrinsic to a long view of what a nation might be. Song can thus mesh ideationally with a bundle of positions held by the post-genocide RPF government as it attempts to build an inclusive national identity based on the ideal of banyarwanda.

Nevertheless, it is easy to see how a single message of inclusivity that excludes the possibility of failure, leaving no space for an alternative viewpoint, can come to be viewed as unsatisfactory. Because song is such a powerful vector of ideas, aspirations, and points of view in many African societies, it is often the medium through which dissent shows itself. In the Rwandan case, this has happened. Critics largely agree that the emphasis on an inclusive banyarwanda identity by the present RPF government leaves little room for ambiguities or critical questioning through the domain of music. Even the singer Rutabana, who had been a soldier with the RPF, composing pro-RPF songs, was jailed in 2000 because of his suspected role in an opposition plot, and later fled into exile (Grant, 2017, p. 161, citing Burnet, 2012, pp. 119–121).

We may ask, though, if song is such a powerful weapon, is there an argument for censorship in situations of extreme fragility after a time of violence? Other aspects of the intersections of song and politics in Rwanda show what a contested terrain it was. The years 1975–1991 when the MRND (National Revolutionary Movement for Development) government of Juvenal Habiyaramana was in power were marked by the use of music and dance meant to shore up the authority of his regime. Office workers, farmers, and other groups were obliged to participate. Singers who did not comply were punished, and the well-known Hutu singer Cyprian Rugamba, who critiqued the regime, particularly in his song “The Falcon” (aruca), was killed (Grant, 2017, p. 159). On the other hand, the singer Simon Bikindi, whose anti-Tutsi songs were popular in the pre-genocide period and were widely sung in bars and by the militia, was never held back. Far from it, his songs were frequently broadcast on the semi-private radio station RTLM, notorious for its backing of the genocide, and Bikindi himself was later sentenced for his role in it, although not specifically for his songs (Li, 2004; Grant, 2017). If we consider the songs of the RPF, with their resolutely idealist view of a united Rwanda and their stance against the language of “animalization,” which marked the discourse of their opponents, the fraught nature of the RPF project, in song and in government, becomes clearer. Political song was thus an expressive domain tainted with excess of vitriolic language, schism, and insult. How hard it must have been, post-genocide, to simply open up song as a free area. As it was, the songs of the pre-genocide era were banned on Radio Rwanda and the singers considered “genocidaires.”

It was in this climate of “song control” that some of the RPF liberation songs were still aired, by the Rwandan National Dance troupe, for instance (Chemouni & Mugiraneza, 2018), as part of the ideology of inclusive nation building and the imagining of a single Rwandan nation. Popular music was at the same time co-opted into this larger project. So, far from being a site of resistance, popular music in the Rwandan case was being used to underwrite a monologic state vision of “the nation.” For the RPF and the Rwandan government, the aim was to shape an inclusive banyarwanda nation. Yet, after a period of compliance that popular musicians had to abide by, a shift occurred when the effort to reinforce the message of unity and the imagining of a new “Rwandan self” through a massive national song competition backfired. The national popular music competition, which combined television coverage, radio, and live performances was called Guma Guma. It was meant to endorse the governing view of a new subjectivity and a new Rwandan identity beyond genocide. Instead, in the second year of the competition, the audience revolted when the winner (the rhythm-and-blues singer Tom Close) was declared, and tried to stone him. This caused major disruptions and showed the cracks in the drive for a singular, unproblematized national identity of banyarwanda. The choice of the rebellious audience, a rapper called Jay Polly, who represented the voice of pain and exclusion felt by many of Rwanda’s contemporary youth, both Hutu and Tutsi, also showed the making of a different form of selfhood, one built on the ability to “survive and rise above hardships” (Grant, 2017, pp. 167–168). The chorus of Jay Polly’s hit song, “Ndacyariho” (I’m still alive) states, “I’m still alive and breathing . . . You who made me feel sorrow/Didn’t know I would rule music” (Grant, 2017, p. 168). This terrain of musical expression can be set alongside the presence of the songs that defined the RPF’s struggles in exile, return, and eventual presence as ruling party, to give a wider view of the nuancing of political song in contemporary Rwanda.

Song can thus knot together, through its access to ideas and a deep past revisited, and set elements of this into the language and structures of policy in a post-genocide state. The power of song, its protean capacity to re-emerge in unexpected ways and places, means that disaffection with the same state may express itself through different melodies and technologies. Song too, as we have seen in the Rwandan instance, has had a role in the perpetration of violence. We can say thus that political song can be seen as a potent, fugitive entity. Not confined to a particular genre or mode of performance, it constantly eludes total “capture” by any one party or position or by the state.

