Category Archives: History

The Kuti Clan Protesting Through Music, And Other Nigerians Who Sang Against Apartheid

Femi and Seun Kuti, have kept Fẹlá’s protest music alive.

Orlando Julias’ band (Nigeria). Image by Steve Terrell, September 26, 2015 (CC BY 2.0)

This article was written by Nwachukwu Egbunike and originally published by Global Voices on 31st of March 2022.


Nigerian musicians have been very vocal about social injustice in the country. The term protest music as a genre, which gained popular cultural validity in the 1970s, has continued to date. These songs fought military dictatorship, apartheid in South Africa, and police brutality, as part of the youth-led #EndSARS protests.

The father of Nigerian protest music

An artistic representation of Fẹlá Aníkúlápò Kútì. Image by Danny PiG uploaded to Flickr on September 11, 2012. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Fẹlá Aníkúlápò Kútì (1938–1997), the father of protest music in Nigeria, employed his distinctive Afrobeat genre with lyrics that were replete with “sarcastic humor, rebellion against authority, and political consciousness” as a means of fighting social injustice, notes Titilayo Remilekun Osuagwu, a culture scholar in Nigeria’s University of Port Harcourt.

Fẹlá’s genius lied in his conceptualization of the root causes of oppression. That’s why his music has remained — to date — a powerful tool in the “sustenance of ongoing protests,” asserts Olukayode ‘Segun Eesuola, a political science scholar in Nigeria’s University of Lagos. In the course of his over three decades-long musical career, he heightened the political consciousness of generations of Nigerian citizens. However, this attracted brutal visitations from security agents of successive Nigerian governments.

Understandably, most of Fẹlá‘s music was directed against the excesses of successive military governments in the country. Nigeria was under military dictatorship for 29 years (from 1966 to 1979 and 1983 to 1999).

At the time of his death in 1997, Fẹlá fiery musical body of work had earned him a place “in global consciousness as a quintessential ‘political musician,’” asserts Tejumola Olaniyan, professor of African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in his seminal book “Arrest the Music! Fela & His rebel art and politics.”

Femi and Seun Kuti, like father like sons

Fẹlá’s two sons, Femi and Seun, have inherited and “carried forward” their father’s passion for social justice through music.

Femi Kuti, performing at Warszawa Cross Culture Festival. Image by Henryk Kotowski via Wikimedia Commons, 25 September 2011 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Femi Kuti, Fẹlá’s eldest son, is an accomplished Afrobeat musician and saxophonist in his own right. Femi’s songs like “Sorry Sorry“, “What Will Tomorrow Bring” and “’97” — do not spare Nigeria’s corrupt and incompetent rulers. For instance, in “Sorry Sorry”, Femi laments the hypocritical attempt by the ruling elites, who in secret destroy the nation but pretend at finding solutions in public:

“Politicians and soldiers hold meetings/they want to repair our country/ they behave as though/ they don’t know/ that they are the ones who spoilt our country.”

Femi, a multiple Grammy nominee, is as brash and impatient as his late father. In an interview with Vanguard, a Nigeria newspaper, in February 2011, he decimated Nigeria’s corrupt class: “It is very evident that things are very bad in our country; politicians keep stealing money, we don’t have good roads, proper education, and potable water and so on. I can’t accept that. The majority of Nigerians are suffering. I don’t accept this and my father showed us a way to complain through music and that is what I am doing.”

Seun Kuti at the 2008 Marsatac Festival in Marseille, France. Image by Benoît Derrier via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Fẹlá’s youngest son, Seun Kuti is a musician and social justice advocate. Seun was an active participant in the 2012 #OccupyNigeria protests against the gas price hikes. He was also involved in the 2020 #EndSARS protests.

Seun has been described as the “Prince of Afrobeats,” in the footsteps of his father, the king of Afrobeat. Toyin Falola, Nigerian historian and professor of African Studies further asserts that: “Seun’s alignment did not start recently. He showed an early interest in music, especially the type of music his father sings, and he started to perform alongside Fela and the Egypt 80 band when he was just nine years old. It would not be out of place to call that a prodigious act.”

Nigerian voices against Apartheid in South Africa

Cover of Sonny Okosun’s Vinyl record

Critical music against political leadership was not limited to military dictatorship alone.

