1.1       Background to the Study


“Try to imagine the Civil Rights Movement without “We Shall Overcome,” or the opposition to the Vietnam War without “Give Peace a Chance”’ (Zax, 2011).


From antiquity to the contemporary African society, music and other arts such as dance, theatre, poetry, literature, painting, and sculpture have been recognised as dynamic forces and useful strategies for fighting tyrannical and authoritarian regimes. As methods of peacemaking and peace-building, music, dance and drama had long provided the traditional society the most treasured means by which people or individuals could openly protest and express their grievances whenever confronted with such occasions or situations through such physical displays but short of armed conflict. This practice also reduces the prospects for what could have ignited violent protests and consequent conflicts as much of contemporary Africa has been witnessing in recent times.

These useful methods of conflict management had been “adulterated and in some areas, wiped out by the forces of colonialism including religious psycho-war forces” (Nwolise, 2005). However, Falola (2012) argued, “European domination of Africa did not succeed in killing the music and dance, the stories and festivals, the aesthetics and others that have continued in various forms and reinvented into others”. Rather, “creativity provides the opportunity to create a counter discourse to hegemonic representations of blackness. Be they artists, singers, or poets, creativity allows black people to fight back with disdain, anger, and rationalisation” (Falola 2012: 3). Omojola (2006) cited an instance of how the Ebre women society of the traditional Ibibio women of the South-South part of Nigeria, perform Ebre music during its annual ceremonies to “express themselves and assert their rights in a male dominated society. Thus, Ebre music is, in addition to its moral tone, characterised by feminist songs of protest”.  Also among the Ga and Akan people in the coastal belt and Brong areas of Ghana, protest music forms part of the annual rituals of cleansing; a forum for expressing ill feelings, public opinions, and open criticism of those in authority as Nketia (1982) has documented.

One could contemplate if there is anything African and non-western about the uses of music along with other art forms as struggles for either fighting tyrannical regimes or protesting against unpopular, oppressive or burdensome conditions. To be sure, the phenomenon is a universal one, and transcends all times and climes. Recall the words of Zax (2011) quoted above for opening the study, “Try to imagine the Civil Rights Movement without ‘We Shall Overcome,’ or the opposition to the Vietnam War without ‘Give Peace a Chance.’” The two events referred to in that quotation took place in the 60’s, and pertained to the United States of America. As regards that same case, though going back further still, the literature records the considerable role of the Negro Spirituals in the struggle of the Negroes (later Black or African-Americans) for emancipation from slavery beginning from the 19th century with the Spirituals such as:

When Israel was in Egypt’s land,

Let my people go.

Oppressed so hard they could not stand,

Let my people… (Anon)


This obviously invoked analogy of the Exodus from Egyptian bondage taking place c.1447 B.C., and being the foundation narrative of the Jewish nation. There are, indeed, threads linking the core theme of those Negro Spirituals, meaning “African-American Music as rebellion” (see www.arts.cornell/…/03sullivan.pdf), through the Civil Rights Movements of Dr. Martin Luther King and others with their refrain of “we shall overcome”, to the “liberalisation” as the battle cry of Latin America’s School of Liberation Theology of the 20th century, to Black South Africa’s “Songs of Freedom” used as part of the struggles against the oppressive apartheid rule from the late 40’s to early 90’s. In contemporary African societies, as in other world cultures, music alongside other arts has continued to play significant role as vehicle for conflict resolution and peace building on the one hand and as a medium of political protest on the other hand. Many African playwrights of the contemporary era have used poetry and theatre as medium of political protest. For instances, the South African playwright Athol Fugard fought apartheid through his political plays such as “The Island” and “Sizwe Bansi is dead”. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan novelist and playwright, contributed immensely to his country’s struggle and the liberation of Kenya from colonial rule with his works “Weep Not, Child” and “Petals of Blood” being among the most memorable. Notable Nigerian playwrights who used the performing arts as the medium of protest include Wole Soyinka, the author of “The Trials of Brother Jero” and “A Dance of the Forest”; and Femi Osofisan, the author of “Morountodun” and “Once Upon Four Robbers”. Also, very significant in the Nigeria case had been the folk operas of the acclaimed father of the contemporary Nigerian theatre, Hubert Ogunde, in fighting social injustice and oppressive political system. Some of his folk operas include “Strike and Hunger”, which according to Yerima (2005) was produced as a reaction to the 1945 general strikes in Nigeria, and “Bread and Bullet”, which was a protest medium against the police shooting and killing of the Enugu striking miners. His opera, “Yoruba Ronu” actually got him into trouble with both the federal Nigerian government and the Western regional authorities during the last four years of the Tafawa Balewa prime ministership.