Wealth, Violence, and Song: Oil and the Niger Delta

Oil was first discovered in Nigeria in the mid-1950s. Far from benefiting the poor, the wealth it generated created new oil rich elites. The impact of song as counter-narrative in the politics of oil in Nigeria reaches back to the early 1970s and has continued in various forms into the new millennium. Disenfranchised youth, eager to revision themselves and the future of their communities, have at moments such as the oil rig occupation in 1998 worked with traditional leaders to create sites of song that call up different imaginaries of past and present; women’s associations have circulated powerful ideas through shared song; and hip-hop artists have produced trenchant lyrics for their attentive audiences (Adunbi, 2013; Anugwom & Anugwom, 2008; Okuyade, 2011). Song has played a part in becoming a voice for those excluded from the new wealth and who have seen the natural resources of the region exploited; the environment defiled; and their livelihoods, such as fishing and farming, lost. These are the communities where song became a counter-discourse that encapsulated the sense of injustice felt by the poor and the marginalized.

In such cases song has challenged the official discourse of successive Nigerian governments concerning oil wealth in the country, and critiqued the tactics of the multinational corporations that so eagerly exploited the resources of the oil-rich Niger Delta in the east of the country. The communicative power of a popular song may be so great, and it may speak with such a combination of eloquence and painful beauty, that it cuts to the heart of people’s disaffection. Okuyade claims this capacity for popular music in general, particularly in Nigeria, where it speaks for ordinary people and tackles issues not covered in the national media. Okuyade then refers specifically to the role of popular song in the Niger Delta in commenting on the violence that broke out in the region in 1990 when resistance to oil exploitation was met by an equally violent response from the Nigerian military. In 2010, after an amnesty brokered the previous year, violence broke out again. A song or bundle of songs can capture the essence and the image of a particular situation, and memorialize an event so aptly that it outlasts the life of militant groups who may gain the limelight for a short time but then succumb to national military power. Its influence and message remain potent as the song continues to circulate in affected communities, but the message it carries also finds its way back into public discourse. In instances such as this, it is song that speaks truth to power (Okuyade, 2011).

Popular song may remain on the outside of official discourse and official channels of communication and still be a vital circuit of communication. Indeed, it can come to constitute a counter-narrative of great significance (Adunbi, 2013; Barber, 1997, 2018). The choice of language in a song can be as important as its message, beat, melody, and rhythm. It can determine the circuit of reception and the impact of the message. The first musician to challenge the gap between oil wealth and those in government, and the Nigerian poor was Fela Kuti, Nigeria’s rebel “King of Afrobeat.” He began to do so in the early 1970s, and in about 1973 abandoned the use of his mother tongue, Yoruba, and turned to Nigerian pidgin as the medium for singing his critical songs (Shaxson, 2007). Immediately his musical footprint became accessible to a far wider audience across the multiple languages of the country. The songs, with their defiant sociopolitical messages, became more influential and therefore more dangerous to the state, as they raised consciousness and created new discursive communities, linked by the idioms of defiance. This overt challenge to authority led to Fela Kuti holding an alternative music festival in Lagos in 1977, parallel to the official showcase of “African culture,” Festac, which sought to celebrate the creative arts from different parts of the continent. Fela’s rebel musical site instead showcased the plight of the poor under the Obasanjo regime. As soon as Festac was over, Kuti was thrown into prison by President Obasanjo. Kuti was undeterred. Once out of jail, he took the coffin of his mother, who had died during the soldiers’ raids, to Dedan military barracks, and composed a new song, which pointed emblematically to the body, greed, and power and mentioned President Obasanjo by name. Obasanjo was the one who needed to be arrested, the song implied:

Obasanjo dey there, with his big fat stomach,

Dem no want take am . . .

(Shaxson, 2007)

Indeed, new paths of critique and innovative formulations of a society’s place in the world have come about through the later counter-song from the Niger Delta itself. History and the present have been reinterrogated. Youth attuned to a discourse of rights and environmental preservation, and chiefs and elders representing tradition, but angry at how oil exploration destroys sacred sites, have worked together, as in the Parabe protests of 1998 (Adunbi, 2013, p. 307). The protests, when 100 young men, with the support of elders, took over an oil rig for three days, showed how important performance and the reuse of a time-honored song could be. In this case the historic narrative of belonging, caught in a single song, knit together diaspora and a distant point of Yoruba origin, the land and its wealth with the words:

From here to Ile-Ife all land belongs to Oronmaku.

On this occasion, however, the words shifted slightly to mention the location of the oil platform itself (Adunbi, 2013, p. 309).

