Music as activism in Africa: Celebrating trailblazing icons

This writeup unravels the stories of trailblazing icons who harnessed the power of music to challenge injustices and inspire the African continent

“Why black man dey suffer today… We are never together, we are never together at all,” these are the powerful lyrics of Fela Kuti, a Nigerian musician and visionary.

Known as the patriarch of Afrobeats, he is accompanied by many other African visionaries who used music as a from of activism in Africa.

To date, African musicians have gone on and taken the world by storm. Their music has provided entertainment and has granted them Grammy nominations and wins. As a result, musical genres such as Afrobeats, hiplife and Amapiano have become global sound rhythms.

While some African musicians make music for entertainment, some also use music for activism as well. For most African musicians in the 1960s and 1970s, music served as a way to spread awareness en masse and garner the support of society.

This is still the case today. From rallying anti-apartheid crowds in South Africa to criticising politicians, music has served as a path to freedom and change. By looking at African musicians in sub-Saharan Africa and their respective influential songs, we can gain a better understanding of the power of music as an activism tool.

 The historical context

The age-old story of the challenges in Africa mostly stems from corruption and the general lack of efficacy of African leaders. Nearly as important, however, is the consideration of the legacy of colonialism.

The Berlin Conference of 1884 stripped away African freedom and imposed a system foreign to the natives. Therefore, while decolonisation proved significant, it did not fully create an avenue for success to thrive in Africa. It is one of the main reasons why Africa is lagging far behind in development.

The legacy of colonialism for most countries in Africa also caused the severe undermining of the black population. Cases such as apartheid in South Africa and the genocide in Rwanda were a result of colonial rule. The black population was antagonised and subsequently discriminated against. As a result, the idea of blackness became uncanny in a black-dominated continent.

Music served as one of the crucial ways to revert these issues. As a form of art, artists can express themselves in a universal language that affects people in many ways. With a rich heritage in music, many Africans used music as a form of resistance against the white population and colonial rule. Through the work of visionaries such as Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, etc., music has become a useful and necessary method of creating change.

The Legacies

Fela Kuti
Fela Kuti, activist
Fela Kuti musical activist

Often known as the pioneer of Afrobeats, Fela Anikulapo Kuti actively used his musical abilities to criticize the Nigerian government, military, and the legacy of colonialism. As a personal form of activism, Fela abandoned his jazz and classical training in England and established Afrobeats, an African form of jazz.

Additionally, the majority of his songs were done in pidgin English to appeal to his fellow Nigerians and more broadly to West Africa. Some of his most popular songs, Zombie, Colonial Mentality, Sorrow, Tears and Blood, and Why Black Dey Suffer directly commented on issues of the post-colonial society such as corruption, which is still rampant in many African countries.

In his song zombie, released in 1977, he literally compares the Nigerian military to zombies, doing anything and everything, sometimes even engaging in inhumane acts. The 12-minute rhythm is him actually giving orders to the Nigerian military (in this case his band). Some significant parts of his songs include lyrics like, “No break, no job, no sense…Go and kill, Go and die… zombie, no go think, unless you tell ‘em to think.”

Fela is implying the irrational nature of the Nigerian military, bringing international awareness to their actions with the hope of mediating the issue.

Fela Kuti provided a very solid foundation for Nigerian musicians like Burna Boy, Rema, Wizkid to soar but at the same time allowed people to recognise the plagues of colonialism.

Shedding light on his work should allow not only Nigerian citizens but Africans to reassess how they think about political issues in their respective countries. How can they use Fela’s notions in his songs to strategise democratic resilience?

Miriam Makeba
Singer, Miriam Makeba performs at Berns, Switzerland(1969)
Singer, Miriam Makeba performs at Berns, Switzerland(1969)

Labeled as Mama Africa, Miriam Makeba was an influential advocate against apartheid, rallying a massive anti-apartheid crowd globally. Even though her steadfastness led to her exile from her home country, she became a symbol for black civil rights in America and beyond. Her talent allowed her to speak on platforms such as the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid in 1964.