Theatrical stage has been found to be a rendezvous of public opinion, although as some writers have pointed out, there are limitations to the use of this medium. Some of the limitations of the stage were pointed out by Innes (1972) while describing the role of Erwin Piscator in promoting political theatres in Germany around the 1920s. Innes wrote thus:

traditionally the stage has been seen as a mirror of the world. But the individual actor is its prime constituent, which limits it to the particular, while the essentials of twentieth century existence are abstract: power resides in bureaucracies, not kings, and conflicts are between masses not duellists. This means that theatre appears incapable of dealing with the significant aspects of life at a time when the demand is for relevance… (Innes, 1972: 1).

Protest is not an uncommon phenomenon of the human society. It is normal for human needs to continue to increase according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Maslow 1954). However, when and where there are little or no corresponding resources to meet such needs on the one hand, or when and where there are resources to meet the needs but government fails to meet them on the other hand, groups or individuals in society become agitated and are more likely to rise in protest which is part of man’s own defence mechanism in crisis situation. Protest is as ubiquitous as conflict. People protest in their homes over unresolved issues of unkind or unfriendly treatment or situations. Some protests occur at the work places over unmet and lingering demands regarding salary among other working conditions, while the most popular protests occur within the political structures of the nation-state. When governments become nonchalant, unresponsive and irresponsible to rising demands for improving their standards of living through the provision of basic social amenities and infrastructures like good roads, qualitative education, drinkable water, and the intangibles such as preservation of fundamental human rights and most importantly provisioning of human security, political protests become an almost inevitable occurrence. By the same token, imposition of regulations, laws, and levies considered by others as brutal, burdensome, unjust, vindictive or discriminatory can also spark off protests (Adekanye, 2007).

From the pre-colonial times, through the colonial to post-colonial era in African setting, groups and individuals in societies had used migration as a form of revolt (Asiwaju, 1976; Bastia, 2011; Abdullahi, 2011; Rodgers and Ingram, 2014; Kerevica, 2014; Motyl, 2014; Loyd and Mountz, 2014; Fisher, 2014;). Richard (1973) documented the migration of Banyarwanda immigrants to Buganda and of the Rwandan migrants seeking to escape the repressive tenets of Belgians colonial rule. Also, the harsh realities of the colonial situation in the 1930s caused the peasant farmers of the Niger Delta of Nigeria to flee the repressive measures of taxation and force labour and move into relatively peaceful areas (Aghalino, 1996).  Bilger and Kraler (2005); Loyd and Mountz, (2014) have also confirmed that migration remains an important feature of protest under colonialism and the post-colonial Africa like the rest of the world.

Sometime in January 2012, many Nigerians trooped out of their homes to protest the sudden removal of oil subsidy and the consequent increase in the pump price of Premium Motor Spirit. It was intended to be a peaceful protest which eventually turned to rally, especially in Lagos state, where Fela’s music filled the air and it was a contemplative moment to publicly and collectively listen to the philosophical messages of the music on the political issues punctuated with speeches by notable Nigerian human rights activists. Shockingly, the government’s response to the people’s agitation was to use maximum force to disperse the protesting Nigerians which resulted in the killing of some and wounding of many of the protesters by the Nigeria’s police force. This situation is not peculiar to Nigeria alone but a common experience all over Africa where the African rulers use the instrumentality of government to suppress, oppress and intimidate the citizens. Similarly, 34 protesting miners were brutally massacred on August 16, 2012 by the South African police. Many more have been killed and several others arrested. This is a reflection of the 1973 police massacre of 11 South African miners. This situation provokes the question, ‘has the post apartheid South African government brought with it the inhumane propensity of the apartheid era?’ This ugly experience is worrisome and a common place in many African states where governments and their coercive apparatuses pose major threats to human security.

The most recent wave of protests that has continued to dominate the Nigerian and international scenes was the #BringBackOurGirls protests in support of the over 200 Chibok school girls kidnapped by the terrorist group, Boko Haram on the night of 14th April, 2014. Nigeria, like many other African states has continued to experience incessant political crises engendered by protracted military dictatorial rule. This has had serious consequences such as political violence, stifled economic growth, rising poverty level, inter and intra ethnic rivalries which was consequent upon unwholesome struggle for political power as a means of ensuring resource control. This situation and similar ones across the African continent have engendered protests by individuals and civil organisations using various means such as hunger strikes, self immolation (culturally inappropriate in sub-Saharan Africa) music, theatre, strike actions, lock-out, riots, election boycotts, civil disobedience, withdrawal of support and emigrations succinctly described by Adekanye(2007) as “voting with their feet” (p.147).