Women may have had a less public profile in the protests in the Niger Delta, but with their work in fishing as petty traders and subsistence farmers heavily disrupted, they have turned to traditional forms of resistance, using their associational life as their creative springboard (Ikelegbe, 2005, p. 242, in Anugwom & Anugwom, 2008, p. 334). One such song, in Nigerian pidgin, directed at the multinational Chevron in 2002, wittily plays with (creative) pregnancy and (destructive) greed/happy prosperity:

Na woman dey get belle

But for Chevron na man

I don come join una get belle.

“Oh let me come and join you (Chevron men) and get a nice big belly,” says the last line (Salihu et al, 2002, p. 20 in Anugwom & Anugwom, 2008; my translation). So prosperity and a big “belle” is good, the song says—and suggests too that one can be pregnant with a big “belle” and be wealthy as well. But wealth must not come at the expense of others. Anugwom and Anugwom (2008) make the important point that women’s protests are less in the limelight than those of male-dominated civil society groups. Nevertheless, their presence, and their use of song, is yet another aspect of the wider dynamic of political song in the troubled Niger Delta region of eastern Nigeria.

Kinshasa: Politics, Song, and the City as Theater

Popular music in this city set on the great Niger River seems always to have had a political edge. At times the politics of a song, its “transcript” (Scott, 1990), could be hidden or opaque, and at others, overt and defiant. An example of the latter was the 1954 song by Adou Etenga. Its riveting melody and rumba beat pulsated in the city’s countless bars and made listeners jump to their feet and dance. But the words, in Lingala, the lingua franca of song in the city, were defiant:

Ata ndele mokili ekobaluka (Sooner or later the world will change).

Didier Gondola notes that Belgian authorities in the city saw the song as a threat and banned it immediately (2003, p. 115).

What should also be noted are the modes of circulation and production of Kinshasa’s music. From the 1930s and later when the city was home to numerous recording companies, often small and independent, musicians and audiences flourished. In this era, roughly from the 1930s into the 1960s, music made the city a theater that refracted back to its inhabitants their portraits and the everyday details of their lives (Gondola, 2003). In later decades, in the era of the Second Republic, in particular the 1980s, this was not the case. With music production firmly in the hands of the Zairean state, many musicians migrated to other African capitals and to Europe, taking with them their definitive styles and approaches. What was a musical vernacular on home territory became a new exotic in Europe. Migration had its own difficulties, but it gave some the opportunity to record in the “ultra-modern” studios in Europe and exploit methods such as the playback at a time when in Kinshasa there was not even raw material for the pressing of new albums (Mukuna, 1999, p. 85). What happened, though, to the messages of songs once performers were cut off from their source audiences?

At times the politics and music of the city have been linked to gender, power—and its abuse, and wealth. In one instance, a song that became famous was composed by the musician Franco as a defiant comment on an act of political theater and terrorism known as “the Pentecost Hangings.” The public hanging of four of Joseph Mobutu’s opponents took place in 1966 in the early years of his rule (Grice, 2011, p. 51). Its aim was to cow citizens into terrified submission and compliance. Franco, leader of OK Jazz, responded with a song called “Luvumbu Ndoki” (Luvumbu the Sorcerer), in which a chief is critiqued for his abuse of power and use of sorcery. Using a Lingala lament genre, and combining it with guitar, syncopated bass, saxophone, and a collective vocal refrain, the song in effect answered the political terrorism of the hanging with an act of musical defiance, using metaphor and a rhetorical technique of indirect criticism known as mbwakela. The deeper meaning of the song was nevertheless clear. It was banned, and Franco spent six months in voluntary exile across the river in Brazzaville (Grice, 2011, pp. 50–51).

In the main, in the years of the colonial and postcolonial periods, the popular music of rumba captured in its lyrics the conscious life of city dwellers, their misery, their obsessions, their dreams. Wherever they came from and whatever they may have been before, the music of bands such as OK Jazz and its leader, Franco, redefined its inhabitants and made each of them, whatever their divergent backgrounds and languages, “Kinois” (Gondola, 2003; White, 2008). The imagined community of the African city (not “the city of the whites”) was brought into being through its music. This was not a simple or singular procedure. Instead, it was highly nuanced. One of the great political shifts related to gender and power, and it was the songs composed by bandleaders, which were then recorded and circulated massively, that pointed out this shift of power (Gondola, 2003).

