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
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, 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.”
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
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.
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.”
“I had always said, that the only time I would ever consider singing ‘Imagine’ would be if it was the ‘End of the World’,”
The son of the activist Beatle has broken his vow to never perform his father’s legendary ode to peace.
Current tragedies happening in Ukraine motivated Julian Lennon to perform ‘Imagine’ for the first time ever, as part of the Stand Up For Ukraine campaign, a global fund-raising effort broadcast from Warsaw, Poland.
“As a human, and as an artist, I felt compelled to respond in the most significant way I could.”
“The $4.6 billion (4.1 billion euros) in grants and $5.5 billion (5 billion euros) in loans will support refugee efforts in Ukraine in providing accommodation and economic security, as well as support for grassroots organizations and UN agencies working with refugees and internally displaced people.”
At the time of this article’s publication, the invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s Russian forces has been going on for well over a month. In an unprecedentedly short time frame, millions of Ukrainians have fled the country as refugees, and millions more have been displaced internally. The names Mariupol and Kharkhiv now bring to mind the terrors that citizens have endured for weeks throughout this constant onslaught of cruelty and indiscriminate violence—weeks without electricity, heat, and water, with supplies running out and humanitarian corridors thwarted time and time again.
The name Bucha brings to mind images of streets lined with murdered civilians whose hands were tied behind their backs before they were shot in the head. The world looks on as the casualties and war crimes mount, as news (real news) of Ukrainian resistance inspires the support of billions of people around the globe, and as Russia scrambles to quell domestic dissent and widening rifts in the Kremlin in order to maintain a grip on its state-sponsored disinformation rhetoric.
While attacking smaller sovereign neighbor nations is an old trick in the book of autocratic tyranny, the scales of both the global disruption and global resolve in response to Putin’s ludicrous invasion are stark and chilling, and remind us how divorced from reality the actions and behaviors of tyrants are.
Whether in times of peace or war, art serves at the very least as the granular voices of a larger identity over time, and at most, as an utterly necessary spiritual and humanistic survival mechanism. At Shouts, we have been making a concerted effort to connect with Ukrainian musicians and artists to share their work and help promote them in a time of crisis and conflict. I have recently had the pleasure and privilege of connecting with Artem Dudko—guitarist and vocalist of the Kyiv-based psych fuzz band, Straytones, who was also a guitarist and lead vocalist of the hardcore band, Backchat.
From his family’s apartment in a Kyiv suburb, Artem and I had a Zoom call that spanned a gracious two hours and covered a wide range of topics including the war and its pretexts, the many forms of Ukrainian courage, humor, and endurance, and all manner of musical musings related to his projects. You can stream and purchase Straytone’s most recent release, Magic Green River Swimmin’ & Stunning Tarzanka Experience, here, where you will find that the summery sound of Straytones reflects precisely what the cover art portrays: an intricate riot of color, texture, melody, and psychedelic fun.
Please consider doing the band the service of buying their work, and please share and promote their Bandcamp page as widely as you can! It is my utter pleasure to share our conversation with the Shouts community.
Nathaniel Youmans: The Straytones Bandcamp page describes your style as “Kyiv Psych Fuzz.” Tell me more about this scene.
Artem Dudko: “Kyiv Psych Fuzz,” obviously, is not a real genre. We decided to use this term because we thought it’s not as beaten as garage/psychedelic rock. There are really no other bands that would rely on the name Kyiv Psych Fuzz as a genre, so we tend to think that this should remain our own wheezing self-determination! Straytones’ music is quite unique for Ukraine. There are, however, quite a few bands that are more or less close to what we play, though most of them lay into the stoner/psychedelic/doom realm. Here’s a list of bands that we like: Somali Yacht Club, Stoned Jesus, Esquizet, Milktuth, La Horsa Bianca, Risin’ Sabotage, Shiva the Destructor, Sherpa the Tiger, Me`Leron, VOVK, Kasu Weri, The Tea Ship, Night on Fire, KAT, Small Depo, Ritual Service, Stars & Mellow, and Pree Tone, to name a few…
Much of the psychedelic scene in Ukraine started somewhere around 2007-2008 (with bands like Slow Ride Home based in Kyiv), around the music-enthusiast forum neformat.com.ua., which was sort of an educational platform for those seeking new music in the dial-up internet era. This website and forum really helped a lot of Ukrainian musicians and listeners in pre-social media times. A whole community was built around that website and forum, and a scene started growing and evolving. Bands like Stoned Jesus and Somali Yacht Club also appeared because of Neformat, and then the rest became simple: more bands, bigger scene, better music, better festivals.