Many scholars have researched into various forms of political protests and especially political behaviours that engender such protest (Eesuola, 2011; Useem and Useem, 2001; Olafsson, 2007; Hollander and Einwwohner, 2004; Eyck, 2001; and Freeman , 1999; and Herring, 1989). However a few studies have focused on in-depth study of the role of music as a potent instrument of political protest, especially in Africa where music has long been known to occupy such an important place within the socio-cultural and political milieu. There are of course many musicians all over the world who have used their music as instrument of protest. For example, the Vietnam war era witnessed the springing of several anti-war or Peace movements in Europe where music served as the medium for condemning bloody wars and urging the need for peace. Notable among the Vietnam anti-war musicians were Peter Seeger, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Edwinn Starr, Joe McDonald, Grace Slick, Terry Talbot, Robert Lamm–Terry Kath, Neil Young, Steve Goodman, and John Lennon whose “Give peace a chance” became a peace anthem.

Others still, such as Bob Dylan (for which he won the Nobel Prize recently), Harry Belafonte, The Weavers, and Josh White used protest music to support the Civil Rights Movement in the US; while Black musicians in Diaspora, like Bob Marley, used their music to condemn colonial mentality and to propagate Pan-Africanism and Afrocentric ideologies. Several African musicians have used music, both traditional and popular as medium of protest. Ayo Olukotun (2002) mentioned a few Yoruba poets and musicians such as Olanrewaju Adepoju, Kunle Ologundudu, Opeyemi Fajemilehin, Ebenezer Obey, and Sikiru Ayinde Barrister, who vented societal grievances against the Nigeria military state. Other traditional and popular poets and musicians identified in the Olukotun study include Sunny Okosun, Idrees Abdukareem, and Fela Anikulapo Kuti, all from Nigeria, Emmanuel Jal from Sudan, Hugh Masakeila and Miriam Makeba from South Africa.

Of the artistes just mentioned, the legendary South African singer, activist, and opponent of the Apartheid regime, Miriam Makeba who was known while in life as “mama Africa and the Empress of African song”, in her repertoire of songs actually had a lot in common with Fela’s protest music, in terms of both content and context. She was already on the front burner of Malcom X’s political ideology of Pan-Africanism in the 1960s. A consummate protest musician and civil rights activist, Miriam Makeba campaigned against the South African system of apartheid. The South African government responded by revoking her passport in 1960, her citizenship and right of return from a musical tour abroad in 1963, that kept her in exile for the next thirty years. She was not to return home from exile until 1990 after the fall of apartheid government. Her protest through the medium of music transcended the apartheid era as she was committed to fighting all acts/forms of injustice, inequality, oppression, discrimination, and inhumanity wherever found. To be sure, Makeba’s whole personal life history has been described as one about “an epic tragedy of injustice, domestic upheaval, exile, and torment”


Until her death on the 9th of November 2008, during a concert in Italy organised to support Roberto Saviano’s protest against the Camorra, a mafia-like organisation, local to the region of Campania, Makeba remained indefatigable in her struggle. Among her numerous popular songs are Pata Pata, Jikele Maweni(Retreat Song), Malaika, and N’kosi Sikelel’ iAfrica (God Bless Africa). The last song, whose lyrics were first composed and rendered into music by Enoch Sontonga in 1897, and was one of the war songs of the ANC during the anti-Apartheid struggle, became in 1994 part of South Africa’s hybrid National anthem after the transition to multi-racial democracy.

The music of Nigeria’s Fela Anikulapo Kuti has become one of the most prominent for illustrating the role that music along with other art forms play as a means of political protest in contemporary Africa. But this is not because Fela’s music is more melodious than others or has had better lyrics than the rest, but because of its consistent onslaught on dictatorial governments, oppression, domination, inequality, and human rights violation under all regimes holding sway in his native country, whether military or civilian. Also, his music was internationally known for its underpinning political philosophy which he often champions as offering the vision about a better alternative to tyrannical, despotic and authoritarian rule.  Fela Anikulapo-Kuti did not only sing the songs but was actively involved in the political struggles that ensued.


1.2       Statement of the Problem

In recent times, scholars and well-meaning Africans have continued to decry the impoverishing conditions of bad governance, economic mismanagement and corruption, collapsing infrastructures, and declining state capacity that is general in much of contemporary Africa. As pointed out in the background study, various strategies or methods including violent and non-violent ones were adopted and utilized to protest their dissatisfaction and grievances. Pressure groups such as the labour unions have used strike actions, public rallies, and occasional outright violent riots as methods of political protest. Some protesting individuals too have resorted to the use of hunger strikes, acts of self immolation and suicide among others as instruments of political protest. Unfortunately, in most of the cases, such efforts seem not to have yielded much success in engendering good governance for the continent of Africa, but often resulted in many of the protesting groups or individuals being further brutalised, and a number of these even physically eliminated by many African governments.