Most of her songs exemplified recognizing and celebrating African heritage shown in her hit singles Pata Pata, Malaika, and the Click Song despite not speaking of political dissent, provided a sense of happiness to Africans in the face of trials.

Pata Pata is simply a dance song, but it served as a dance rhythm against apartheid. Malaika promotes black women’s beauty and black love.

The Click Song demonstrates the Xhosa language and its use of “clicks.” Particularly, the Click Song showed the inability of the white population to pronounce the click sounds. One of her more overt songs, Ndod’emnyama, which translates to ‘Beware Verwoerd’ brought international awareness of apartheid. The song references Hendrick Verwoerd who was responsible for the racialisation of the black population in South Africa.

A unique strategy she adopted as a form of activism was to describe life in apartheid South Africa when introducing her songs. This is a tactic she used effortlessly during her performances abroad, especially in the US.

She simultaneously brought awareness to the South African suffering as well as promoting black beauty at a time of racialisation and civil rights in America.

Angélique Kidjo
Angélique Kidjo Grammy win(2016)
Angélique Kidjo Grammy win(2016)

Known also as ‘Mama Africa’ and  a Grammy-award winner, Beninese Angélique Kidjo has helped bridge the gap that exists between music, gender, and activism. Her memoir, Spirit Rising: My life, My music, reveals a range of inspirations of her musical and activism career.

Her mother, for example, became a symbol for enacting social change as she was a feminist. Another inspiration Kidjo notes is Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings who she met at her performance at an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) meeting.

Having much inspiration also from the apartheid in South Africa from figureheads such as Miriam Makeba, she has taken into consideration the importance of recognizing African heritage in largely westernised space. Her musical talents have earned her a role as a UN goodwill ambassador. The role has allowed her to use her music to enact change on the African continent.

Arguably two of her most famous songs, Agolo and Batonga emphasised Kidgo’s Beninese roots and embraced African culture. Agolo encourages people to love nature and take care of it, having environmentalism undertones; Kidjo provides the avenue for Africans to think about environmental injustices.

In her song Batonga, a word she created herself meaning, “Get off my back, I can be whoever I decide to be and do what I want to do.” Batonga was not only a song as Kidjo used a platform to transform it into the Batonga Foundation. The Batonga Foundation founded in 2006 has assisted vulnerable adolescent girls in Africa in providing them with financial literacy, emotional wellbeing and employability skills.

The inheritors


Falz, Nigerian musician and activist
Falz, Nigerian musician and activist

Folarin Falana or Falz the bad guy, is a Nigerian lawyer, musician, and activist. Even though he gained international recognition for his rendition of ‘This is America by Childish Gambino’, ‘This is Nigeria’, he has an entire discography of music that also serves as a form of activism.

For instance, his album, Moral Instruction, paid homage to Fela Kuti, sampling many of his popular songs like zombie. Like the album title suggests, Falz recognises the intense lack of morality that exists in Nigerian society.

In his song, Talk, from the album, he exposes all the socio-political issues in Nigeria such as corruption by politicians, the hypocrisy of religious leaders and the varied amount of suffering of Nigerian citizens as a result. He raps, “Anything I talk make you talk am again,” urging Nigerians to also speak up about the issues that surround them. After the song was released, Falz took to X, after the release of the song and urged Nigerians “to continue to #Talk.”

Like many others, Falz was inspired by Fela Kuti and used his talent in the same way, making Nigerian citizens aware of their socio-political landscape and why it is important to seek justice.

Even though Nigerian artists such as Burna Boy, Davido, and Wizkid are more critically acclaimed and their platforms have brought in more non-African listeners, only a few of their songs are socially conscious. This does not mean that all Nigerian musicians should be socially conscious but rather how can popular artists also use their platforms for the better.

