Election Reflections: A Voice or Musical Sound

Nigeria Decides 2015

Poets are the conscience of a time

Musicians today are supposed to be the poets of yesterday, given their prominence in popular culture. Unfortunately the lyric is often pathetically unpoetic which is why the instruments are steadily taking dominance over the voice; we don’t want to listen, we just want to dance. Poets of the past were public intellectuals, and poets of the past are also musicians of today. This replacement across time has lead to the conflation of the public intellectual and the musician, which has had a profound impact on the level of influence musicians enjoy over their listeners/fans.

A lot of music has been released in the campaigns of the ongoing Nigerian general election. From Hausa pop music to the urban “Nigerian” music, all have been represented. Most tracks are promoting candidates prior to election but a few that did not fit into that category. One track was literally lionising the Chairman of INEC after the successful presidential election, a few others were celebrating the victory of the president-elect, and I heard only one which was gloating over the loss of the outgoing president. At first glance, it appears that these musicians have something to say to the world. That would be inaccurate without adding the fact that most of the tracks were sponsored. Being commissioned to say something, even if you believe it, is not considered as sharing your opinion. It may be a musical sound, but not a voice in the sense of  “the voice of the people”.

In an interview with BBC Hausa, an interviewed musician welcomed the election season because the demand for sponsored music soared. He mentioned that prior to the campaigns, it would take weeks and months to be sponsored to make a track, but these days he makes up to 3 or 5 tracks a day! At this rate, it means the tracks you hear are only the few that became popular. It is important to note that the business model of Hausa pop music is obviously not very sophisticated, which is easy to pick from the audio production quality, which is also why most weddings are able to sponsor an “album” or two all about the wedding. It also speaks about the cost involved not being high. We can comfortably say that a lot of Hausa pop music are services to be rendered, at a cost, to the requestor (low budget movies, weddings, political and non-political campaigns).

Then there is the side of Nigerian urban music, which is basically referring to the music heavily influenced by what amounts for music in BET, MTV, Reggae and Jazz. As an industry, there is more income, the musical production is higher quality, and the business model is more sophisticated following the footsteps of consumerist and celebrity centred models of major labels in the US. Sophisticated enough to have tours. Like their counterparts in the US, you could invite them to perform for a private party, if you have the right dough; it is probably cheaper in Nigeria comparing the equivalent percentile of artist. Movie actors of Nollywood are considered to belong to the same celebrity pool as the Nigerian urban musicians. These two groups appear together in cause-driven campaigns usually sponsored by NGOs.

This election featured a number of campaign music and videos featuring celebrities from Hausa music and film industries, and also from urban Nigerian music and film industries. It would be misleading to take that as a sign of commitment from them towards political change. It is more accurate to consider them as committed to offering the service they offer best. There was a report that some celebrities got into a public disagreement over the sharing of payment for a campaign video, which suitably appeared in a celebrity gossip website, which also shows that the payment was probably not contractual but rather it was merely a token from the politician, as a king would to performing fools, or politician to sycophants. Then there was the news of celebrities that sang or appeared in video of campaign were out of the country at the time of election, which means they won’t be walking the talk. Of course this assumes that the reported news (which I can’t locate at the moment) are true. Nonetheless, many would agree that many mainstream celebrities in Nigeria are political whores; or more appropriately political servants.

Another campaign music video caught my attention as an advert on Youtube. It is a campaign for the APC gubernatorial candidate in Lagos, Ambode (who has won at the time of this post). The first striking thing is that there is/are artists who are not even indigeneously from Lagos, or probably not registered voters in Lagos, which makes it highly unlikely that there votes will count in Lagos state gubernatorial election; artist for hire?… Sell out?

When an action generally regarded as a sincere expression of personal convictions, is immersed in a highly service based industry of show biz, should the “performers” be stripped off the authority of public intellectuals that they are accorded by default? What about musicians that make “serious” tracks under the reigns of their record labels for the sake of targeting a particular audience? I opine in the affirmative! Service based musicians, at least in their sponsored or marketing tracks, should not be granted the attention of public intellectuals. But they enjoyed it quite considerably this concluding election.

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