While the use of art forms such as music, dance, drama, poetry, literature, painting, and sculpture as methods of traditional African conflict resolution has been considerably studied as shown in the ensuing literature review, the role of music as a tool of political protest has been understudied. Though some scholarly works on Fela Anikulapo Kuti exist, the interests and emphases of these works are different from this study. None of these studies had focused on the role of music as a tool of political protest, let alone been interested in examining in great details the lyrics of the said Nigerian musician of interest, categorising his ideas and lyrics into themes, and subjecting them to an in-depth interpretation with the view of bringing out possible development in the evolution of the ideas and themes of his music. This is what the subject of present study is about.

The central argument of the thesis is that Fela’s music belongs to the class of music hereby classified as “protest music”; that a study and interpretation of the lyrics and ideas making up the music point to an evolution in their development which sees Fela’s protest music moving from the liberal through the reformist to the revolutionary phases. Early Fela is different from middle Fela which is also different from the revolutionary Fela. Phases of events actually radicalised Fela’s music. This research centres on the evolution of Fela’s music and interpretation of its themes according to some pre-theoretically determined phases from the liberal through the reformist to the outright revolutionary phases, and determination of the music’s overall impact as a protest medium against bad governance in contemporary Africa.


1.3       Objective of the Study

The main objective of the study is to examine the nature and impact of music as a medium of political protest in contemporary Africa, using the protest music of Fela Anikulapo Kuti as a case study. The specific objectives are to:

  1. establish the use of music among other forms of arts as a medium of political protest in contemporary Africa;
  2. examine the structural backgrounds, accelerating conditions, and triggering circumstances that gave rise to the protest elements of Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s music in Nigeria;
  3. trace the evolution of Fela’s music, and categorise its themes into periodic phases, from the liberal through the reformist to the revolutionary, while bringing out the particular events that helped to shape that evolution, including the progressive radicalisation of Fela and his music;
  4. develop criteria for evaluating the socio-political impact of Fela’s protest music based on not just the reactions of the government of the day, but also the responses to Fela’s music, both nationally and internationally at successive stages in the evolution of the music, and
  5. underscore the continuing relevance of Fela’s protest music and its staying power long after his demise.


1.4       Research Questions

  1. What role does music play in political protest?
  2. What are the structural background factors, accelerating conditions and triggering circumstances that gave rise to the protest elements of Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s music?
  3. What are the various phases into which the themes of the political lyrics of Fela’s music can be periodized?
  4. What are the dominant ideas distinguishing the three phases in the evolution of Fela’s protest music, namely the liberal, the reformist, and the revolutionary?
  5. What criteria can be developed for evaluating the socio-political impact of Fela’s protest music based on the reactions of government of the day (being the butt of much of his criticism) and responses to Fela’s music, both at the national and international levels at successive stages in the evolution of the music?
  6. Of what continuing relevance if any is Fela’s music within the political protest movement in Nigeria to this day?


1.5       Significance of the Study

Although a sizeable number of scholarly works is known to exist dealing with the nature of Fela’s music, with a few of these works initially begun as doctoral dissertations and subsequently turned into published books, no work yet exists that approaches Fela’s music from the kinds of theoretical perspectives that inform the present study, as the theoretical framework of the study as is to be elaborated in Chapter 2.

First, attempts were made to locate the message of Fela’s music within the critical social paradigm of analysis, where ideas of writers and practitioners in the political, social and musical realms such as Gramsci, Franz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, Bob Marley, Mariam Makeba, and even Alex Harley were reviewed and shown to considerably influence the political ideology underlining Fela’s protest music. To the best of one’s knowledge, this is the first work to be done at the scholarly level that could make this kind of connection.

The second significant point about this study lies in the interpretative approach of Hermeneutics that forms part of the theoretical framework of study and also informs the research design. Although Hermeneutics has had its root in Biblical scholarship, and has come to refer to the theory of understanding in the Social Sciences where it is applied to interpreting texts and actions within the social political realm, this is the first study of Fela’s music to benefit from the application of this method or perspective of study and analysis.

Related to the earlier point, thirdly, application of the interpretative method of Hermeneutics also made it possible to trace the evolution of Fela’s protest music and categorise its themes into periodic themes namely from the liberal through the reformist to the revolutionary sets of themes. Again to the best of one’s knowledge, this is the first scholarly study that examined the evolution of Fela’s music and interpretation of the themes according to those pre-theoretically determined phases.

