In the run-up to Nigeria’s February 2023 elections, the country’s younger generation has mobilised to demand change and redefine the political landscape – and music has been pivotal.
Despite being dismissed by several political commentators, Nigeria’s younger generations have shifted the former two-party liberal electoral democratic competition between the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) and the prominent People’s Democratic Party (PDP). This is due to their overwhelming support for Labour Party candidate, Peter Obi.
The use of music in campaigning for these elections shows the influence of this generation. Political candidates now routinely release videos showing them dancing to Afrobeats music.
The Afrobeats genre encompasses contemporary music styles from Nigeria (and Ghana) with a distinct use of Nigerian languages and percussive beats.
APC candidate Bola Tinubu’s song of choice was Buga by Kizz Daniel and Tekno, with its accompanying choreography and references to hard work.
PDP candidate Atiku Abubakar revealed his five-step recovery plan with a choreographed video to Davido’s Stand Strong, which references devotion and consistency. It’s his sixth time standing for president.
Though some politicians are criticised when their enthusiasm on the dance floor contrasts with their performance, this pattern of dance as diplomacy shows new ways they are making connections with the electorate.
A genre on the rise
Afrobeats’s popularity is a story of African creative and economic production, intended for African creative and economic consumption. The genre’s focus on authenticity has resonated with Nigerian, African and global markets.
The success of Afrobeats, alongside the wider creative economy, saw Nigeria become Africa’s largest economy in 2014. In their 2022 trade report, the AfriExim Bank discussed the music industry’s wider success in Africa, particularly through its use of digital technology. The report also highlighted music’s power to create and disseminate knowledge in ways that address the damage done by colonial systems and structures.
Afrobeats shows how African creative endeavours can succeed by centring African people in their choice of language, themes and imagery. It shows what can be possible when African needs are prioritised. Questions remain, however, about the extent to which the benefits are retained within African economies.
Afrobeats music creates solidarity among people of African descent through a sense of a shared global African identity. This success has been underpinned by music and video production collaborations across global African communities.
The ingenuity in Afrobeats is astounding. Poetic lyrics draw on the wealth of Nigeria’s languages (including pidgin English) to challenge issues such as socioeconomic exploitation (as in Tekno’s 2020 track, Sudden) and sexual abuse (as in Tiwa Savage and Asake’s 2023 track, Loaded). The music blends contemporary sounds and Nigerian instruments, such as the Oja flute (as in Omah Lay’s 2022 track, Soso).
Afrobeats represents hope
Afrobeats offers an opportunity to tune in to visions of hope from younger generations. The genre’s stars often reference the recognisable aesthetics of the period following Nigeria’s independence, between the 1960s and 1970s. In doing so, they are connecting their music to a period of transition and liberation after colonisation.
Consider Wizkid and Tem’s platinum single, Essence (2022), with the box TV, standing and ceiling fans and stone wall. Rema’s Calm Down (2022) also echoes this aesthetic with its wooden framed sofa and beaded curtains.
In her 2021 NPR Tiny Desk performance, Tiwa Savage is at the Jazzhole in Ikoyi, Lagos, surrounded by books and LPs. Her 2020 video for 49-99 samples the “father of Afrobeat” musician Fela Kuti.
In the Nigerian diaspora, British rapper Little Simz and Obongjayar’s video for Point and Kill (2022) features a terracotta bordered veranda, vintage film posters, afros, moustaches and sideburns, woven mats and references to Fela Kuti’s sound.
What are these images calling for? There is joy and beauty in their fluidity. In its innovation, Afrobeats still calls back to the past. Post-independence times were complex and contradictory but offered different ways to change than the despondence that has tended to define Nigeria and wider Africa since.
These included pan African visions of blackness and challenging imperial powers to support the anti-apartheid struggle.
Tiwa Savage and Naira Marley exemplify how the younger generation intends to hold truth to power in their 2021 anti-political class anthem, Ole. The song satirises the botched 2021 National Assembly investigation into allegations of misappropriation in the Niger Delta Development Commission and suggestions of complicity by members of the National Assembly.
With their ingenuity and agency, innovators like these have picked through the rubble that has been allowed to define Nigeria and found abundance. I doubt they will let it go.
As politicians attempt to connect with the largest constituency in the largest black country on earth, they would do well to recognise that dancing will not quite suffice. Whoever wins the 2023 elections takes these voices for granted at their own risk.
Eka Ikpe, Reader, Development Economics in Africa and Director, African Leadership Centre, King’s College London