NY: What is the origin story of Straytones? How did the band come to be, and what’s your status right now?
AD: Straytones started in 2012, but in the first few years it was not really a serious project. My friend Denis, who also had a post-metal band called Uprising Fomalhaut, once showed me a live show of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and a few songs from the Black Keys, and we decided that we wanted to play something like that. So we started searching for a drummer, and found a girl named Marina on the same Neformat forum, who was looking for a garage rock band. Marina knew more than both of us regarding the real 1960s garage rock. We had one rehearsal, then went to the nearest bar, got some tequila, and Straytones were born.
It was a sort of back pocket project for me, though, because I was concentrating on the hardcore/metal band I was playing in, Backchat. With Backchat, we originally recorded the album in 2014, and released it five years later in 2019. From 2014 on, Straytones became the more relevant project for me, not only in terms of general activity but also because I started listening to older non-metal music. I was deeply interested by the 60s, by psychedelic, country, and jazz music—any kind of music that was not metal. I had been a metal guy since age 13 when I got my first Rammstein record, which was a gift from a classmate. In my 20s I started listening to softer, more sophisticated music—music with a lot of color. This is why, beginning in 2014, Straytones became the more serious band. We started to think about more serious concerts, and then we had some opportunities. In that time, some things changed—for instance, our bass player moved to Sweden with his wife. We became a trio in 2017—Marina, Vlad (who was a guitarist in Backchat), and me—and this is the real beginning of Straytones as a band that tours, plays, and records. 2017 is probably like the second birthday of Straytones. We became much better as a trio, and in 2018 went on tour with Somali Yacht Club. Those guys live in Lviv, but that tour really bonded us together. We are still really good friends. In early 2019 we released an EP called “Beware Dark Lord, Here Comes Bell-Man!” and went on a small tour in Poland with Stoned Jesus, who are also friends and really good guys. Then in fall of 2019 went on our first headlining tour. This was the longest tour Straytones had done, more than 10,000 km; we drove to Spain and back, and there were plenty of funny and not so funny stories. Then, at the end of that period we played at Space Fest in Gdansk, Poland, in December 2019.
After that, Marina said that she wanted to change her life, and she decided to quit the band and move to some place to live by the coast. She’s a good surfer; even Australians admire her! She succeeded; she’s in Panama now. During this war, she is on the informational front. She sends a lot of information, and tries to help in the way she can using the internet. After her, we found a replacement, Eugenia, who played with us up until November 2021. Now we have another person on drums but haven’t officially announced it yet.
NY: Are you and the other band members safe?
AD: Vova (bassist) and his family were able to move from a suburb of Kyiv that was under attack. Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel—as you know, what has been happening there has been fucking insane. He and his family managed to evacuate Irpin and send their son to Kamianets-Podilskyi, which is an old Ukrainian city with a medieval fortress. He and his wife and their dogs and cats are in the car headed somewhere. The last I heard from them was about 30 minutes ago on Facebook, and I know they are fine.
As for me, I’m still here. To be honest, I still think Kyiv is the safest place we can find. We’re somewhere between the central city and the outskirts. There are no strategical points nearby, which might be a good sign. We have enough products for a month. Pretty much everyone knows we don’t have to surrender Kyiv. This is the most crucial thing. This is the heart, and the heart is supposed to beat, and it will beat. That’s why they keep bombing, because we haven’t surrendered. Russians were like “Okay bitches, you don’t want to surrender? Now we’ve got something to eat, now eat shit.” Right before we had this conversation I read the news that the convoy in Irpin, where our bass player lives, was bombed completely, which is also good news for us. So, Kyiv is holding on. I think now it will be a positioning war.
I am really proud of how well our army has been doing. The spirit that they have—this is the main weapon, and this is why Ukraine is still Ukraine and not a part of Russia, because we have this collective spirit. We’ve never been so bonded together as we are now. This keeps the ship afloat. This is why we will win. I want to believe that.
NY: What can you tell me about the general attitude toward Zelensky in Ukraine?
