Tag Archives: afro-acoustic

In Togo, singer Elias Atayi uses music as a vehicle for human rights

This article was written by Jean Sovon and translated into English by Alyssa Olivier. It was published by Global Voices on February 6th 2023 as part of their article series about African music. The article is republished here in accordance with the media partnership between Global Voices and Shouts.

Elias Atayi playing the guitar. Photo by Jean Sovon, used with permission.

Elias Atayi is a Togolese musician and singer who uses his music to champion the human rights of women and children.

The protection and promotion of human rights are of the utmost importance for many Togolese, manifesting in the local grassroots activism, arts, and culture scenes. Even as authorities are attempting to improve the situation, challenges remain regarding human rights protections in Togo. Citizens, for their part, are doing their best to construct a state where respect for human rights is prioritized.

This is the case of Elias Atayi, or Eli Amate Ataya as he is known to the state. He is an artist committed to the cause of human rights, a columnist, and co-host of the show Nek’tar on TVT, a Togolese TV channel. He is one of the few artists regularly denounces abuse and raises awareness of the rights of women and children through his music. He uses his art to bring about positive change, as seen in this YouTube video:

Global Voices met with Elias Atayi via Whatsapp to understand more about his approach to activism.

Jean Sovon (JS): Where does this love of music come from?

Elias Atayi (EA): Music is innate and I have practiced it since I was young. Growing up, I went to music classes from Togolese musicians such as Gospel Renya and Edi Togovi. I went to music groups and choruses. I started playing instruments including my guitar, which has always been my faithful friend. I joined the University of Lomé orchestra where I saw many names go through who are now established Togolese artists: Foganne with whom I released Mon Rêve (a song which paints the world in white) and Victoire Biaku (winner of The Voice Francophone Africa).

JS: In your songs, we sense a commitment to human rights. Why do you use your music to address human rights issues?

EA: In 2018, I joined the Documentation and Training Center for Human Rights (CDFDH). During various trainings and activities in the field, my commitment became stronger. With this framework, the opportunity was given to me to compose and record a song accompanying Xonam, an app used to defend human rights. It was a beautiful experience and it reinforced my commitment. The concept is simple: the message and means must be adapted to the goal. If young people like rap, let’s bring them ideas about human rights with rap. I am one of those who thinks that the artist has a big role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals ODD. The artist is heard, loved, and followed by millions of people. Their message and pleas will therefore have a greater impact and initiate more change from their followers. Because music is found in all homes, and when music is well-played, the lyrics stay anchored in the mind without us knowing it. This is the goal of my work: that the lyrics of songs have an impact on habits and behaviors. During Covid, when the pandemic was at its height, we released two singles (Respecte les mesures and La prophétie) to raise awareness among the population about the pandemic and its harmful effects. The message was well received even if these songs were not hits, I think it’s a start, especially since our means were limited.

JS: What is your impression of the human rights situation in Togo today?

EA: There is still a lot of work to be done, especially in rural communities; millions of people who do not know their rights, women abused without a voice, uneducated children – especially girls. It’s true there has been progress, but we are far from meeting the minimum.The human rights situation in Togo in the 80’s is nothing like the 2000’s. But we must do more to find new strategies, new ways of involving the youth, women, and children. We must bring joy and light to millions of youth in remote areas by organizing various initiatives based on human rights themes, as well as practical training to equip our population. We are ready to hit the ground running.

JS: Besides music, what other ways do you contribute to the advancement to human rights in Togo?

EA: In 2019 I created my organization Equal Rights For All (ERFA) to promote human rights and civic participation in art, culture, and sport. A bet not easily placed given the role art takes in politics. Yes, it takes art to promote human rights because people who do not know their rights will not be able to defend them. Often, people do not know whether the oppressor is violating their rights or not. Therefore they sit powerlessly in situations where they should seek justice for violations committed and demand respect for their rights. Currently, we have outlined several strategies that are very innovative and youthful. We have planned dance competitions, football matches, marathons, film nights, and a series bringing together local comedians around our theme. All these actions are aimed towards young people who are our first priority.

JS: Do you plan on making an album that would be dedicated to this cause?

EA: A 12-track album called Life’s Colors about which we find themes like Child in the Street, Civic Engagement, Peace, No to Violent Extremism, Environment Protection, Equality, etc. I am also focused on authenticity, Africa, its culture, its rhythms. It will be a purely human rights album with African sounds.

JS: Any final words for our readers?

EA: We believe in a better world and we believe that art, culture, and sport can bring a radical change and enormous impact. I am calling on my fellow artists : it is time to convey important messages without too much vulgarity. With what we see and hear today in the media, I fear for our young brothers and our children. Regarding the organization, we have planned a campaign which will be launched shortly on networks followed by strong actions, but I would like to already raise awareness through this interview.

Nina Ogot on forging her identity and the role of music in society

This article was written by Peter Choge and originally published by Music In Africa. The article is republished here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial CC BY-NC licence.

Poised is the word you want to employ when describing Nina Ogot’s stage bearing. Perhaps the reason the Kenyan songstress eschews over-the-top displays and the fiery militancy of some of her contemporaries is that she has a more powerful tool at her disposal; a special gift she can deploy the instant she steps on stage.

Nina Ogot.

