By Tabia Princewill
Popular culture in Nigeria has ironically helped to enshrine many of our societal ills by converting them into norms and values. The lyrics of many artists today celebrate the “fast money lifestyle” which is symptomatic of a fundamentally corrupt society and glamourises disenfranchising behaviours which ordinarily, in other climes, social critics and the public themselves would have decried.
Most conversations today are about finding a rich man, getting a government contract (with the intention of absconding with the money rather than providing a service) and this has largely filtered into Nigerian art under all its forms. A well-known Tiwa Savage song called “Alhaji” has the following lyric: “Alhaji…I like to spend your dollars”, referencing the trend of young women dating “Alhajis”, a code word for rich older men (mainly politicians) who pay them for sexual favours.
While the rest of the world, as evidenced in the 2016 Grammy’s, views music or any art for that matter, as a means of empowerment, a means of resistance, a means of criticising injustice and the status quo, the Nigerian mind-set has become one whereby we glorify all that is wrong rather than write, sing or preach about the way things should be.
Nigerians claim they want change. Perhaps all we actually want is a charade, for money to be recovered but without convictions or punishment for crimes committed. We want to have our cake and eat it too: we want to run to big men who distribute free money but we also want an economy that works, one where jobs and opportunities abound, freely and fairly accessible to all.
How is this possible if political office holders can walk away with billions unchallenged? How can the system withstand such huge amounts leaving government coffers without provoking economic instability?
Unfortunately, most of the artists in Nigeria do not understand the issues. The same people that young Nigerians look up to are incapable of leading them, of feeding their souls with music which entertains while it uplifts and offers deep truths. The excuse, for Nigerian musicians, will always be to point out that American rap or “pop” also features mindless tunes where only the beat counts, which isn’t exactly the truth.
I wonder what our home-grown artists took away from the Grammys which turned out this year to be a celebration of American freedom and unity in a time of great dividedness. They embraced, in the words of Tony Morrison, an American Nobel prize winning author, the true role of an artist: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work — not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal”.
Who in Nigeria today is helping our people heal from the hurts, evils and betrayals of the past? Who is providing us with the ideas and truths we will need to organise for real change? What happens when the so-called “Alhajis” (due to dwindling oil prices for instance) can no longer fund the public’s fake, consumption driven lifestyle?
The same American musicians we like to copy in Nigeria are tackling the issues destroying their communities and societies head on. From drug use, to police violence, to the chronic infidelity destroying Black relationships, or the inability to build durable families, American music, literature and cinema tackles a plethora of issues. In short, their society caters to everyone from the fashion or trend obsessed to the politically aware; no one is left out of public discourse. In Nigeria, it is quite the opposite as only superficiality abounds. Our television shows have no message, only church programmes do and even then, the message is often, if not always, about money and acquiring it by whatever means. It was James Baldwin (another celebrated American author) who said: “Something awful is happening to a civilization,when it ceases to produce poets, and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only the poets can make”. The artist’s task is to bear witness, to enlighten and nothing is to say that this can’t be done in a trendy, fun way, after all, it is so in other societies, so why not Nigeria?
The issue is that most of our artists and intellectuals are sell-outs, people who collect gifts from politicians and are beholden to them. Why then would they tell Nigerians the truth about our society and our perennially dysfunctional economy? In a society where journalists are pauperised, where wisdom and truth are ridiculed, it is no wonder there is no more room for intelligent television programmes.
I expect that a number of readers who follow popular culture both in Nigeria and abroad, will respond to this article by pointing out that Tiwa Savage and other such artists, meet and collaborate with their foreign counterparts. They’ll say this hoping to prove that Nigerian artists are well regarded internationally.
How many Nigerian (or African) artists (writers, actors or musicians) have won awards in the West? The truth is that the Western world has moved beyond our own over-simplified productions, even some of our bestselling movies and plays, when they show abroad, only attract fellow Nigerians like ourselves and this is not necessarily because of racism. We Africans have come to confuse a glitzy production with quality and would-be star power with value and excellence.
Reflection of our corrupt society
So, the young people who listen to much of our music or watch many of our Nollywood films, find a reflection of our corrupt society, lavish weddings paid for through dubious means, undue ambition, without the talent or work ethics to justify accomplishment etc. It is ironic that our censors board bans foreign films with so-called “sexual content” but allows the everyday debasing of the Nigerian mind.
What is more dangerous: nudity in film or the pervasive portrayal and passive encouragement of backwardness? I’ll end with a quote by the late US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) on the significance of art: ”Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant.
The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.”
THE former Governor of Delta State is back in Nigeria and so apparently is the realm of “alternative facts” popularised by Kellyanne Conway, a Donald Trump aide. He said during a thanksgiving that he never committed any crime and was imprisoned by his detractors.
Americans are fighting “alternative facts”, crude distortions of the truth and so must Nigerians.Why would the UK government conspire to imprison Ibori? Nigerians must resist the attempt to re-write history; it is not in the common man’s interest.
After all, Delta State, like all oil-rich communities could have been as prosperous as Dubai or the gulf regions if not for corruption. We must stop, at all levels, excusing wrong-doing under the guise of ethnicity.
If our ethnic kin when in power cared so much for the common man, then under a Niger-Delta presidency, Bayelsa should have overtaken Lagos in terms of development.
THE Speaker of the House of Reps stated that N2.7 trillion was spent on power between 1999 and 2015 and asked why it seemed that the more money was spent, the less results were seen. Where is this money today and what will be done beyond lamenting its loss? Each new generation of leaders re-states the facts but when will we see action?