Nigerian musicians like Sonny Okosun, Majek Fashek, Onyeka Onwenu — and many others — also protested against apartheid in South Africa, calling for the release of Nelson Mandela.

Sonny Okosun (1947—2008), Nigeria’s highlife and reggae star, in “Papa’s Land” (1977) and “Fire in Soweto” (1978) condemned the suppression of black South Africans by their apartheid governments.

Following in Okosun’s footsteps was Nigeria’s guitarist and reggae star, Majek (Majekodunmi) Fashek (1963-2020) dedicated his song “Free Africa, Free Mandela” to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, whom he described as a prisoner of conscience.

Onyeka Onwenu (Image credit from Onyeka Onwenu Facebook Fan Club)

However, one of the most endearing and emotional protest renditions against apartheid came from Nigeria’s singer, actress, and journalist Onyeka Onwenu in her song, “Winnie Mandela.” Onwenu described Winnie Mandela as the “soul of a nation, fighting to be free!”

Onwenu explained that she wrote the song after watching a documentary about the Mandelas, which moved her to tears. She “identified” with Winnie’s “loneliness and some of her pain.” During the sleepless night that followed, the Nigerian musician put her “pain to a song” to “give something back to Winnie for the sacrifice of her life to the Apartheid struggle,” Onwenu wrote in April 2018.

Other Nigerians who sang against the social injustice of apartheid were Victor Essiet and the Mandators in the song “Apartheid.”


Banned Songs From Nigeria And Uganda Which Represent The Voices Of The People

These songs challenged governments and oppression alike

Fela Kuti Birthday Tribute” Image by Lucy Anne, October 15, 2010 (CC BY-ND 2.0).

This article was originally published by Global Voices on 21st of March 2022 and is republished here with permission of the authors, Richard Wanjohi and Nwachukwu Egbunike.


A little over 6o years ago, African states gained independence from their colonial masters. It was assumed the wind of change would bring with it a new sense of nationalism, common good, and identity. However many of the heads of state and governments almost immediately broke their promise to promote a different form of governance.

Music has always been integral to Africa’s liberation and freedom struggles. In South Africa, anti-apartheid music faced significant censorship Similarly, in Nigeria, musicians stood in solidarity with South Africans, calling for the release of Nelson Mandela or calling out police brutality, while being the voices of protests. These African musicians felt they could not go on dancing when everything around them was not worth celebrating.

They felt a responsibility to use their voice to speak to the times they were living. In the same vein, many countries found their voices with popular groups and musicians, though initially accepted by the authorities, they ended up being sanctioned and/or banned altogether.

In this two-part series, we go into the history of various musicians around the continent whose music was deemed too political and explore why their music was considered so ‘dangerous’ by their governments.

Nigeria

In his lifetime, the late Afrobeat legend, Fẹlá Aníkúlápò Kútì witnessed quite a number of sanctions, court cases, police brutality, and a radio ban on his revolutionary music. Despite the state pressure, he never ceased to dish out the melodies that many Nigerians and Africans all over the world relate to.

In the then military era of Nigeria, it was forbidden for any radio station to play Kútì’s songs and any citizen seen associating with the revolutionary musician either in person or through his songs was deemed an enemy of the state. Once upon a time, Fẹlá’s residence, in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, known as the Kalakuta Republic was attacked by a thousand soldiers, who committed various wicked acts like raping, stealing, and beating citizens. During the assault, his elderly mother was thrown from a tall building, an incident that led to a broken leg and eventually her death. After that military invasion of his house, Fẹlá released “Zombie” and “Unknown Soldier” in 1981, both songs, dedicated to the soldiers that invaded his house. 

An artistic representation of Fẹlá Aníkúlápò Kútì. Image by Danny PiG uploaded to Flickr on September 11, 2012. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 2004, former Nigerian president, Olúṣẹ́gun Ọbasanjọ́ banned the popular themed song of the poverty-stricken nation titled “Jàgà-jágá.” In Jàgà-jágá, a song that went viral even outside Nigeria, Eedris Abdulkareem sang in anger, lamenting the state of the suffering of Nigerians and also the social ills that ensued as a means of survival in the face of abject poverty. The controversial album led to the ban of the song on radio and television, it secured him an invitation to the presidential villa (Aso Rock) in the Federal Capital Territory where the president warned him to desist from releasing songs that ridicule the country and place it in a bad light to the outside world. The artist remained obstinate and aired the president’s request in another song titled “Letter to Mr. President” released the following year.  

