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A black and white photo of the singer Asa. She is holding a microphone with both hands and looking off camera.

May – Week 3 – Protest Music in Africa

And the history lesson continues. Much like last week, this week was one lesson after another about just how little I know about world history. But what I’m quickly coming to understand is that learning about a country’s history through their protest music is a fascinating way to learn history in general. This week I searched for protest music in Africa, and what I found was a veritable treasure trove of incredible musicians and artists. I feel like I could do a deep dive on this subject for a year and never run out of new music to discover. But I didn’t have a year. I had a week. Just enough time to barely scratch the surface.

I must admit that when I think of protest music in Africa, the first thought that came to mind was South Africa and apartheid. That’s the history I’m most familiar with, so that’s where I started. I listened to Miriam Makeba’s “Beware Verwoerd“, “Senzeni Na” by the Cape Town Youth Choir, and “When You Come Back” by Vusi Mahlasela. And I realized that I’ll never understand how something so horrific could have inspired such beautiful music.

I then read about the history of protest music in Tunisia, commonly known as Committed Song. I read about how many Tunisian protest groups created revolutionary works that were based in their Muslim and Arabic roots, and how they used their songs to unify a national identity. Many of the protest songs from the 70s and 80s are still sung today in that country.

From there I read several articles about the state of protest music in Kenya, specifically about how it seems to have disappeared in recent years. Initially, Kenyan protest music was against colonial rule. However, it later evolved into protests against the increasing violence and assassinations within the post-Independence government. I listened to “Why Tom?” by George Ramogi, “Tafsiri Hii” by Kalamashaka, and “Wajinga Nyinyi” by King Kaka. I then read about how protest music was effectively driven off the airways in recent years. Musicians are either threatened, imprisoned, or bought off, but a thriving music scene still exists in underground channels. So thankfully it’s not gone. It’s just been relocated.

I then dived into music from Senegal and the DRC, and wow do those musicians have something to say. Senegal has been rocked with protests since last year, and music has been a big part of this movement. I listened to “#FreeSenegal” by DIP Doundou Guiss and “Letter to the President” by Bril, and neither of these songs hold back. I then listened to “Nini To Sali Te” by MPR and “Lettre à Ya Tshitshi” by Bob Elvis, both of which were banned in 2021 by the DRC’s National Censorship Commission. They are also just as pointed in their targets and as searing in their intensity.

I finished the week in Nigeria, because I wanted an excuse to listen to Fela Kuti. I’ve heard his music before, but I wanted to listen to this Afrobeat pioneer in the specific context of the history of protest music. Unsurprisingly, he remains just as relevant as ever. But I also listened to more contemporary works, such as the haunting “20-10-20” by Burna Boy, which ended with actual audio from the Lekki Massacre that took place during the EndSARS protests that have swept Nigeria since the fall of 2020. I also listened to probably my favourite song of this past week, “Jailer” by Asa, which is a powerful indictment of police brutality.

All in all, it’s been an eye-opening week. But also an incredible week of discovery and learning. The music I’ve listened to is powerful, beautiful, and important. And again, I only scratched the surface of what is out there. I can’t wait to see what next week brings.

Suggestions for artists I should check out? Please contact me with your ideas. I hope you enjoyed your daily helping of art!