Finally, adaptation of some of the insights from the Peace and Conflict Studies sub-field of Traditional African Conflict Resolution mechanisms, processes and methods for studying Fela’s music and its impact not only permits the researcher to connect the Humanities and Arts with the Social Sciences. It also made it possible for scholars and policy makers to better understand some of the issues addressed by Fela in his music, such as combating injustices, social inequality, individual rights and freedom, domination and oppression, and the strategies for solving these problems in order to make for a more just, stable and humane society. What that perspective seeks to emphasize, then is that Fela’s music is not simply for its entertainment value, as it also has a greatly functional utility as a potential force for good or bad depending on a given listener’s stance on the themes it addresses.

Even though the musical icon being studied is deceased, his political ideology and themes on social justice, emancipation from oppression and misery, and the need for good governance for Nigeria in particular and Africa as a whole continue to take centre stage of political debates. Therefore, a study on Fela Anikulapo Kuti, with the aim of examining his music as political protest, and its impact is justified at this contemporary time when bad governance and citizens’ reactions keep creating socio-political instabilities across Nigeria in particular and the African continent as a whole.


1.6       Scope of the Study

The study examined the protest music of Fela Anikulapo Kuti according to pre-theoretically determined phases; from liberal through reformist to outright revolutionary. Through transcription, evaluation, contextualisation and interpretation, the protest lyrics of Fela was examined to establish that the themes go through these phases. It also examined the pre-dispositional factors that ignited the protest actions and the political behaviour of Fela, to determine if the circumstances surrounding his background and political milieu were enough to generalise the experiences of African citizens and government, and their responses to political protests. The study also examined the reaction of governments to protest music and the role of the media as agents of information propagation. These formed the core around which this study revolved. So, the concentration of this study did not extend beyond these limits, except for clarification purposes.


1.7       Operational Definition of Terms

Afrobeat: This is a derivative of two words, Afro and Beat. The first Afro is an insignia which represents anything (style, form, nuances etc) that symbolises Africa and the Africans while Beat represents rhythm of any musical style and form. Therefore, Afrobeat is a unique, distinct musical style invented by Fela Anikulapo Kuti, and meant at once for conveying or representing his Africanist political ideology as well as capturing his essentially Pan-Africanist cultural predisposition.

Political Protest: This is an act of civil resistance, or public demonstrations directed at some political goals. It can be undertaken by individuals or by civil organisations using various means such as hunger strikes, self immolation, music, theatre, strike actions, lock-out, riots, election boycotts, civil disobedience, withdrawal of support and emigrations.

Protest Music: This refers to any musical genre that has been used in protest situation or by protesters as a means of passing political resentment or whose lyrical content is filled with such political messages. It is also typical of any counter-cultural music such as Rock, Hip-Hop and Afrobeat. “Protest musician” is the person who plays protest music.

African Shrine: This primarily refers to Fela’s night club where he played to a live audience. However, it has also come to be regarded as a place of worship because of the ritual sacrifices performed by Fela to venerate African ancestors. Such ritual practices usually form the prelude and oftentimes interludes of the actual musical performances. It is also an arena for engaging in the discussions of political issues popularly called Yabbis or Yabbing.

Yabbis: This is an invective comment or expression which oftentimes can be satirical, crude and vulgar, directed at some disapproved African government (both military and civilian) institutions and some individuals considered to be sycophants of such governments. It is a method of protest verbal discourse employed by Fela to criticise or cast aspersions on a government or any of its officials.

Political Ideology: It is a body of moral prescriptions set by an individual, group, or party, as the preferred objectives and goals for the politics and structure of rule in any society, the rationalisations of these, and the strategies for achieving such objectives and goals.

Felasophy: It is a body of Fela’s philosophical thoughts and vision on the whole range of issues about governance, origin of civilization, economy, politics, traditional African religion and culture, and civil society among others.

Impact: The term “impact” is used in a more or less loose sense for describing the influence that a given subject (in this case Fela’s protest music) exerts upon others (i.e. the audience, both within Nigeria and without) and measurable by means of what the study denotes as “reaction” (be it positive or negative).


1.8       Organisation/Plan of Study

The study is divided into six chapters, including this introductory chapter.  Chapter two is about the literature review on the subject of study and the theoretical framework used for the investigation.  Chapter three provides the overview on the life history of Fela Anikulapo Kuti.  Chapter four lays out the methodology and sources of data used for the study.  Chapter five provides the data presentation, analysis, and discussion.  Chapter six, the last chapter deals with summary of major findings of the study, conclusion and recommendation.