As early as the 1930s, rumba music from its Caribbean powerhouse, Cuba, made its way to the Congo via shellac recordings. The Congolese recognized the antiphonal call and response as their own sound returned after the slavery of the Middle Passage. Leopoldville teemed with bars for dancing; recording companies flourished; new rumba music was made; and, as Gondola puts it (2003), the city became a theater for the recorded and live sound of rumba. From the 1940s, two groups marginalized in the colonial city, namely, musicians and women, came together and radically reconfigured points of power. Women outnumbered men in 1940s Leopoldville (Gondola, 2003), and many who came made new lives for themselves outside the trappings of tradition. Although this can itself be seen as a political act, what was particular to Leopoldville was the way song brought in a new discourse on the power and status of these free women. This is not similar to what took place for women musicians in the city of Johannesburg, far to the south of what was then still Leopoldville. Here, according to Ballantine (2000, pp. 394–401), women as singers equal in status to men became an increasingly rare phenomena during and after the 1940s. The singers Miriam Makeba, Dorothy Masuka, Abigail Khubeka, and Dolly Rathebe, all active in the 1950s, were exceptions in an increasingly male-dominated and masculinizing music scene. Along with this went a gendered discourse on African women that increasingly confined them, in the popular culture and media of the time, to the kitchen and bedroom (Driver, 1996; see also Makeba & Hall, 1988). Compositions by artists such as Franco, who began his singing in the 1950s, captured the fantasies of longing of migrants to the city for the powerful and beautiful free women, the bana (children) de Beaute, who claimed for themselves a status, a glamour, and a dignity outside the patriarchy of traditional structures and colonial norms of gender power. The music registered a new consciousness of self and recognized in song a powerful group of free women with their own wealth, gained often from the gifts of their admirers and lovers. This was a brief but important period that was tracked in its heyday and its decline by the songs of the time with a kind of acerbic realism. What came after was the retreat of “the children of beauty” to a desire for a more stable, “normative” life, a husband, children. This often unrealized longing was also tracked quite cruelly in song, again by Franco as well as others. What seems to have been less remarked on in song was the prosperity of many such women, and their moves into positions of influence as traders.

As the chaotic events of the 1960s engulfed the city, and the new regime of General Mobutu established itself, song took positions of both defiance and compliance. To some extent, the well-known esoteric nature of Congolese popular song, containing surface and hidden messages, may have protected musicians. But, as noted, it could not do so entirely. As Mobutu Sese Seko’s reign of “authenticity” took hold, “traditional” song was brought increasingly into the service of the state. Sound became itself “a political event” (Levi, 2017). Mobutu Sese Seko and the musician Franco seem to have become involved in a mutual embrace of dependency typical of ruler and ruled in the postcolony, according to Achille Mbembe (2001; Grice, 2011; White, 2008). In some of Franco’s later most scandalous songs, women become the objects of lascivious pornography. Only in his last years is there some redemption: he records a song against ‘SIDA’ (AIDS) in a country marked by poverty, illiteracy, and postcolonial state failure. He recorded “Attention Na SIDA” in 1987 and died from the illness himself in 1989.

The legacy of commentary through urban song continued to the end of Mobutu’s increasingly chaotic rule. Makuna (1999, p. 79) notes that the political and economic malaise of his last years in power were captured in three ways through the lyrics of the period; some became increasingly marked by religious language, and in this period song moved wholesale into prayer circles. A second group of lyrics worked with hidden messages that allowed for commentary on the pain suffered not only by the citizens of Kinshasa but in the whole of the vast, malfunctioning state of Zaire. A third group of songs took a more direct approach. Material life and spiritual agony worked together in a powerful political message of defiance carried in the song by Koffi Olomide, ‘Wake up! We are living in a system of hell! But not burning! (Tozali kovivre na system ya lifelo!) This song of despair was danced to a style popular at the time, which was aptly called moto (fire).

We can see thus that song, with dance and in particular rumba, were imprinted on the psyche and social body of Leopoldville/Kinshasa in a way that carried its own politics of identity, gender, and democracy. The portrayals of helpless men in the thrall of beautiful and powerful women that were such a mark of the rumba music of the 1950s faded into the old status quo. This was true of Franco’s own trajectory as singer, guitarist, and leader of the famed OK Jazz. Nevertheless, in a city where music and the political intertwined, the enchanting voices of women singers of the late 1980s and the 1990s, such as Mbilia Bel (Mangwanda, 2009), may have in important ways restated a discourse of gender and power centered on women’s urban identity, which had found a musical mirror almost half a century earlier.

