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Censorship in Nigeria: Musical free expression in the shadow of Fela

10 July 2017
Photo by Banning Eyre

Banning Eyre and Mark LeVine recently spent, between them, a month in Nigeria. LeVine as part of his ongoing research on music and history there, and Eyre, with LeVine’s assistance, to gather material for Hip Deep in Nigeria, a set of five radio programs for the Peabody Award-winning American public radio series Afropop Worldwide. Their research gives new insights into the current state of censorship and suppression of free expression in Africa’s most populous nation.

By Banning Eyre and Mark LeVine    INSIGHT 

This Insight article focuses on three locations:

• In the commercial hub of Lagos, Africa’s most successful musicians vie for the favour of government and corporate sponsors, all under the watchful eyes of churches whose influence over regular Nigerians continues to grow. While the constitution protects freedom of speech, these powerful forces clearly discourage dissent.

• In Kano in the Muslim north, Shariah law reigns and censorship is open and clear, mostly along moral and sexual — rather than political — lines.

• Meanwhile in the far south, the Niger Delta region, a long history of neglect isolates artists and robs them of a national voice. Those inspired to revive the dream of succession under the banner of Biafra, are brutally suppressed.

Nigeria is beset by innumerable threats large and small — to its citizens, to its still fragile democratic institutions; to its territorial integrity, and of course, to its severely damaged environment. Nigeria is also home to some of the most important political artists in modern history — Fela Kuti chief among them, but also the writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa as well as highlife music icon Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson and Nobel laureate author and activist Wole Soyinka.

Nigeria is riven with divisions — with 250 languages, 500 tribes, and a North-South divide that maps broadly over the Muslim-Christian divide, it’s hard to imagine there not being many areas where social and political forces might seek to censor certain types of art, even if it is not viewed as threatening or a violation of traditional norms in other contexts.

Freedom of expression has long been considered a fundamental legal right in Nigeria, and was included in successive constitutions since the first one, of 1958. In the present (May 1999) Constitution Chapter 4, Articles 38-41 specifically address these issues, declaring that “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference (39.1), and “every person shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions” (39.2). Article 40 adds that “Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular he may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any other association for the protection of his interests.”

Like most countries with histories of authoritarianism, the problem is not what the Constitution says, its how it’s implemented or ignored by governments and courts that tells the tale. And here the history of censorship going back to the era of British colonial rule influenced the legal landscape (if not the Constitution itself) well into the post-independence period, particularly on issues to political expression and freedom of the press.

On the other hand, censorship of music per se, whether for political or so-called “moral” issues, is not as severed as the situation experienced in other African or Middle Eastern countries (or Russia, Turkey or China for that matter). Broadly, one could say that while featuring a “highly vibrant and varied media landscape” where it is not uncommon for the government to come under significant criticism (As Freedom House describes it in its 2016 report), the country remains a “freedom battleground,” with restrictions on musical expression in the north thanks to local interpretations of Islamic law being particularly evidence of the ongoing struggles in this area. And it remains the case that “Nigerian authorities regularly harass, intimidate, and attack journalists in the field,” regardless of the country’s first ever democratic transfer of power.

Fela Kuti’s grave. Photo by Banning Eyre

Any analysis of censorship today in Nigeria must point out that the threats faced by artists from the government today are not generally as overt and violent as those directed at Fela Kuti in earlier decades. Fela was severely beaten, jailed for years, his compound burned, wives raped, and mother thrown to her death from his second story window.

As we shall see, censorship today is a “complex system” that is more subtle and as likely to come from economic and social pressures as from political actors or authorities, “the government, local state authorities, religious institutions, families, artistic communities, militant extremists and lobbying groups.” That said, censorship can involve multiple actors at the same time, and it has clearly increased in recent years, from one to fifteen cases between 2015 and 2016 alone, according to statistics compiled by Freemuse. It also can fluctuate in terms of severity. Nigeria faced upwards of nineteen cases of censorship in 2015, but only one of them was a “serious violation” of freedom of expression, involving imprisonment rather than just restricting speech. Of eighteen violations of artistic freedom in Nigeria in 2016, five involved musical artists, and half of the total involved censorship of content, while three involved imprisonment.

