African musicians have over the years played a major role in the sociopolitical and cultural life of the continent. Advanced technological developments and new media continue to help to promote their messages within and beyond the continent. Like the griots of the past, these musicians are not unaware of their influence and effect on societal dynamics. The continued harassment of the musician-turned-politician Bobi Wine by Ugandan authorities is one example of the kind of power and influence a musician wields in society.
Activist Jennifer Jaff could not have put it better when she wrote that musicians “have created true works of art by holding up a mirror … to society so that we can see clearly ‘the most comprehensive truths’ of our times … They have also transmitted feelings so that others can experience them”. Perhaps there is a lesson here for our political elites, who speak endlessly of the need for regional and continental integration — and yet struggle to turn their words into action.
Africa’s musicians have fared rather better on the pan-African front.
But how should one go about curating a playlist for African integration? Is this a case of putting together a playlist that explicitly speaks to African unity or liberation or development? Should it be about songs that pay tribute to actors who have been at the forefront of African unity and national politics? Perhaps one should rather pay attention to symbolism, especially by showing the essence of collaboration between artists from different parts of Africa. Or should it be about understanding that music is a significant element of African culture and as such, regardless of the subject, any song that is sung by an African qualifies to be on the playlist? If this is the case, should the musician be a continental or diasporic African for the song to qualify as an appropriate addition?
These questions ran through my mind as I was putting together this playlist. My position is that there is some validity to these concerns and that, based on individual preferences, nothing should limit or prescribe music taste — and how it morphs into a playlist that speak to the importance of African integration. After all, it was the late Sierra Leonean poet and diplomat, Abioseh Nicol, who famously wrote that Africa is “a concept, fashioned in our minds, each to each, to hide our separate fears, to dream our separate dreams”.
This compilation is a combination of political commentary, aesthetics, symbolism, and a call to service and action. The songs, jointly and separately, speak to the aspirations of unity; agency; the need for good governance and democracy; common purpose and vision; peace and stability; and a sense of togetherness. This is by no means a fixed list and it is not ordered by preference, but below are the songs that have made it to my playlist for African integration.
On the issue of context and autonomy of ideas regarding the design and implementation of regional programmes, two of Fela Kuti’s songs come to mind: Mr Follow Follow and Perambulator. In Mr Follow Follow, Kuti sang about the dangers of adopting and pursuing foreign ideas without a questioning mind, cautioning that such an approach can only lead one into falling into gaping hole. In Perambulator, Kuti mocks politicians who move around in circles without making any meaningful progress (motion without movement), especially those who travel overseas on frivolous trips to look for solutions that are readily available within the continent.
Miriam Makeba’s A Luta Continua is a constant reminder of the imperative of struggle for liberation and meaning. Similarly, Orlando Julius’s Selma to Soweto highlights continental and transcontinental solidarity of efforts in addressing social injustice, racism and oppression. Joel Sebunjo’s United Slaves of Africa puts the blame of the inability to achieve the dream of a “United States of Africa” on issues of dictatorship, corruption, maladministration and rampant injustices. Likewise, Femi Kuti’s Sorry Sorry tackles the topic of bad leadership and how it hinders Africa’s progress.
Salif Keita’s Africa and Youssou N’Dour’s New Africa speak to African pride, heritage and the need for unity and a borderless Africa. Yemi Alade’s Africa (featuring Sauti Sol) and Angelique Kidjo’s Afrika paint the incomparable beauty, diversity and resilience of the continent. Cocoa na Chocolate, a collaboration of 19 musicians from 11 African countries, emphasises the centrality of agriculture to Africa’s development.
In African Unity, Majek Fashek laments the irrational state of disunity among African countries. In a similar vein, Bob Marley, in Africa Unite, sees the unity of Africa as the desired path to the promised land, the benefit of its people and the return of its diaspora. In Africa Nossa, Cesária Évora (featuring Ismaël Lô) sings about the essence of unity and its indispensability to peace and progress.
Maybe if our leaders were to put a few of these tracks on their headphones, they may be inspired to make good on their repeated promises to deliver meaningful unity on the continent. But perhaps not. Maybe instead, we should ask them to provide us with their own pan-African integration playlist, so we can decipher their true intentions and have a meaningful dialogue with them.
Babatunde Fagbayibo is a professor of law at the University of South Africa