fela kuti stands in front of soldiers in the Zombie album cover art

Fela Kuti Zombie album cover art.

(Fela Kuti)

10 Nigerian Political Songs You Should Know

Ahead of the Nigerian elections this weekend, here are some Nigerian political songs you should check out.

If you look closely beneath the hedonistic thrills and aspirational themes that fuel today’s popular Nigerian music, it’s pretty easy to catch a hint of the political. It may often lie in the words left unsaid by performing acts or the causative factors gently ploughed over when the reality of living in Nigeria makes its way into their work, but it persists regardless. The nature of music in Nigeria is too intertwined with public life for any epoch to pass without songs that explicitly capture stirring vignettes of the nature, and struggles, of life in the West African nation.

From the 1970s when Fela Kuti’s acerbic afrobeats made him a leading critic of the Nigerian government to the ‘90s when a collection of Nigerian reggae stars like Ras Kimono and Majek Fashek stunningly gave voice to the apprehension of their fellow citizens on wax, popular Nigerian music has often served as a repository of our lived experiences, grievances, and political thoughts. As Nigeria prepares for another presidential election later this week, some of the age-old concerns still remain but, as always, we have music to remind us of what is at stake regardless of how divisive and toxic the electioneering process might be.

Fela Kuti "Zombie"

It is almost impossible to select one single song from Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s discography that captures the afrobeat pioneer’s wide-ranging political ideology but an argument can be made for “Zombie” being one of the iconic musician’s most enduring songs. Released in 1976, “Zombie” is a biting critique of the average Nigerian soldier’s propensity for blindly following inhumane orders and the underhand tactics of the Nigerian military. In an age of military juntas that overstepped and inflicted sufferings on citizens, “Zombie” was a sarcastic but withering call-out that spared no punches across its 12-minute runtime. Unfortunately, the song led to the infamous military attack on Kalakuta Republic, Fela’s creative commune, in 1977.

Majek Fashek "Police Brutality"

When Majek Fashek released his debut album, Prisoner Of Conscience, in 1989, he was lauded as a prophet for his hit song, “Send Down The Rain,” which came just in time for the end of one of the longest droughts in Lagos’ recorded history. Further down in Prisoner Of Conscience, Majek proved that he was just as much a product of his time with “Police Brutality,” a stirring reflection on the heavy-handed nature of police officers in his native nation. Much like #EndSARS protests would call out three decades later, the message of Majek Fashek’s “Police Brutality” criticises police officers for looting their constituents instead of protecting them and cutting short the life of future leaders.

Eedris Abdulkareem "Jaga Jaga"

The best political songs are those that often reflect the issue of the day as well as have enough gravitas to appeal to future generations. Eedris Abdulkareem’s “Jaga Jaga,” released in 2004 was a cynical, foul-mouthed, tirade-laden estimation of the country’s trajectory five years into its fourth republic that somehow managed to become a major hit. The lyrics of the song make for grim reading as Eedris Abdulkareem took aim at the rising tide of political assassinations, incarceration of social activists, the rising cost of living, and the plight of the common man in under four minutes. At a point in 2004, “Jaga Jaga” became inescapable to the extent that the then-president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, ordered its ban on the radio even though that did little to stem the song’s popularity or appeal.

Timaya "Dem Mama"

Nigeria has a long, painful history of extra-judicial killing that followed it into the fourth republic and continued with the Odi Massacre of 1999. Six years later, a rising act named Timayamemorialised the events of that military attack in his breakout single titled “Dem Mama.” A son of Odi himself, you can hear Timaya’s hurt at the killing of his people over their demands for indigenous rights to oil resources and demands for environmental protection. The events described in “Dem Mama” are plainly sad and Timaya used the painful history behind the song to sensitize a nation slipping into lethargy inspired by a fresh democracy.

African China "Mr President"

African China’s 2006 masterpiece is less a song about raising hell about Nigeria’s faltering institutions than it is an urgent plea for the country to get on the right track. The song’s iconic chorus asks presidents, governors, and senators to lead well and perform their responsibilities with a conscience. Still, African China can’t help but express his shame and disgust at the state of the country and the endemic corruption that was haemorrhaging Nigeria’s economy. The lyrics of “Mr President” evocatively lift the lid on the ills blighting the country and shine a light on the contradiction between elites and the everyday citizen but its biggest triumph is its dare to the oppressor to find a way to lead responsibly.

Asa "Fire on the Mountain"

There’s little chance of misinterpreting Asa’s message on ”Fire On The Mountain” even if her dreamy vocals attempt to take the sting out of the song. “Fire On The Mountain” is a timely warning about the trajectory of Nigeria delivered by the singer over simple guitar strums as early as 2007. The lyrics of Asa’s ballad–“There is fire on the mountain/And nobody seems to be on the run”–might have seemed out of place in the early 2007s but as the years have progressed, it’s hard to shake off the sobering prescience of her thoughts and ideas. There’s a chill when the song gets to the part where Asa warns that “One day the river will overflow and there’ll be nowhere for us to go.”

Sound Sultan "2010"

Growing up around the early 2000s in Nigeria, one of the most prevalent political talking points was Vision 2010, an economic plan to make Nigeria one of the world’s leading economies by 2010. By the time, 2010 rolled around, Nigeria was far off from this goal and on his single, “2010 Light Up,” Nigerian music legend, Sound Sultan lays bare the hollowness of this goal, calling attention to the corrupt practices and money-grabbing antics of Nigeria’s political class. Featuring M.I. Abaga, “2010 Light Up” is a sardonic rebuke of the Nigerian project up to that point. The most sobering part of this single is the seeming hopelessness of trying to challenge these corrupt institutions as Sound Sultan calls attention to activists and critics who have lost their lives while demanding a better country.

Falz "This Is Nigeria"

Inspired by Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” an apocalyptic summarization of life in the United States, Falz’s “This Is Nigeria” is equally as attention-demanding as it is an urgent call to action that runs through some of the same problems that have plagued Nigeria for the best part of the last and tacks on more modern challenges like the rise of armed militias in the nation as well as an ever-rising increase in fraud culture. Released in May 2018, “This Is Nigeria” was an explicit statement that arrived after a few years of inertia in that regard from popular Nigerian music and the conversations it inspired in the days after its release proved that there’ll always be space for political expression in our music.

Davido "FEM"

Davido’s “FEM” is the most unorthodox entrance on this list because on first listen, it is as politically apathetic as any track can possibly be. However, the events of October 2020 conspired to force Davido’s A Better Time lead single into the political arena as young people across Nigeria headed to the streets to protest the atrocities of the Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad and demand an end to police brutality. Something about the combative edge of “FEM” appealed to young people who adopted the song as the unofficial anthem for the biggest protest movement in Nigerian history for over a decade. From being a song to underpin his musical credibility, “FEM” was recast as a song to sing in the face of political bigwigs who tried to co-opt the #EndSARS protests without demanding institutional change.

Burna Boy "20.10.20"

The #EndSARS protests came to a grinding halt on the night of October 20, 2020, after officers of the Nigerian military shot at protesters in various locations across Nigeria, killing and injuring many people. The disbelief and hurt of the nation were delicately captured on Burna Boy’s “20.10.20,” a sobering memoir of the night when the political resolve of a generation of Nigerians was hardened. On “20.10.20,” the personal and political converge as Burna pays tribute to our fallen comrades while reminding everyone who the blame for the massacre lay with. The voice recording of a protester saying “let them shoot” at the end of the song is as chilling as it is profound, hinting that Nigerians would no longer kowtow to oppressive institutions.