Uganda

In 2017, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu also known as Bobi Wine while serving as a Member of Parliament in Uganda’s Parliament released a song titled “Freedom.” Using his platform as a local leader and influence among the urban youth in the country, Bobi’s song sought to address the country’s challenges of overstaying leaders. He mentioned Uganda’s Bush War of the 1980s that saw current president Yoweri Museveni oust Milton Obote. He asked why Museveni is practicing what he fought against — comparing the current government to slavery and the tension to South Africa’s apartheid system.

Bobi Wine by Mbowasport is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 

Bobi also questioned the purpose of the Ugandan constitution which he calls the country’s last hope. He mentioned the lack of freedom of expression in the country, urging Ugandans to speak up against injustice with freedom being for all — regardless of age, social class, religion, or education.

One of his more popular songs, “Ghetto,” talks about police brutality against people residing in the slums of Kampala and the inadequate services delivered to them. In April 2019, Bobi Wine under went house arrest, and during this time, he composed another multilingual song about police brutality entitled “Afande,” a Swahili word for an officer.

Since 2018, some of his songs have been banned from being performed, or even played on-air, as state functionaries believed he would use his music for political and promotional purposes. Shortly thereafter, he declared his interest in running for the country’s presidency in elections that took place in early 2021.

Joining him in the elections circuit was another popular musician Joseph Mayanja also known as Jose Chameleone. His entry into politics by declaring his candidacy for the mayoral position of Kampala, saw his concerts canceled. In 2016, the artist turned politician assaulted a journalist and DJ resulting in his music being banned by Trace TV, a French-based music TV channel that airs music across the globe.

Please see part two of this series here.

Find Global Voice’s Spotify playlist highlighting these and other banned songs from around the world here. For more information about banned music, see our special coverage, Striking the Wrong Notes.


Powerful Protest Songs From Kenya And South Africa

Music has been integral to Africa’s liberation and freedom struggles

Anti-apartheid protests in the early ’90s” by Nagarjun is marked with CC BY 2.0.

This article was originally published by Global Voices on 21st of March 2022 and is republished here with permission of the authors, Richard Wanjohi and Nwachukwu Egbunike.


Just as artists in Uganda and Nigeria used their music to challenge governmental and military oppression, so did artists around the continent. This is part two of this two-part series story where we highlight musicians around the continent whose music encouraged activism and dissent. For part one, see here. In this article, we discuss protest music in Kenya and South Africa, and the vital role it played in people’s liberation.

Kenya

Kenya’s music scene has seen great changes since the colonial days, with many local singers finding fame through protest songs. One iconic example is the late Joseph Kamaru, a Kikuyu musician who is believed to have a catalog of over 1,000 songs. Born in central Kenya, he developed a unique blend of Kikuyu traditional melodies, mixed with the guitar, keyboard, and occasionally the accordion. He frequently sang songs relating to social issues, reflecting on the nation’s independence and urbanization.  

However, by 1969 — only six years into independence — Kenya was plunged into political strife following the contentious elections, which pitted the then-ruling party KANU and the opposition KPU. This divided communities, particularly after a popular politician, Tom Mboya, was gunned down in broad daylight. 

In this instance, Joseph Kamaru composed a song, “Aromaka” (“May he be scared”), which sought to praise the ruling party but did not appeal to a larger population due to its perceived bias around the political assassination. 

JM Kariuki Memorial by Mpigapicha is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 1975, another popular politician this time from the Central part of Kenya, Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, also known as JM Kariuki, was killed a few months after another hotly contested election. The late JM Kariuki, initially pro-Government, had become one of the most prominent critics of the government’s growing tribalism and corruption, coining a phrase, “Kenya was becoming a country of ten millionaires and ten million beggars.” Due to his public criticism, he was prohibited from campaigning and was forced to resort to door-to-door or home visits. Upon Kariuki’s death in 1975, Kamaru sang a song titled “J.M. Kariuki” to mourn the death of the national hero, as well as give tribute to his personal friend.

