Editor’s Note: Joey Akan is an award-winning music journalist based in Lagos, Nigeria. He is a public relations consultant and commentator on African music and pop culture.
The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.
One of Nigeria’s biggest music stars, Falz, released a video this weekend as a cover version of Childish Gambino’s viral video, ‘This is America.’
The new version is titled ‘This is Nigeria,’ and it has generated a storm online, including a reaction from hip-hop musician and entrepreneur Diddy, who shared it on his Instagram page, propelling the video to worldwide recognition.
Falz, (real name Folarin Falana) has gained plaudits for tackling social ills in a country where pop stars rarely get political. Musicians tend to avoid political commentary, partly due to an ingrained fear of persecution from the powerful political class.
Falz’s ‘This is Nigeria,’ embodies the revolutionary and rebel spirit of Fela Anikulapo Kuti before him. Fela Kuti, the pioneer of the Afrobeat genre, was famous for his political activism during the country’s era of military dictatorships.
From his records ‘International Thief Thief’ (ITT) to ‘Zombie,’ Kuti exhibited a bold defiance against the Nigerian government and other corrupt officials of his time. Fela was a raging supporter of human rights, and his records, - often filled with verbal attacks - were against Nigeria’s military government in the 70’s.
It came at a great personal cost to him; he was frequently imprisoned and his mother was thrown off a balcony by an unknown Nigerian soldier during a raid.
After the passing of Fela, his sons Femi and Seun Kuti have carried on some of his activism in their individual music careers, but Afrobeat, as a genre of music has largely become niche.
Falz is known globally for his comedy-flavored hip hop hits but could he take on the political music mantle and fill the gap left by Fela?
The singer has a law degree and is the son of prominent Nigerian lawyer and human rights activist, Femi Falana, so this suggestion is not as far-fetched as it sounds.
It is also not the first time that the rapper has included social commentary in his music with previous hits ‘Confirm’ and ‘Child of the World,’ so it would appear that the apple does not fall far from the tree, as the saying goes.
While the concept for the ‘This is Nigeria,’ video isn’t original, what Falz did was internalize the message, pass it through his own artistic filter and bring it home to Nigeria to highlight the country’s numerous social ills.
Almost as if to awaken Nigerians from their complacent slumber of acceptance.
“The primary motivation was to trigger an awakening among the Nigerian people about the numerous political and social ills that we constantly face as a country. And more importantly to spark a reaction in the positive direction,” says Falz via email.
With the help of stuntmen and extras, Falz walks us step by step through Nigeria’s major problems, central to this is what many perceive to be inefficient leadership by the government of President Muhammadu Buhari.
Many believe he has failed to deliver on its promises of improving Nigerian lives and fixing the economy. which slid into a recession two years ago and is slowly starting to emerge out of it.
Nigeria is awash with petrodollars but much of this money does not trickle down to the average man and woman on the street. According to the World Poverty Clock, 82 million of the 180 million population (42.4 percent), live in extreme poverty.
Other problems include the country’s opioid crisis, normalization of insecurity such as frequent Boko Haram bombings and kidnapping of schoolgirls such as the Chibok girls.
Added to this incendiary mix is the country’s strained ethnic and tribal relations, a lack of dependable power supply, poor infrastructure, a trigger-happy police force, the popularity of advance fee fraud, (locally known as Yahoo boys) and exploitation of the citizenry by some clergymen.
A national mirror
The first thing you notice when you watch Falz’s ‘This is Nigeria,’ video is the strongest message contained in the video; Nigeria is a lawless country, guided by a constitution that is treated like an honorary document.
That’s why the first man, dressed in traditional Fulani attire would switch from being a happy musician minding his business, to a murderer in an instant. He abandons his Goje (popularly known as the ‘Hausa Guitar) for a machete, and instantly moves towards another helpless citizen who he kills without mercy.
It is this type of imagery that makes the video so powerful.
This is the first time in the recent history of the local pop scene that an artist with the influence and credibility of Falz has released such material.
While many commentators in the local space have been quick to dismiss it on the basis of it being a cover version, it doesn’t take away from the core message; Nigeria is a flawed country, with multi-faceted problems.
Falz captures this using cinematic techniques and concludes, just like the source material, by failing to proffer a solution.
Perhaps that is the point he’s trying to make. It is a national mirror, created to make Nigeria stare at itself and its problems, one more time.
Falz’s ‘This is Nigeria’ video and its impact has generated conversations around the world, and acts as a reminder of the power behind music, and how it can be used more effectively to inspire change.
It shows that contrary to popular opinion among local talents, there is a demand for conscious music.
Capturing their pain
Many musicians should follow his lead, and create art to reflect the times and the pulse of the people. While there are valid opinions against chasing activism as the sole focus of African music, the ability to balance it out, and create conscious music, while also feeding the people’s desire to escape is a crucial skill.
Falz’s video suggests that, as Nigeria moves forward, its musicians have a huge responsibility on their shoulders to create art that amplifies the state of the nation, and ultimately improves the society that nurtured them.
Their music is created for communities that are massively affected by these problems.
Ultimately, it shouldn’t only provide leisurely relief. It should capture their pain too.