Zanzibari Identity and the Songs of Siti Binti Said and Her Taarab Band

Rumba music in Leopoldville/Kinshasa grew from a flow of Afro-Cuban musical expression from the Caribbean, to a fast urbanizing city in the heart of Africa. As we have seen, marginalized groups and voices came to the fore because of the synergy of technology, money, and cultural energies. In early-20th-century Zanzibar, with the abolition of slavery still a recent event (1897) on the islands, a similar process of technology and unique cultural energy was at work. The formerly elite, Arabic-based musical genre taarab became a vehicle for song not in Arabic, but in Swahili. This itself was a political event. Even more remarkable was that in 1928 the first 78 rpm records with music from East Africa were made with the songs in Swahili, and the singer was a woman. That Siti Binti Saad and her band travelled to Bombay to record (on several occasions) is not totally unexpected given the long history linking the coast of East Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

In the hands of a gifted musician of African slave descent, Siti Binti Saad, who was encouraged and trained by Arab musicians, the genre taarab found audiences among communities outside the powerful Arab patricians and British colonial officials of Zanzibar’s Stone Town. Musically elaborate, requiring great mastery of tonality and phrasing, as well as vocal range and knowledge of the Q’oran, taarab became the vehicle for new discourses that questioned established hierarchies of power, wealth, and gender. The political song of Siti (Lady) Binti Saad and her band, which had as its base the poor community of Ng’ambo adjacent to Stone Town, was rooted in class, gender, and language. It did not neglect the theme of love, intrinsic to the genre, but set it within a frame of interrogation where stories from the community became the subject of song and so entered a new kind of public circulation, knowledge, and debate (Fair, 1998, 2001). The band’s songs, composed by male members of the band as well as Binti Saad herself, often questioned gender injustices and the inability of the British legal system to deal fairly with these. The song “Kijiti,” written and performed by Siti herself, with its critical focus on a man who raped and murdered a woman after a social evening with her out on the town, contains the powerful line, “Kijiti you are killing me for a single shot of booze” (Fair, 1998, pp. 10–11; 2001, p. 197). The man was acquitted, and the evidence of the women’s female friends ignored. Yet the memory of the song—and hence the event on which it was based—could still bring tears to the eyes of elderly informants whom Fair interviewed five decades and more after the event. This reminds us how song can act as a powerful mnemonic. Whether it is capturing the small dramatic events of everyday social life, or the grand canvas of the political, a song has the power, through both discourse and affect, to recall, and thus bring into sharp focus, an event or a particular moment in a wider political debate.

Another important point evident from reviewing song and the politics of the poor in the case of the inter-world war music of Siti Binti Saad on Zanzibar is that song provides agency and enacts dignity even if this is absent in the broader social and legal structure. Thus a song such as “Kigalawa” (Poor still) put out the message that poverty can still be equated with equality and personal dignity (Fair, 2001, p. 188). To hear this sung and to engage with it affectively meant a reaffirmation of worth for the impoverished and subaltern listeners and devotees of Siti’s band. In any context, for political song to have more than the status of an archival note, it needs to have its place within a “knowledgeable community,” where the song has meaning and associations far beyond the mere recitation of words, beat, and melody. I will turn to this shortly in discussing the southern African experience of political song. One final point in relation to taarab and its wider history in East Africa is that as it became a vehicle for expression and musical performance in Swahili all along the East African littoral, it carried the growing sentiments of nationalism (Askew, 2002).

Resistance and Spectacle: Liberation and After in Zimbabwe and South Africa

Political song played a huge role in both Zimbabwe and South Africa in the shaping of a public realm where the discourse of freedom began to take its place in spite of powerful and repressive regimes that were determined to maintain control. Here the focus is on pointing to continuity and rupture in the workings of song in the liberation and post-liberation eras of each country. In the struggle eras the question asked is how does power move through song as a dynamic force for political change? In the postcolonial eras that follow liberation, how does song show its power or work with power?

In Zimbabwe the large and rich oeuvre of liberation songs of the “Second Chimurenga,” fought from the mid-1960s through to the end of the 1970s, was inspirational to the consciousness and resolution of those involved either as combatants or as civilians. Song taught new forms of history, strengthened resolve, and provided courage when hope was low, providing what Chikowero calls “an indispensable arsenal” of the struggle (Chikowero, 2015, p. 273). The Chimurenga music, particularly prominent in the 1970s, built on a longer tradition of Shona genres and of protest in song that drew on cultural archives such as war songs as well as Christian hymns and hymnody (Pongweni, 1982, 1997). Mission school choirs as early as the 1930s were singing songs such as “Our Children Mourn Africa”; the anthem “Ishe komberera Afrika” (God save Africa) was sung in the mission school choir repertoire before it became a staple of the nationalist marches of the 1950s (Chikowero, 2015) and a part of the public power of political song that was reclaiming public space, providing a distinctive voice and bodily presence in the contested public domain.