Keur Gui

Senegalese hip-hop duo and activists, Keur Gui

Keur Gui is a hip-hop crew from Senegal who have used hip-hop culture to enact political change. The duo are the founders of the Y’en A Marre movement which translates to “We’re fed up or enough is enough.”

The movement which started in 2011 aided to serve as a grassroots campaign against injustice and inequality in Senegal. The Y’en A Marre movement saw Keur Gui team up with other rappers and journalists to resist the then Senegalese president, Abdoulaye Wade from reelection.

Hip-hop, as a form of verbal art, played a pivotal role in providing Keur Gui with a platform during the Y’en A Marre movement, enabling them to effect tangible change. Their anthem, “Daas Fanaanal,” served as an actionable blueprint for mobilising the Senegalese populace, motivating them to cast their votes and reclaim their nation. The phrase itself, “Daas Fanaanal,” translates to “sharpening a weapon in preparation for battle,” signifying the readiness for a decisive change.

Some of the song’s pivotal lyrics encapsulate this powerful message: “The voter card bestows upon you the power to decide, Choose your path and determine your destiny… My voter card is my weapon! I hone it diligently the night before the battle, For it is what will wipe away my tears!” These resonant words functioned as a form of activism against the government, effectively spurring the Senegalese people to take proactive steps towards securing their own future.

Bobi Wine

Bobi Wine
Bobi Wine, musician turned politician

Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu aka Bobi Wine is a prominent Ugandan musician and politician who has harnessed the power of music as a form of activism in Africa. He is often referred to as the “Ghetto President” due to his roots in a Kampala slum and his music career. Over the years, Bobi Wine has emerged as a charismatic figure in Ugandan politics, challenging the long-standing rule of President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986.

Bobi Wine’s music serves as a vehicle for political and social commentary, addressing issues such as corruption, human rights abuses, and the need for democratic reforms in Uganda. One of his notable songs, ‘Situka‘ (Get Up), openly criticizes Uganda’s political system, urging citizens to take action and demand change. Prominent lyrics from the song include, “When freedom of expression becomes a target of suppression, opposition becomes our position.” These lyrics resonate the aspirations and the frustrations of the youth in Uganda.

In addition to his music, Bobi Wine has used his platform to unite fellow artists and activists across Africa in movements like #FreeBobiWine.

He has become a symbol of resistance and a rallying point for pan-African activism, drawing support from artists, politicians, and people from all walks of life across the continent.

His journey from a musician to a political leader illustrates the evolving role of music as a catalyst for positive change in African societies, reminiscent of historical figures like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela who used music to challenge apartheid in South Africa.

Looking ahead

The resonance of music as a form of activism in Africa is a powerful and enduring phenomenon that has shaped the continent’s history and continues to influence its present and future.

From the historical context of colonialism and oppression to the trailblazing icons who have used their music to challenge injustice and drive social change, the impact of African musicians cannot be overstated.

Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Angélique Kidjo, Falz, Keur Gui, and Bobi Wine are just a few examples of musicians who have harnessed the universal language of music to address issues ranging from political corruption and human rights abuses to celebrating African heritage and inspiring a sense of empowerment. Their music serves as a reflection of the struggles and triumphs of the African people and has transcended borders, resonating with audiences worldwide.

These trailblazing icons not only used their music to bring attention to critical social and political issues but also inspired a new generation of artists who continue to carry the torch of activism through their music. In doing so, they have contributed to a broader global awareness of Africa’s challenges and triumphs, further cementing the continent’s cultural and political significance on the world stage.

As we celebrate the enduring legacy of these musical activists, we are reminded of the enduring power of art and music to create change, unite communities, and inspire action. The resonance of music as activism in Africa serves as a testament to the indomitable spirit of a continent that continues to strive for justice, equality and progress. It is a reminder that in the face of adversity, the power of music will always harmonise change and inspire hope.

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