AD: When he was elected two years ago, he won with about 73% of the votes. That was probably the most democratic election we’ve ever had here in Ukraine. (Former President) Petro Poroshenko, who was elected right after the Maidan Revolution, lost the vote significantly. He was very much corrupt, and people understood this and so they wanted to vote for someone else. People voted for Zelensky even though he didn’t have a real political program. He was a comedian, as you know. But people voted for him because there was nobody on his list that they had seen before. His team was all new faces, and the people wanted this. They were tired of the same faces changing around. Then all of a sudden Zelensky started continuing in the direction of what Poroshenko was doing, and everybody was like “WTF? You were saying you were going to imprison him! Everything is going down the drain. What the fuck are you doing?” So that 73% shrank pretty much to 20%. He lost a lot of voters, then the war started.
I would say though, how he has acted has really brought back some respect to him from all over the nation—the world, really. The fact that he has stayed in the country, what he’s saying from the screen, what he’s doing out in the streets, what he’s saying to other leaders—he is acting quite nice, honestly. When I’m standing in the long queue for bread, I’m listening to what people are saying on the street, and many of them talk about how Zelensky has proven himself. Personally I was never really into him but what he is doing in this war is pretty good leadership. He actually acts like a leader, and I like listening to what he is saying. It calms me down and brings more confidence to the situation.
NY: What is your life like outside of Straytones?
AD: I was and am the brand manager in the guitar department in the biggest distribution company that distributes musical instruments in Ukraine. I’ve been working with brands like Fender, Gibson, Marshall, Moog, whatever. So, that was my job. I really liked it and I still like it. I had a lot of accommodations abroad; I’ve been to the United States quite a few times, and pretty much all over the Europe. It was and still is very interesting, but I don’t know what’s going to happen to this business after this war will end. I’m pretty sure the company is going to shrink, but the question is will it disappear completely or no. This is what I was doing for a living.
I was also finishing repairs on my own apartment. I started changing everything myself, beginning from electricity to pipes to painting, making walls, whatever—it took some time. I was on the finishing line—I was waiting for the furniture for the kitchen. It was supposed to be the 12th of March (laughs).
I don’t know what to expect and I don’t even want to think about it yet. I want to cherish what I have, you know? Right now when I’m going to bed, I’m really saying thank you to the universe, to God, that I can still be in my own bed, man, and I’m wishing to wake up in it. So this is it. This is the lesson that I think every Ukrainian is now learning and going through: really cherish what you have, and live the day that you have; try to live in the moment, because it may be the last day of your life, literally. It’s not a joke.
Today, by the way, I’m feeling pretty much relaxed. I think my body and my brain were very tired from the emotional pendulum that I have been in from all the stress. And today, I’m feeling pretty good actually. Even now I’m talking to you and I’m smiling, which is pretty rare these days, honestly (laughs). Seriously. So, thank you for this opportunity to talk about something else besides the war news and just talking about music. It brings me back to feeling normal.
NY: At the very least, we know the world supports Ukraine, even if leaders are not necessarily meeting Zelensky’s requests for a no-fly zone and other big asks. The long-term future of Russia, though, is becoming very bleak in a very different sort of way. What are your thoughts on this, the future of Russia after the war?
AD: The aftermath for Russia after this war will be like pulling back not to the USSR period but even further. At least in the USSR, people had money, they just didn’t have enough products to spend on. There were no imports. People had money, they had education, they had free medicine, they had jobs. There were not many homeless people starving in the USSR either. So these were all pretty good things about the USSR, but at the same time, there was no free speech, only one political party—nothing much you could ever change. You just lived your life and that’s it. And there were no imported goods. Which is what Russia is becoming again now. Right now, we are of course seeing lots of sanctions on Russia. Russia will not have these imports going forward, and they also don’t have this support system that used to be the USSR. There will now be many Russian people without any jobs.
I think this will be a mix of the USSR and a mix of the Russia from the 90s right after it—a lot of gangsters, a lot of weapons, a lot of…bad shit. The 90s were a crazy time for both Ukraine and for Russia. To be honest, for those I hear about and those few people I know in some other cities in Russia, I am not feeling so good about their future. Maybe they will move out of Russia if they have the chance. Nothing good is going to happen for Russia for the next ten years at least. They will just be pulling back. And one thing that is different now is that in the post-Soviet 90s, nobody really hated Russia like they do now. Now it is very different. Now they have to rebuild the system inside the country while the whole world hates them for what they are doing to Ukraine.
NY: Other thoughts on the war, the future, and your part in all this?
AD: Most of the people I know, the musicians, were always against any kind of war, but in this regard some of them are willing to join the militia. Mostly they are into the volunteer movement. They know they don’t have any military experience. Some of them went to the military office asking, “Do you know if I can help in any way?” They exchanged phone numbers and the military basically said, “When it’s time, we’ll call you. Right now get back to your home and do whatever you can to support yourself.” This is the situation. Only a few guys I know joined the army, and not the militia.