As in so many countries with authoritarian and/or highly corrupt and conservative governments, censorship and other violations of artistic expression are usually engaged by the government or powerful elites for political or so-called “moral” or religious reasons. Political reasons usually don’t involve broad attacks on well-known problems such as poverty or corruption, but rather direct attacks, or perceived direct attacks, against specific officials. The arrest of singer Baba Iyali, and the abduction, beating and subsequent arrest of musician Ado Daukaka, in January and June of 2016 respectively, both involved perceived criticism of or insulting well-placed politicians.

Olamide. Photo from Entertainment News, Naija.com

Music, videos or films that are censored in the Muslim north might well be released without complaint in the south. On the other hand, Nigerian hip-hop star Olamide has faced routine censorship from the country-wide Nigerian Broadcasting Commission for “obscenity, being indecent, [and having] vulgar languages, lewd and profane expressions.”

To cite a recent example that brings together many of the most important strands in censorship today, singer Sadiq Zazzabi (aka Sadiq Usman Saleh) was detained for about a week beginning on 1 March 2017 for allegedly releasing a song before receiving approval from the Kano State Censorship Board — Kano is in the predominantly Muslim northern part that is legally governed by the dominant version of Sharia law. He was charged with the “release of an uncensored song and indecent dress,” and was sent to prison even after pleading guilty. Zazzabi declared later that the verdict was “preordained” and stemmed not from any improper conduct, but rather because he supported Rabiu Kwankaso, a former governor of Kano battling the present governor Abdullahi Ganduje. So, this appears to be a case of political censorship masquerading as moral censorship.

Specifically, Zazzabi explained that “I sang an album for [Kwankaso] which I sent to the Kano State Censors Board on the sixth of January 2017. The censors’ board censored my song and asked that I will need to remove some part of the music. They never sent the part they wanted out till today.” Not surprisingly, the head of the censorship board denied this accusation, explaining that the board was merely “doing is what we are expected to do as a regulatory commission. We are not witch-hunting anybody. We are doing this for the benefit of all of us.”

Sadiq Zazzabi. Photo by Sean Barlow

What this scenario is missing, however, is the economic component of the contemporary censorship regime in Nigeria. Freemuse has documented the available cases of censorship in the last few years and the most common cause for censorship that went as far as being arrested or threatened with arrest was criticism of a political leader. But in a country of almost 200 million people, this is in fact a surprisingly low number. More often than not, the mechanisms utilised are economic rather than political, nor do they involve purely music. Thus for example, Rahama Sadau, a well known actress, was expelled from her union in 2016 for cuddling and holding hands with a man in a music video (the male actor received no sanction). This would prevent her from working in the Kano-based film industry (she still can work in the Nollywood film industry, which is governed by a different system).

A similar dynamic is in play for musical artists as well. From dozens of interviews from 2013-17, including the extensive research for the Afropop Worldwide Hip Deep series on Nigeria, we have heard artists repeat over and over that the two biggest reasons they do not engage in highly political speech is that, first, Nigerians are tired of such music. “Everyone knows the country is corrupt; they know exactly what’s wrong and don’t need to be told like in Fela’s day,” is a common refrain, often followed by the claim that today people just want music to have fun or lose themselves from those problems, rather than motivate or energise them to fight against a system that seems too corrupt and brutal to repair.

The other common refrain is that censorship works through economic incentivisation and discipline. On the one hand, because issues like corruption, unemployment, environmental degradation and similar themes are so ubiquitous that they cannot be denied, there is little risk in writing songs that touch on these themes broadly. Where the risk comes in is when one attacks specific politicians or institutional actors, such as the army. There are few clearly defined boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable politics in music, but when the line is felt to be crossed the artist involved will risk losing lucrative sponsorship deals, ringtone downloads, commercials, and other ways of making money from her or his music.

The companies making these decisions are not state-owned, but the people controlling them are certainly aligned to the state elite. Yet this also reveals a difference between those Nigerians who have large international followings and make a significant amount of their income outside the country, and those who rely far more on local earnings for their income. Not surprisingly, the former group, which includes Femi and Seun Kuti, have far more leeway to be political, even directly so, as their international fame and connections shields them from direct retaliation or censorship by the government. Younger artists, such as Davido, Tiwa Savage or Wizkid, have made forays into political music, but nothing that would be strong enough to risk the wrath of the government, or potential sponsors.

