As all other art forms, music is a medium for communication; messages in form of thoughts, opinions, stories and experiences, shared by artist to his listeners. Some artists pursue societal challenges which their communities face on a daily basis, invoking the consciousness of their listeners to these issues.We barely have enough awards recognizing artists and songs for standing out in this category; most socially conscious songs/artists, which is egregious, because in fact this is a noble pursuit, as music is a powerful universal language employed to form, shift or calibrate the mind of its listener. The artists have in their arsenal, a weapon that can be wielded to influence an entire generation.
Whilst none can compare to him, we’ve seen some young afro-pop/beat acts step in since the much revered FelaAnikulapo in this respect. This article will chronicle the top 5 artists that have been most socially conscious in the past decade.
At number 5 is a man best described as an epitome of grass-root socio-political agitation (music wise). Growing up in the slums of Ajegunle, Lagos state, African China (real name Chinagoro) had a first-hand experience of struggle of the lower class. The reggae performer rose to prominence shortly after he released a debut album titled Crisis in 2002. The song crisis which the album adopted its title from was a narrative about a struggling young man from the lower class of the society, trying to make a way through hostile economic environment. Though his songs send out clear messages about the society, he refutes the claim that he’s some kind of political agitator; he says “I don’t see myself attacking the government with my music. I am only but a social crusader. In that sense, my songs center on the happenings around me”-interview culled from stayaround.com.
In 2004 he dropped his second studio album, Mr President featuring the track MrPresident,whose lyrics contained robust political message agitating for good governance and infrastructures for the commoners. The song, though was released when digital distribution still felt futuristic and far-fetched (in Nigeria). The album notwithstanding did tremendously well, cutting across all tribes and aesthetics, as if to prove itself as the scriptures to a newly discovered faith, the young and old alike sang along to the melodious reggae record.
MI Abaga comes in at number four. His collaboration with 2face on Nobody where 2face carries the hook singing ‘if nobody talks about you, then you’re nobody, whether na true or na lie…stop existing and start living’. MI went on, on how the industry and people in it would try as much as they can to put your back to the ground, and how magazines control the people’s thoughts- if city people write, city people read– but ultimately, believing in yourself is all that matters. However, this song is not the most evocative from him, that honor would be conferred on his first single crowd mentality in 2006. He spoke of how we allow ourselves be controlled by the crowd, like a lazy fat sedated mind or a ‘zombie’. The song is fraught with sarcasm that it would give listeners an involuntary cerebral work out.
His tribute song Wild Wild West to his adopted home state Jos (contrary to popular believe, he’s actually from Taraba, North-East Nigeria), is also worth mentioning here. Themed on a despairing, poignant, grotesque scenery-broken glasses and blood stained street floors, dark clouds- MI is heart broken by the plethoric destruction of his beautiful city J-town, caused by religious and tribal disputes.
At number three is 2face Idibia, starting off his solo career in 2005, he has shown us that we can count on him to speak out on societal issues that bothers us all. His debut solo effort, face 2 face is still his most successful work till date, going platinum around the entire continent and brought him follower-ship from all over and beyond Africa. Although the album owed its success to other tracks, holy pass is the song that fits the purpose of this piece. The track carried convoluted thoughts and enigmatic lines, such that patience and deep reasoning is required to catch the message being passed by Mr Innocent Idibia.
He’s since kept up with the responsibility bestowed upon him by himself to look out for and talk about the society. Take for instance the For Instance song on his grass to gracealbum (2006) where he imagined himself as a political ruler and how he’ll undo the evils the politicians had created.
If you mix a bit of Sade Adu, some Erika Badu with a little Lauryn Hill, what do you get? You get this persona on the list as a close second; Nneka. Merely mentioning her name is evocative of a strong female activist. The Nigerian/German RnB/Rap/Soul/reggae musician and songwriter/guitarist, is so immense in social issues, her songs stresses issues on capitalism, poverty and war and are often loaded with moral and biblical messages and references. Her debut album Victim of the truth released in 2005 was according to UK’s Sunday times “the most criminally overlooked album”, comparing it favorably to Lauryn Hill’s the miseducation. The lead single, uncomfortable truth basically preaches love and condemns war. The beautiful young African woman is unsurprisingly also a humanitarian, giving back to the society whenever and as much as she can, she says “I hope that what I am today is of positive benefit to other people”.
The title of her second studio album no longer at ease was taken from the Nigerian writer Professor Chinua Achebe’s book. This reflects the intent and content of the whole album. Though she grew up in the south-southern part of Nigeria till about the age of 19 when she left for her University education in Germany, the singer came to find her true identity and gained black consciousness when she was there among the Europeans, she says “living in Germany, Africanized me”.
In 2012 she released soul is heavy, a song with some “heavy” political statement referencing Nigerian political activists and freedom fighters, Isaac Boro, political activist/environmentalist Ken Sarowiwa. She also sampled the legendary FelaKuti ‘army arrangement’ and ‘teacher no teach me nonsense’.
The one and only naija ninja, sound sultan easily tops this list. The media shy afro-pop star had a first taste of showbiz while rhyming on Baba D’s show (on TV) in the late 90’s. His first single announcing him to the population was loaded with strong socio-political message. Jagbajantis off his debut album kpsheeeeew was a classic tune, on which he re-invented the mathematical formula B-O-D-M-A-S to re address the social conformations we were used to. The song was a sing along for kids too, and what better age to evoke the awareness of individuals. The 6ft plus pro basketball player took a full career shift with the unprecedented success of his debut album, and went on to release a staggering 5 more till date; textbook, naija 007, SS4, back from the future, and the most recent me my mouth and eye. And every single one of this records contain evocative elements, such that it would be time and space consuming to analyze every one of them; Koleyewon featuring Baba D (his big brother) and Faze of the defunct plantashunboiz. Sultan paints a picture of university graduates being promised a better life after school but are faced with the unsavory reality of no gainful employment. Sultan then concluded that if he tried for a year with no luck, he’ll leave his degree behind and move into the street to look at other avenues to get his revenue. In reality this was what he did, fast-forward 10 yrs after he obtained a university degree-at the Lagos State University-in geography and regional planning, sultan has successfully sold out in the showbiz.
Naija 007 is still my favorite work from him till date and the first track in the album titledAnimal farm is worthy of mentioning, by the title you get a clue of what the song is all about if you read the novel(that goes by the same title) written by the English author George Orwell. He delivered his lines in a sonorous but somber mood. Of course we remember his song Motherland; king of my country featuring wyclef jean; 2010 with MI Abaga and not to forget bushmeat featuring w4 and Mr 2face Idibia. Like I said, it’ll be time and space consuming to talk about these songs one after the other, but be assured that all of them are as conscious as a teenager after 2 cans of redbull.