Soundtrack to a pandemic: Africa’s best coronavirus songs

Is there anything that George Weah can’t do? World Footballer of the Year in 1995. President of the Republic of Liberia since 2018. And now, in another dramatic career move, recording artist.

“Liberia,” Weah intones at the beginning of his new track, his voice gravelly and deep. “Let’s all rise. To stand together. To fight corona.”

From a strictly musical perspective, Weah’s talents do not quite reach the heights of his sporting or political careers. Powered by a lazy, repeating guitar riff and a rudimentary rhythm, the song is barebones. Its lyrics are centred on an excruciatingly saccharine motivational quote, and mostly miss the mark: while trying to be earnest, Weah comes across as slightly comical, as if he’s following some script about Africans only responding to song. 

Then again, this song is not really about the music. It is about the Covid-19 pandemic that is sweeping the globe; more specifically, it is about what Liberians can do to protect themselves from the virus. And, in Weah’s defence, it is tricky to make decent music from lyrics like these: “People catch the virus when they touch their infected hands to their mouth, nose, or eyes.”

As bizarre as it may seem for a president to take to the recording studio in the midst of a public health crisis, Liberia has a history of using music to fight disease. During the Ebola epidemic in 2014, various Liberian musicians produced songs — such as Ebola is Real and Ebola in Town — with messages aimed at spreading awareness about the virus, and tips on how to prevent infections.

Weah is not the only African politician to give their public health announcement a musical twist — although, in Uganda, Bobi Wine has a more substantial pedigree behind the microphone. Wine established himself as one of East Africa’s most popular musicians before turning his hand to politics. He has become one of the foremost critics of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and all along he has used his music to push his political messages.

Bobi Wine, musician, singer and politician, strong opponent of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. (Photo: Damien Grenon)

Now he’s singing about the coronavirus. Wine’s track, which has been made with long-time collaborator Nubian Li, features in a fusionist dancehall style that mixes older, local musical traditions with Jamaican-style riddims. The tune plays out in direct, didactic style, and the lyrics offer the type of obvious advice that should be common knowledge by now: “Sensitise the masses to sanitise, keep a social distance and quarantine,” Wine sings.

This is not a criticism: if people won’t listen to the government and its institutions, perhaps they will listen to Bobi Wine. To underscore Wine’s political credentials, the launch of the song was accompanied by a public distribution of soap, jerry cans and Covid-19 awareness pamphlets.

Perhaps the best anti-coronavirus track comes from Senegalese ensemble Y’en a Marre. A simple hip-hop beat combined with kora melodies is all this group needs for its messages about social distancing, the importance of masks and washing one’s hands. The music video is shot in a hospital in Dakar, for added authenticity. The choruses are the real deal here, while the densely delivered rap lyrics throw up a holistic assault on Covid-19.

Another top contender comes from Congolese guitarist and rumba star Fally Ipupa, who recorded a plaintive acoustic guitar ballad, sung in French, from inside his lockdown in Kinshasa. He called it Fally en mode confinement (Fally in containment mode) and it takes matters a step further than anyone else: he urges people not to kiss until the pandemic is over. He follows up the song with a spoken message urging people to stay home.

Other musical efforts are less accomplished — although no less important for it. In South Africa, the Ndlovu Youth Choir pairs buoyant vocals with a cacophonous, albeit sparse beat to remind us what a 20-second hand-wash looks like; and rapper Sho Madjozi repurposes the beat from her hit single John Cena to deliver a minute-long verse that she describes as “a public safety announcement”. 

The very first Africans to take on the coronavirus pandemic in verse were a group of students at Liaocheng University in Shandong, China. Last month, with China in the middle of its strict nationwide lockdown, DJ Titanium from Ghana — with help from student rappers from Gabon and Nigeria — released a languid, reggae-esque effort dripping with autotuned lyrics. Their brand of cool, in which face masks are a fashion accessory, is somewhere between dancehall-meets-afrobeats stars and is almost incongruous with the graveness of their message. They sang: 

“They call it corona

Transmission worse than Ebola

Wash your hands regularly with soap

Be cautious of infections

Never think you are immune.”

Perhaps if we had all listened to DJ Titanium a little bit earlier, it would have been the only coronavirus anthem we needed.

You can find all these songs by clicking on the links below:

George Weah

Bobi Wine

Y’en a marre

Fally Ipupa

Ndlovu Youth Choir

Sho Madjozi

DJ Titanium

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.
Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Africa Editor for @MailandGuardian. Also @ISSAfrica.

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