For many, it is the voice that soars effortlessly over auditoriums, gently caressing both body and soul. It could also be the lively arrangement, the delicate blend of strings and percussion, or the quiet activism of her work – all a product of solid musicianship built in a career spanning over a decade and distilled into three masterfully crafted albums.

Give her music a listen and you will soon discover an artist in control. There is a deliberate attempt to create a sound that is truly representative of her traditional Kenyan roots and urban upbringing. An attempt, if you will, to bottle and preserve the cultural essence that is in danger of being lost.

Whether she was thrust into it by accident or design, Nina Ogot finds herself occupying the position of the high priestess of the Kenyan Afro-acoustic movement – entertaining, educating and even chastising the faithful around the world.

So it is not surprising that the age-old debate on the indivisibility of the artist and society came up in a recent one-one the celebrated singer had with Music In Africa.

MUSIC IN AFRICA: Describe your musical journey

NINA OGOT: I would say my musical journey has been as true as it can be. This is because when I was a child, I already knew that I wanted to make music. So I started with piano lessons at the age of 11 and then shortly after that, at the age of 16, I started to get more curious about the guitar and it became my instrument of choice in my mid-20s, when I chose to take music as a profession. My band started as a trio – two guitarists and a percussionist – but now it’s grown into an eight-piece band.

Who is Nino Ogot the artist and Nina Ogot the individual?

Nina Ogot the artist and Nina Ogot the individual are exactly the same person. I try to ensure that my art reflects my essence 100% and that the people who come to watch me on stage get to know me to some degree. They will know me on a platform that is not necessarily part of my everyday life but my stories are about my everyday life. I try to present that as honestly as I can so that the audience gets the true version of me on stage.

How would you describe your music?

My style is certainly a fusion of elements of tradition and urban sounds from Kenya. Initially, it was called Afro-acoustic and the title stuck. I like modern instrumentation and modern ways of singing injected with components of my urban upbringing in Nairobi and my tradition. So I use a lot of my native Dholuo language in my lyrics. I also use Kiswahili and references from other parts of Kenya.

What do you hope to achieve through music?

If you’re a priest, you use your pulpit to indoctrinate people in a certain way, and when you’re a musician, you have the stage. This stage enables me to connect with people that I would ordinarily never interact with – people of different backgrounds, origins or even generations. So my music is a bridge. It’s a generational bridge. It’s a cultural bridge, and yes, it’s a bridge of emotions and of universes.

What is the current state of Kenyan music?

Kenyan music has certainly grown over time. If you compare the trajectory it’s taken over the past 20 or 30 years, you can see some significant progress. You can also see the role that women are playing in the industry and the fact that they are now acknowledged as peers to their male counterparts. Additionally, artists are able to earn money from their craft.

I would, however, say Kenyan music still has a long way to go because if you look at how we’re represented internationally, we are not really there yet. The systems are also still largely flawed if you consider issues like royalties collections and privacy threats.

What would you consider to be your biggest accomplishment?

I think it is hard to tell because there are so many things that we take for granted yet there are big accomplishments. There are so many challenges we face as artists that make it difficult to sustain a career in the first place. So, to be able to have a career that spans at least 13 years and to still feel hopeful about the future is a great accomplishment to me.

Who do you look up to musically?

That’s a tricky one because I’ve had a lot of influences that are not necessarily Kenyan. And what I realised is that I have to be me to find my own way in order to be a participant and a contributor to the music scene.

I have to be unique and I have to stand up for something that’s authentic. The only way I’ve found to be able to forge my own identity is to sometimes silence other people’s voices and listen to my own voice. Listen to the music that comes from me so that then I can see Nina Ogot. Not Nina trying to be Miriam Makeba.

So I look at other musicians just as samples, however great or small they are. The contribution is still significant if it’s inspirational. And so I’ve had a lot of musicians who’ve not only inspired me but have also given me the desire to be authentically me.

What are some of the challenges facing a Kenyan female artist?

When you look at a lot of platforms you see very few female artists who are playing an instrument or contributing beyond the vocals. It is because people always believe that a man who plays an instrument plays it better than a woman. I’ve been lucky enough that I sing and play instruments, but I know a lot of women who struggle being just instrumentalists. There is also the issue of family. If you want to start a family as a female artist, how do you structure a career around children and a husband and still have a solid career that doesn’t get interrupted?

Do you consider yourself an activist and what is the role of activism in Kenya music?

I certainly consider myself an activist, just not a political activist. Maybe a social activist because I use my music to instigate change to some degree. It’s true that I do have audiences that don’t always understand my lyrics but the intention is that for those who eventually get to be curious enough to want to know, I use my songs to tell stories about society and to reflect the condition of the society. This allows people to really reflect if it’s something we want to change. That is activism.

How can Kenya grow its creative industry?

I think first it’s important to establish what a creative industry is. Does it exist? Absolutely yes! So how do we harness this creativity? That is the question because we have a lot of talent out there but not much is being done to harness it. We first need to develop hubs where artists can go – places where creative talent can be identified, developed and showcased. We also need mentorship programmes to show young people what to do and how to manage their artistic careers. Then we need systems that manage talent ethically and professionally to enable artists to benefit economically from their work – not the flawed and corrupt ones currently in place.