How music and song circulated became increasingly important as the fever for independence grew. In the 1970s, the recording companies Gallo and Teal, active in Southern Rhodesia since the 1930s (Impey, 1992), began to respond to the “war fever” of their urban consumers. Cuban and Zairean rumba gave way to the recording of revolutionary music for the first time (Dube, 1996, p. 110, citing Zindi, 1985, p. 6). The war became a space for ‘the creative and political blending of indigenous and Christian music” (Dube, 1996, p. 110). Moreover, as revolutionary music circulated on record and in live band performances in urban centers such as Bulawayo and Salisbury, as well as smaller towns, so the power of song to conscientize and restore a sense of dignity to those struggling for change grew (Dube, 1996, p. 110). Dube goes so far as to argue that without the important brokering role played by the recording industry at this time, the revolutionary music might not have received as much recognition as it did. Thomas Mapfumo’s songs from the mid-1960s through the 1970s were crucial in their exhortation to listeners and audiences. Using mbira music transferred to the guitar and later bringing in the mbira as well, in the style known as sungura Mapfumo exhorted people, “Don’t lose heart” in the single “Musawore Moyo.” In a number of songs, he called on the power of the ancestral spirits and mythical beings associated with spiritual power, such as the Mountain Spirit Lion (Chikowero, 2015, p. 260). Alongside Mapfumo, other singers (e.g., Oliver Mutukudzi) and bands (e.g., the Green Arrows, with whom Susan Mapfumo, one of Zimbabwe’s few women singers, was active at this period) sang and poured out lyrics to inspire and exhort, often in veiled language (Chitauro, Dube, & Gunner, 1994). As Pongweni notes, the Green Arrows were particularly adept at using metaphor with hidden meanings and ambiguity, where, for instance, a reference to “pigeons in the forest” was in fact an allusion to the guerrilla fighters in the war zones who need divine protection (Pongweni, 1982, pp. 140–143; Chikowero, 2015). Besides live bands and recordings, song played a role in the secret meetings known as mapungwe, which were held at night in the rural areas. But song needed continually to find new ways of spreading its message. Radio based outside the country could avoid censors and broadcast songs to the war areas inside the country. Here the guerrilla fighter and singer Comrade Chinx played an important role as a teacher through his songs, which “retaught” colonial versions of Zimbabwe’s history. He composed long pedagogic songs used first in mapungwe and then sent on cassette to Maputo, to be recorded and used for radio broadcasting back into Zimbabwe (Chikowero, 2015, p. 254).

The brilliant flowering of Zimbabwean political music and song during the liberation war had shown that a space for a new era had been made through political song. However, the post-1980 government soon moved to the construction of a narrow nationalist imaginary that left little room for musicians who wished to criticize or comment. The 1989 album by Thomas Mapfumo, Corruption, was not welcomed by the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) government. Moreover, as music piracy gained momentum, musicians found it hard to survive from sales of their music. The expressive and ideological hold that music held was, however, well known to the new government, and as discontent grew in postcolonial Zimbabwe in the early 2000s, the government, in an effort to harness for themselves the dynamic energy of song, devised a scheme of televised music galas that were broadcast live. Wendy Willems (2015) terms this a “performative encounter between state and musicians” as the government tried to lure young urban voters away from allegiance to the new Movement for Democratic Change. This era, termed by the state the Third Chimurenga, showed the flows of power between state and musicians as each tried to influence the other in the important site of musical expression in the public domain (Ndlovu-Gatsheni & Willems, 2010; Willems, 2015). Willems suggests that neither the state nor musicians were clear winners; rather, musicians negotiated with the state while the state tried to appropriate musicians for their own purposes.

In South Africa, the oppressed majority made extensive use of political song in the long fight against colonial and white settler rule as they struggled under the weight of often brutal state legislation, such as the pass laws, Group Areas Act, Suppression of Communism Act, and many other race- and ideology-based laws. The iconic “God Save Africa” (Nkosi Sikele’ iAfrika), which in 1923 became the anthem of the African National Congress (ANC), was first heard during protests on the streets of Johannesburg in 1919. This anthem traveled north to South Africa’s colonized neighbors; shifted languages quite easily as it did so, while keeping its melody, meaning, and rhythm; and became a thread of shared voicing of the desire for salvation through just governance in the African nationalist struggles. In both South Africa and Zimbabwe, Christian hymns were adapted when suitable, and one, the lilting “Somlandel’ uJesu” (We will follow Jesus) has been noted as being used both (through the almost identical languages of Zulu and Ndebele) for Joshua Nkomo in Zimbabwe (Chikowero, 2015) and for Chief Albert Luthuli in South Africa, in the same decades of the 1950s and into the 1960s. Other shared songs had their existence in the liberation forces of South Africa and Zimbabwe, one being the song of youth leaving to join the fight, far away from their homes. “Sizobashiya abazali, siya kwamanye ‘mazwe’” (We will leave our parents and go to foreign lands) (Gilbert, 2007; Pongweni, 1982).

Political song was central to the performance strategies of African political parties, both the ANC and also, after its inception in the late 1940s, the Pan African Congress (PAC). It was, as in the Zimbabwean struggle, a means of manifesting group power, spreading ideas, maintaining morale, and building a new consciousness of political weight. Significantly, when the ANC and the PAC were banned under the Suppression of Communism Act in 1960, the singing of songs was banned as well. At Luthuli’s Groutville funeral in July 1967, the Zulu language paper Ilanga laseNatal (the Natal Sun) noted that “the freedom songs were heard in public for the first time since 1960,” an act of defiance by those honoring Luthuli and mourning his passing. Key ideas and policies could be mooted through song. Luthuli himself had sung the famous land and repossession song “Thina sizwe esimnyama” (We the black nation) as he gave his last public address as leader of the ANC at the King Williamstown conference in 1956. Here song sat within his speech about loss of land, reclamation, and dignity, and gave an indication of the weight of song as discourse in the public domain in African aesthetics and schemes of value.

In spite of heavy censorship of song and print, especially after the coming to power of the National Party in 1948, African popular music, backed by a strong recording industry, was able to hide revolutionary messages in the coolest of musical numbers. An example of this is the Manhattan Brothers’ composition “Vuka, vuka!” (Wake up, wake up, or Rise up, rise up), which African audiences and listeners read quite simply as a call to action (Ballantine, 2000). Anne Schumann argues convincingly that in the political life of a country, song can gain traction over time and move from being a vehicle of commentary and record to becoming a force, “a hammer” to beat change into being. She sees South Africa and the role of song from the 1940s and earlier, through to the time of democracy in the early 1990s, as a case in point (Schumann, 2008). Certainly as song re-emerged into the public domain in South Africa in the student uprising of June 1976; flooded political events and marches in the 1980s; and circulated on the stages of the world, most notably the Free Mandela concerts in London in the late 1980s, political song grew in public power within South Africa. It did indeed become a hammer beating change into being.

The change to a democratically elected government in April 1994 did not see the development of a “performative state” as in the Third Chimurenga period in Zimbabwe. Yet there are similarities as those with political power within the state tried to bring back to life the public energy, knowledge, and affect linked to the freedom song. Again, the notion of negotiation between state powers and citizen performers (Willems, 2015) is of interest. Also of importance in the South African instance is the use of song by the marginalized to state their case for better service delivery in impoverished urban or peri-urban areas, and the use of political song at strategic party conferences where delegates voice their preferences and try to force their views by means of song (Langa, 2018; Jolaosho, 2019).

The case of former president Jacob Zuma’s rise to prominence and supreme political power between 2005 and 2008 can be linked quite directly to his use of a particular political song. It became associated with his brand of vague left-wing populism and carried an appeal to memories of the liberation struggle, which had become distant in official public discourse after the euphoria of 1994, and the technocratic governing style of the late 1990s era of Thabo Mbeki, successor to President Nelson Mandela. The song “Awuleth’ umshini wami” (Bring me my machine gun), its provenance in the military camps of the ANC in exile, its closeness to the performative style of amahubo—war songs—and Zuma’s strategic self-publicity through the song brought back political song as a significant tool in larger debates and tussles of power. The song moved through various channels of media, had public performances at controversial court cases such as Jacob Zuma’s trial for rape, and held a strong appeal because of its mode of performance—the public song of struggle and memory—to a section of the new electorate that still felt distanced and alienated from any tangible power in the new era (Gunner, 2009).

Jacob Zuma’s political success, partly through the popular appeal of his signature song, may have led Julius Malema, a rising politician of the younger generation, to attempt a similar staging of song and public spectacle in his own attempt to gain and hold the political limelight. Malema’s revival of the struggle song “Dubul’ ibhunu” (Shoot the boer/farmer), linked with his astute use of social media, caused controversy and notoriety and helped pave the way in 2013 for the formation of a new breakaway political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), with Malema as its leader (Gunner, 2015). The EFF valued song, and one of its members, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, was not only official spokesperson for the EFF but also official composer of songs, and a singer of note himself. In this respect he can perhaps be compared with the great singer and composer of songs for the ANC, Vuyisile Mini, who was hanged by the apartheid regime in 1964 (Gray, 2004).

The struggle song in the South African post-apartheid era, particularly in the new millennium, thus gained another life, linked to new digital flows of image and sound. But it also gave a new realization of the dynamic and unpredictable role song can play in political debates and power-play in the new state. Used as a tool by the powerful as well as the aspirant and the still marginalized, and very evident in the # Fees Must Fall students’ movement of 2015 and 2016, song is unruly and an expressive instrument that many try to possess and control. It remains though, open-ended, a potent tool, and a source of local knowledge and new technologies harnessed often by the young, visionary, and talented, but also by those who are cunning and sometimes old.