This particular song was one of his best-selling hits, selling over 75,000 copies within the first week of release. He quickly became a target of the government, and the song was banned on national radio, the Voice of Kenya (now the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation), in June 1975.

Kamaru did not stop there and after the death of the first president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, he sought out incoming President Daniel arap Moi, who invited him to a foreign trip to Japan. This led to the composition of “Safari ya Japan.” However, it did not take long for him to fall out with the powers-that-be, and he found himself once again voicing criticism. He composed another song laced with ambiguous language and Kikuyu idioms to warn the Moi government of the discontentment and disillusionment among the general populace and Kikuyu in particular. The song was titled “Ni Maitho Tunite” (“We’ve only shifted our Gaze”). This was also banned from the national stations. 

Kamaru’s alliance with the politics of the day did not end there. In 1988, while the country was preparing for another election, he made another song, “Mahoya ma Bururi”(Prayers for the Country), which, though initially with a Kikuyu version, attracted the attention of the state, specifically then-President Daniel Moi. Moi initially perceived the song as an indirect attack at him, with the mention of “guikio irima ta Daniel” translated to “being thrown in the hole/cave like Daniel.”

Kamaru’s explanation suggested the name “Daniel” was a reference to the Biblical Daniel, who was thrown into a cave with the lions for refusing to bow to the King. As a compromise, Moi requested for the song to be translated into the national language, Swahili. Though the song was released by Kamaru, it never enjoyed as much airplay as the Kikuyu version, much to Kamaru’s dismay.

The on-and-off relations of Joseph Kamaru’s songs and the politicians of the day meant that while many politicians attempted to dictate or ban songs, the intersection of creativity, socio-political issues, and common voice of the ills affecting the populace prevailed. The same issues are still resonant with the current state of affairs in Kenya.

South Africa

The Southernmost State of the African continent endured a period of apartheid when the White-minority Boers ruled the country over the Black majority. This was from 1948 to the 1990s. The period saw injustices meted on the latter and a number of their political leaders arrested and locked away for life.


Miriam Makeba 2011.jpg by Tom Beetz is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Seeking to become a voice for the voiceless, a number of South African musicians used their trade to draw both national and international attention to the issues of the day. Among them was Miriam Makeba. The musician famous for her different native songs in Xhosa and English had sung a song “Beware, Verwoerd! (Ndodemnyama),” referencing the then-Prime Minister of South Africa Hendrick Verwoerd, who had played a key role in implementing the apartheid regime. The song was banned on national radio due to its anti-apartheid stance.

Makeba had to go into exile in 1960 and was shortly banned from returning to South Africa. She went on to become a global icon in the US and continued to perform and write protest songs that spoke out against apartheid around the world.

Closely following Makeba’s trial, Brenda Fassie drew controversy for the better part of her career. She sang the song “Black President” as a tribute to the then “most famous prisoner,” Nelson Mandela. The song was written by Fassie and Chicco Thwala in 1990. This was at a time when the apartheid government was nearing its end, and Mandela was about to be released. The government had largely banned Fassie songs due to their controversial discussions of sexuality and social ills in South African city townships.

Johnny Clegg & Savuka Third World Child by vinylmeister is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Another South African song “Asimbonanga” sung by Johnny Clegg and the Savuka Band, was banned by the South African apartheid government. The song means “awakening” in Zulu and was released in 1987 in Clegg’s album, “Third World Child.” It invoked both Mandela and Steve Biko who were seen as symbols of the anti-apartheid movement that was seeking justice for native South African communities. Clegg who was born of Scottish-Zimbabwe and Jewish roots had assembled the first multi-racial band in Juluka and later Savuka. He had grown up in parts of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) before his parents immigrated to Johannesburg, South Africa. This brought him face-to-face with the suffering of the minorities in Jo’burg and other major cities. He also learned the local language of Zulu which would become among one of his signatures in his songs.

What most of these songs and musicians signify is the common currency of protest and speaking against societal ills and discrimination irrespective of socio-economic stature. These songs while temporarily off-air, were able to see the day of light and flood our airwaves, allowing audiences across the countries to listen and learn from the musical phenomena.

Find Global Voice’s Spotify playlist highlighting these and other banned songs from around the world here. For more information about banned music, see our special coverage, Striking the Wrong Notes.