I saw a video from a city close to Energodar and the atomic station, Zaporizhzha, the legendary home of the Cossacks. A huge square, full of men—everybody wanted to be given weapons even without military experience. I know people from Zaporizhzha and, trust me, it is like the Pittsburgh of Ukraine. It is a city of Steelers. Imagine a Steeler who wants to get a gun in his hands. They are tough. They will fight for sure. This is part of the Cossack spirit that they have. Really, it is. We remember this.
Of course, I don’t want to go to the front. Because I don’t think there will be use of me as a warrior. I’m not a military person. I can be a cook, I can do some medical things, I can help in any other way, but I’m not sure that I could shoot. But if fortune will give the weapons to my hand then I will have no other choice and I will become a soldier.
You cannot be ready for any of this until it’s already happening. Time will show. If it’s going to happen, if I’ll be in the training camp, if I will need to fight, I will do my best in order to fight best, to be effective in this, and to survive. This is all I can think about. If this is going to be the situation—that I’m already wearing the uniform and have the Kalashnikov, man… Not much to do, just learn how to use it more efficiently and stay alive. This is all you can do. I really hope it’s not going to happen.
NY: What are your thoughts on the ability of art and humor to raise morale during a situation like this?
AD: Right now the art is to make a meme about the war, and Ukrainians are doing pretty fine with that. From day one, there have been so many memes about the war, and they’re still ongoing. This is something that also brings the spirit up because if you don’t laugh at the situation then you will be upset all of the time. You need the reflection—about the guy who stole the tank, or about the witch who was saying “your dick will never stand up if you do not get out from this city,” or from the guy who was taking the bomb with a cigarette in his mouth—all that stuff is in the memes now. And of course the Russian Military Go Fuck Yourselves, all those things, are also depicted in memes. There are plenty of them, and it is a really helpful form of art right now.
But after that, I am pretty sure there will be big exhibitions, there will be some movies about the war, of course. A lot of poems, some memoirs. A lot of songs, really a lot of songs. Regardless of genre, hip hop, pop music, rock music, whatever. The aftermath, culturally, will be very rich. I am pretty sure about that. Really, we cannot live without art.
NY: I want to try to leave on an uplifting note—how do you see Ukrainian music evolving in the aftermath of this war?
AD: Speaking of music specifically, I think many bands will start to write songs in Ukrainian. I was actually just thinking about how the Ukrainian language is very melodic. It’s like the second most melodic after Italian, you know? It’s not as harsh as Russian, even though we are from the same root of languages. Ukrainian songs are rare and the traditional songs are super nice. So I’m thinking about making a Ukrainian album, and I’m pretty sure that we are going to do that. I know that many bands that have been singing either in Russian or maybe in English—they will also try to go into the direction of singing in their native language.
The band KAT from Kharkiv has already started releasing singles in Ukrainian. They are a post-hardcore band, mostly. More into that area. The lyrics are sad, actually. Pretty pessimistic, but this is how they do it. This is their way, and they are pretty nice guys, really. They are fun, they are cool, but this is the kind of music that they want to put the depression inside of, the tensions you have inside of yourself, too. You’re supposed to listen to that music. You can find it on Bandcamp, too. I can send you the link. They are nice guys.
I can speak from Straytones specifically because I think we can make a postwar album that’s not going to be sad, in terms of music. You know, some of the country songs that have very sad lyrics, they usually are put in the pretty major scale of music, so I’m looking forward to moving that way, some sort of a garage-y 60s thing, but with more positive information—this could be about war or about courage or about some hardships or maybe about nothing related to the war anyway. I mean, this will still be a Straytones record; we will not play something like post metal anyway, you know, like something you listen to and just want to die in the bath with your veins slit and blood all over. It’s not going to be that. We are unique to the Ukrainian scene because a lot of bands, even not metal, but more of the psychedelic thing, the stoner music—they dance around the pentatonic thing, which is not a major scale at all. I was always trying to put it in a major way, in a more uplifting mood, you know? I think we did it very well with “Magic Green River…”
NY: Artem, this has been an honor. Thanks so much for taking the time to hang to chat! I wish peace and safety and wellness to you and all Ukrainians.
AD: Thanks a lot for this—how many…two hours of talking? This was like therapy for me. Thanks a lot man! Peace!
Here are some links to visit if you want to donate and support the Ukrainian military, its hospitals and other humanitarian organisations: