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Longread: Iskelebete and The History That Is Not Written

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I was at the One Africa Music Fest in London the other day. No point rehashing the usual issues around disorganisation and inability to keep to time — I have since concluded that the self same God who blessed Nigerians with the ability to move their waists and dance in ways other people can only dream of, saw it fit to deny them the gift of coordinating concert logistics. Shrugs — how unsearchable are His judgements and His ways past finding out.

Historians and Popular Culture

But sitting there and listening to the various acts, something else struck me about the way history is documented in popular culture. We generally think of history as something someone does after the fact. That is, decades or centuries after things have happened, some historian sits down and chronicles it all in a book. We who read those books are then transported back to that era when we read said books.

However, historians cannot do this job without those who live in that time documenting the history themselves in real time. And one of the most important ways this is done is through popular culture namely music, movies and literature. It is one thing to read about a law that was passed in the 19th century but how do you understand the effects it had on the lives of people? How can you tell the impact that an innovation in the 18th century had on people? You have to find a way to read this from what people — flesh and blood people who lived through it — were writing and singing about at the time.

One of the best recent examples of this comes from the French economist, Thomas Piketty in his book Capital In The 21st Century. To make his case that inherited capital reproduces itself unless government intervenes (he’s wrong by the way), he amassed an incredible amount of data going back centuries. It’s all well and good to put those numbers on a spreadsheet and tell a story by interpreting them. But he went further by quoting and interpreting novels from writers like Honoré de Balzac and Jane Austen to give life to what went on in that era. He could do this because Austen and co wrote about their world as it happened in real time.

Or consider the Poor Laws in Britain. In the 18th century, a workhouse test was introduced which meant that anyone who wanted to receive a welfare payment had to enter a workhouse and do a certain amount of work. It is not possible to go back to the 18th century to analyse the impact of such a law today. But you can read Oliver Twist as a criticism of those laws by Charles Dickens who hated them (his criticism was harsh and unfair in reality). As Janan Ganesh eloquently put it in the FT — non-fiction gives you facts, fiction gives you deeper truthscomic literature smuggles in much more insight under the disarming cover of levity. Indeed.

And music? Can any future historian of Los Angeles ignore the work of rappers like Dr. Dre? What was life like for young American men who were sent to war in Vietnam to fight for their country? How did they adjust to life when they returned to America? Again, you can look at the statistics that show the employment rate of war veterans. But you should also go to the title song in the highest selling album in America in 1984 — Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA.

Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man

[Chorus]
Born in the U.S.A
I was born in the U.S.A
I was born in the U.S.A
I was born in the U.S.A
Born in the U.S.A

[Verse 3]
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “Son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “Son, don’t you understand”

The examples are too numerous to cite. Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goodechronicles what life was like for a poor black kid with dreams — the sack in which he carries his guitar reveals how deeply poor he was. You can dance and shake to it today, but the words to the song carry important pieces of information about a time we may have forgotten about. In popular culture, you can find songs and fiction about war, peace, economic change as they happened at the time. They are like Easter Eggs hidden for later historians to discover.

Who Is Folake And What Is She Telling Us?

And so we return to what is being documented in Nigerian popular culture today. Ok, it’s perhaps useful that so many Nigerian songs today have verses about ‘bank alerts’. Future historians might find this useful in documenting the spread of mobile banking in this era. But broadly, when you listen to Nigerian songs today, it is hard to see what it is that they are writing down for historians of tomorrow.

A couple of years ago, someone wrote an article in a Nigerian newspaper analysing Olamide’s Shakiti Bobo saying

‘Oya Shakiti Bobo’ is a revolutionary call: ‘O awake my brother, fasten your trouser belts and get ready to work hard.’ To own a Ferrari, to drive around in a Bentley and to fly to Paris in your air-bus requires a mad commitment to do what no other will be sane enough to do. In the next stanza, he passionately challenges his accusers who attribute his successes to internet fraud (Yahoo Yahoo), he attacks their envious claims as they persistently refuse his apparent right to musical leadership, a product of sweat, tears and blood.

The Poet beautifully describes his lowly upbringing, highly motivated by his hard experiences on the street of Lagos and its attendant temptations to do evil. He explains that his decision to ignore the path of evil is borne out of his mother’s positive influence in his life and his determination never to disappoint her. She must have influenced his resolve to make it against all odds, sacrificing normal meals for the garri-soaking non-delicacy.

Big, if true. The challenge is in trying to figure out whether the writer was serious or just trolling. Nevertheless, let us give one point to Baddo Sneh.

Falz The Bad Guy is also good. His Wehdone Sir carries hints about what Nigeria is like today while remaining danceable — Foreign account they convert to Pound/You didn’t know when you are Splashing out/You say that the Naira is Crashing out.

As seen above with Johnny B Goode, musicians often create characters to tell stories about their own life or era. But who is this Folake Nigerian musicians keep singing about and what deeper truth about Nigeria of today does she reveal to us and future historians?

No, All Music Need Not Be Woke

This is not to say all music must be ‘conscious’ or ‘woke’. Far from it. Songs and books from the past that give us an insight into that era were not necessarily written with an eye on the future. People who wrote them were simply drawing inspiration from their environment and working it into their songs and stories. Most people read them purely for entertainment and that’s fine. But the hidden stories are equally as interesting hence why they have to be ‘unlocked’.

Mr. Eazi is one of the biggest acts in Nigeria today. I like his song Leg Over. It opens with my baby dey confuse me with her bum bum/she get a guy wey dey send am money from London. Perhaps this will be useful in chronicling an era where money transfers played a critical role in sustaining the Nigerian economy? I don’t know, I’m struggling here. I even prefer his other song Skintight in which he threatens to stick to a woman’s body closer than her skin. Whatever, that’s your boy Eazi.

Today’s Top 10 Chart

We can run through the top 10 songs in Nigeria today according to PlayData. Number 1 is Juice by YCee (I put my hands on your body…too much juice too much sauce), Number 2 is Davido’s If, in which he claims to have N30bn in his account and threatens to embarrass a woman (Folake perhaps?) with Gucci and Versace. Then there’s Tiwa Savage’s All Over (Original ogbongolo bobo/say na me wey dey make am shokur). Next up is P Square’s Away which offers a grand bargain to any lucky woman — if you hold me tight, I go treat you right. A quid pro quo if I ever saw one. How about Wande Coal’s Iskaba(from where the title of this post part comes from)? Here you go:

Historians are in danger of interpreting this as a time when everyone and everything in Nigeria went kolo. Perhaps that is true. But you know what is even more dangerous about these songs? They are all super sweet. You cannot play Iskaba near me and I will remain calm. Play any Mr. Eazi near a Nigerian crowd and years of home training and decorum quickly fly out the window as people are swept up In Excelsis.

But it is this ‘sweetness’ that has allowed us accept a narrative — constructed ex post — that Nigerian songs are only listened to for their beats. That is, you lay the beats first and then you layer lyrics on it, even if you have to fill in the gaps with iye iye iye. Surely this cannot be true. We cannot document the brutality of military rule in Nigeria without Fela’s lyrics. They capture the truth and human angle of that era in a way that remain vivid till this day.

[Update: A friend of mine takes me to task for not doing enough justice to Fela’s documenting of history in his music. He’s right. Fela documented how money went missing in NNPC and the attempts to cover it up (hmmm…why does that sound familiar?). Go back and read the lyrics of Unknown Soldier today and appreciate the broad range of topics he covered. Again I stress the point — all music does not need to be woke. It doesn’t even have to be political. It’s just using lyrics to drop hints and clues for historians about what life is like as a Nigerian today so that those coming in future can have a fuller picture of what is going on now].

Of course everyone cannot be or needs to be Fela. But there are so many things going on in Nigeria today that ought to make it into Nigeria’s popular songs. They can still be danceable with banging beats — there is no law that says that it has to be waist whining or serious lyrics and not both. People can even interprete them wrongly— Born in the USA was often misinterpreted as a patriotic anthem — WWF wrestlers used it for their entry and Ronald Reagan also used it as a campaign song until Springsteen told him to stop. Growing up in Nigeria, I vividly recall singing it without having a clue what the lyrics meant.

If you are ‘creative’ enough to make up words like Iskelebete, surely you can sing about how Lekki has changed through rapid construction in your lifetime?

‘Africans Need To Tell Their Own Stories’

We often say that Africans need to tell their own stories. Very true, of course. But here is one way in which those stories are not being told. Even worse, when every song is about bum bum and waist whining, it might become ammunition in the hands of mischievious historians who might take the body of ‘work’ from an era and say ‘the people were mostly concerned about sex and women’s waists which allowed their leaders mismanage the country unchallenged’. Whether or not this is true, it can be made true by collating evidence from popular culture. Whatever void will be filled by the history that is not written.

Nigerian musicians today are richer and more exposed than those who came before them. With decent management, many of them are financially set for life. This is not just criticism for the sake of criticism.

Let us dance, let us shake bum bum. But let us also leave stories for those to come. It helps to complete the picture of who Nigerians are today, for better or worse. People can be read through World Bank per capita statistics and IMF Article IV country reports. But they can also be read through what the songs of the times in which they lived said.

Over to you Nigerian song writers.

Nigeria News.

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