This article has been at some levels deliberately inconclusive. It does not tie political song down into a particular formula. It attempts, rather, to open up a number of ways of defining it by showing how it works at various moments in the fairly recent or contemporary histories of particular societies on the African continent. The article also shows that there is no one type of political song in Africa. Instead, the expressive cultures of the continent are constantly being drawn on to create songs that carry meaning and power. They can be sometimes eloquent and beautiful, but also at times frightening, as they play a role in the political life and struggles of contemporary nations or societies struggling to throw off unjust rule. As the case studies have shown, songs can be short and witty but make an important point, as in the song of the women singers of the Niger Delta, criticizing the wealth of the oil magnates they are up against in their fight for a fairer deal for their communities. Groups can draw on the eloquent memorializing songs of their past in order to make a point about a contested presence, as again the oil songs of the Niger Delta show. In some instances, as in the first case study on political song in Rwanda, we see the range of expressive resources called on first by the RPF in exile as it makes use of song to educate and inspire its fighters and call on their past, and then how the same body of songs are kept in play as reminders of the ideology to which the post-genocide regime wishes to stay true. We then see how this can be taken as stale and how completely new, very modern genres and styles, brought in by young and restless citizens, can challenge the state and its positions on music, and the newly constituted, fragile nation.

How musicians respond to power, and in some cases create the conditions for power to change hands and regimes to fall, are themes that feature strongly in three case studies: that on the city of Kinshasa and its musical and political life over a number of decades; and also the dual case study on Zimbabwe and South Africa, where it is inconceivable to be able to understand the history of liberation and consequent change without understanding the rich, and at times contested, contribution of song in the political realm. Another theme that runs through the case studies is gender. We see this most clearly in the story of Zanzibar’s Stone Town and the entry of a marginalized group—freed slaves of African origin—into a new art form, taarab, now sung in Swahili, the shared language of the dispossessed, instead of in the language of the elite, Arabic. Here it is the skills of a particular gifted woman singer who brings about this profound shift, which has later consequences for the role of taarab music in the nationalist struggles of Tanzania that Kelly Askew has so eloquently documented (2002).

In this short account of a very large topic, one of several important features for researchers on the topic is the question of language in African political song. Language can be overlooked or difficult to access, or it can be dealt with carelessly by researchers working perhaps with a number of languages or needing a result in a fixed time. But it is the key to any deep understanding of a song or body of songs, their provenance, composers, complexities, and history. Although it is important to document a song’s words and parse its meaning, what is also key is an understanding of the social and historical context, sometimes of the precise cultural matrix, from which a particular song may have emerged, or who composed it and why it may have been sung on a particular occasion. What also matters is the question of ownership. Can a particular group own a song or appropriate it? Can a song be plucked out of an earlier use, and become the vehicle for a completely new statement or idea, and become political? Can a particular ideology iron out the complexities of a particular body of songs, or even obliterate certain songs and replace them with others? In other words, songs are not innocent, and even though it may be difficult, it is important to interrogate origins and in some cases to ask if there is an archaeology of song, buried layer on layer of production, each holding its own relation to place, time, and people. There are significant gaps in the research to date in this regard, with Paolo Israel’s wonderful ethnography of the war in Mozambique and the Makonde mapiko masquerade tradition showing what can be done (2014). Also important in regard to language is the idea of corridors of languages that stretch over a vast area and provide a kind of meta-discourse of song and history for a particular region, beyond national boundaries. Much work remains to be done on this in relation to song, some postnational and some prenational, and precolonial.

Political song has also a certain fragility. Certain bodies of song can be passed over, erased, or substituted by those more dominant. If song can encapsulate memories, ideas, events, and people, those songs can also fall away. Song can enable a community to imagine itself, and change and sometimes a particular gifted singer can bring about this shift of class, consciousnesss, and identity, as is the case with the late-19th-century community in Zanzibar. It can also be used as a weapon of protest and defiance in times of struggle, but also as a means of control. All these points about political song in Africa illustrate why it is important as a topic of research.

Finally, archaeologies of song can uncover uncomfortable truths, and Ramoupi’s (2013) work on the full archive of prison songs from Robben Island and the PAC presence shows how a nationalist tradition, such as in the South African instance, can be invented, in part, and erase certain voices as it strives to become the dominant narrative. And last of all is the question of media flows and song within the political, which also remains a rich area for further research, as ongoing work by Schumann (2008, 2015) and others shows.


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