The artiste, who made Fadhili Williams’ Malaika a global phenomenon, died in 2008, aged 76. Makeba, the first black African woman to win a Grammy Award, explained it best when she said: “You sing about things that surround you ….
Our surrounding has always been that of suffering from the apartheid and racism that exists in our country. So our music has to be affected by all that.”
The ignoble regime banned songs such as Eddy Grant’s 1988 anti-apartheid reggae anthem, Gimme Hope Jo’anna. Its lyrics represent not only the city of Jo’burg, but also the apartheid government of the time.
Same as Lucky Dube’s 1985 album Rastas Never Die, which was quickly banished for containing lyrics inspired by the anguish and heartache of apartheid.
Later, Dube’s harmonic vocals in songs such as Different Colours, One People were used to unite the country when apartheid was abolished in 1991.
Across in Nigeria, politics and music were like (Delta) oil and the waters of River Niger — they never mixed — as Fela Kuti, the King of the Afrobeat, bitterly learnt.
In 1969, his Koola Lobitos band embraced the political philosophy of Malcom X and addressed the trials, tribulations and contradictions of the Nigerian society in fiery tunes.
Fela’s hard hitting songs, like Zombie, Coffin for Head State and Army Arrangement (the latter which directly attacked Nigerian leadership, government programmes and police brutality), send him to the coolers severally.
As he became more outspoken, Fela declared his compound an independent state and called it The Kalakuta Republic, a commune where him and his band lived. But, in 1977, over 1,000 police officers raided it, stripping, beating and torturing the residents.
Fela was beaten senseless, sustaining a fractured skull and broken bones in the process.
His 82-year-old mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was thrown out from a second floor balcony.
The song Coffin for Head of State blamed the president for his mother’s subsequent death from the savagery.
Fela’s Afrobeat blended elements of West African high life music, traditional Yoruba rhythms with intense political lyrics in such songs as Jeun Ko’ku (Eat and Die), and delivered, in call-and-response, a vocal style that accounted for his folk hero status among Nigeria’s poor.
Amnesty International’s “prisoner of conscious” died in 1997, aged 59. Zimbabwean musicians have, too, faced the music, and fewer have sung “hotter funk” than Thomas Mapfumo, currently exiled in America for rubbing the Mugabe government the wrong way with his satirical, hard hitting songs.
Marima Nzara (You Have Reaped Poverty) is a scathing attack on the Mugabe government’s land redistribution policy, Huni is a strong warning to Mugabe that “if you continue pushing people around they will inevitably revolt against you”, while Mamvemve talks about how the country has been trashed.
Disaster is self-explanatory, and was promptly banned. And though the “Lion of Zimbabwe” has been awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Zimbabwe, his music is never played on radio.
Kenyan artiste Eric Wainaina’s Nchi Ya Kitu Kidogo, a song about rampant official corruption in Kenya, caused discomfort among government officials whenever it was performed live.
But, although the national broadcaster shunned it for years, it didn’t get Wainaina cooling his lyrical heels in the slammer. Funny how, after the 1998 terrorist bombing of Nairobi and the 2007 post-election madness, it was Wainaina’s Kenya Only that seemed to unite and put sanity to a confused nation.
Little wonder, then, that it was widely used in electronic adverts to urge Kenyans to vote wisely during the referendum.
But it is not just in Kenya where such happens.
When terrorists brought down New York’s World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, Amber Waves of Grain, Battle Hymn of the Republic and God Bless America were sang by senators, traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and ordinary citizens who kept candle-lit vigils outside the White House.
These songs were also played non-stop over the radio, television and the Internet. But, during Kenya’s repressive years now happily gone by, musicians were often detained, jailed, tortured or their music banned from the airwaves.
In the 1960s, for instance, Joseph Kamaru’s Ndari Ya Mwarimu (The Teacher’s Lover), in which he criticised teachers who fell in love with their students, was banned by the Kenyatta government.
Kamaru, now 71, was at it again when popular politician J M Kariuki was murdered in 1975. His JM, a stirring number that rode on the storm of countrywide fear and unrest, joined the chorus of protest following the death of the popular politician.
Kitanga Boys Band from Machakos did a moving tune by the same name. Come the ’80s and Sylvestre Omondi’s Baba Otonglo, a number on the rising cost of living, was banned because it was deemed to have made a mockery of that year’s national budget.
So, why is music so powerful?
Well, from haunting freedom songs to sycophantic ones, music and politics have had one long and tumultuous courtship.
Politicians know music has the power to sway, seduce, indoctrinate, provoke, inflame, silence or even advance agendas of power. They know popular music has ways of articulating the political will of the oppressed.
It can reach them better than ideologies carried in books or works of poetry and drama, their literary power notwithstanding.
In Politics in Music, Courtney Brown informs us that “we listen to music not only to be entertained.
We listen to understand ourselves both individually and collectively. Yet it is precisely because music is so entertaining that it carries such great potency for political expression…. We are both political and musical creatures.” Indeed, in repressive regimes where free Press is gagged, artistes are remain the few
Reggae’s protest lyrics, for example, knotted a nutty dread with the government when renegade soldiers identified with its militant message during the 1982 coup attempt in Kenya.
On the morning of August 1, soldiers took over the streets of Nairobi in Land Rovers mounted with speakers blaring the songs of Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff.
Angered by the shameless militancy of the Carribbean beat, the government banned reggae from national radio for dreadlocked years until Jeff Mwangemi brought it back in the early ’90s through his Reggae Time music programme on KBC English Service.
The same thing happened in Rwanda in 1994, when soldiers took over the capital, Kigali, with Tracy Chapman’s Talk About the Revolution as their anthem of rebellion.
Across the divide, and to appease the powers that be, some African musicians opted to compose sycophantic songs, blithe propaganda actually, which was passed off as “patriotic” music.
Locally, there was Kelly Brown’s Sisi Kwa Sisi that showered praise on former president Daniel arap Moi and the ‘progressive’ state of the country. Others were Kenya Blue Stars’ poignant Ewe Baba Moi, which crooned, among a string of other pontifications, that “even the fishes of the sea and birds of the air” sang Moi’s praises.
The political power of music was perfected during national holidays, when Kenya Prison’s Band and the Boniface Mghanga-fronted Muungano Choir entertained Kenyans with Fimbo ya Nyayo, Kenya Kipenzi and Baba Moi, the latter of which, though flattering, oozed with choral artistry on how Moi’s “Fimbo ya Nyayo yatuongoza kwenda mbele.”
Foreigners weren’t left behind, as Mbilia Bel’s Baba Moi and Mangelepa’s Ewe Mtukufu attest. Mbilia Bel and Mangelepa came from DR Congo, then Zaire, where Mobutu Sese Seko was ‘Kuku wa Zabanga’, or the Cockerel that Crows!