In a 2016 study titled “Repression of Artistic Freedom of Repression and Assembly in Nigeria” by the Arterial Network Nigeria, nine specific cases of violations of artistic freedom were documented since 2012, of which around half specifically involved music. These included the deployment of soldiers in January 2012 to stop artists’ protests against fuel subsidy removal, which brought well-known artists such as Femi and Seun Kuti, Banky W. and others out onto the streets for public protests and concerts that the police attempted to stop; the arrest of the Kano-based musician Dauda Kahutu ‘Rarara’ for releasing a protest song against former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2014; the arrest of performance artist Jelili Atiku in January 2016 for a piece critical of atrocities allegedly committed by the traditional ruler of the Ejigbo community in Lagos State; the kidnapping, injury and arrest of Yola-based Hausa singer, Ado Haliru Daukaka for singing about corruption and incompetence in Adamawa State in June 2016; the threatening of leading pop artist 2Face Idibia by the police in February 2017, after calling on fans and other artists to march against the disastrous economy (the police threats scuttled the protests); the arrest detailed above of Sadiq Zazzabi; and the multiple arrests of and threats of prosecution against music business leader Audu Maikori for alleged criminal conspiracy and incitement for his criticisms of lack of police and government action after a series of killings in Southern Kaduna.

Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 at the New Africa Shrine. Photo by Banning Eyre

It is worth pointing out here that the above examples of violations of artistic freedom, and the reasons for them, are in no way unique to Nigeria; almost precisely the same mechanisms and very similar examples are evident in countries such as Morocco, Kenya and Zimbabwe, where any criticisms that challenge specific political figures or leaders are rarely tolerated.

One other force that affects freedom of expression in Christian regions of Nigeria is the powerful, growing presence of churches. These include Pentecostal, evangelical and charismatic churches, often led by well-funded pastors who are promoted more like pop music stars than spiritual figures. One can not drive for five minutes in Lagos or Port Harcourt without encountering massive billboards promising “Success by Grace, “Achieve Greatness, Indisputable Victory,” “Five Nights of Glory,” “Seven nights of Covenant Renewal, “Feast of Miracles Crusade,” and so on. Many of these can be characterised as “prosperity ministries,” because they consistently hold out hopes of wealth to people who have little practical chance of achieving it. The affects of these ever-present institutions on freedom of expression in Christian Nigeria was not a focus our our research, but there is no doubt that it plays a role in influencing the choices made by popular singers, many of whom profess their Christian faith in their songs.

In fact, when it comes to explicit censorship in Nigeria, it is more likely to take the form of moral, rather than political, sanction. As Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu of Kano put it in the 2010 documentary film Recording a Revolution, “Whether it is Muslim censorship or Christian censorship, the whole idea of sexuality is frowned upon.” As we shall see in Kano, this attitude inevitably leads to conflicts with popular musicians.

Port Harcourt church billboard. Photo by Banning Eyre



From Lagos to Kano, Megapolis to the Village
We have described already the various differences in the way censorship and other violations of artistic freedom occur in Nigeria. While the North-South divide is a major factor, other aspects of location are equally important. For example, at the Shrine, the rebuilt compound run by the Kuti family that symbolises Fela’s deeply political spirit, politics is far more tolerated than it would be at a show featuring leading Afrobeats stars and broadcast on television. Similarly, as German-Nigerian hiphop artist, activist and entrepreneur Ade Bantu explained to us in a 2017 meeting, if you are not relying on commercial sources of income you also have more freedom to be political than you would if your income is derived from ringtones or licensing where government allies can exert control over artists.

Similarly, as Nigerian musicologist Austin Emielu explains, contemporary Afrobeat, Afrobeats or even highlife in Nigeria have lost much of their political vocabulary and impact compared with Fela’s day — both for reasons of consumer tastes as much as government surveillance and punishment. However, so-called “village highlife,” recorded by local artists off the main cities and not part of the digital download musical universe, do feature more politics, especially at the local level, precisely because the artists engaged in such work are far less likely to be on the radar of the government or censors, and because their music is still largely sold locally by CD, and in small enough quantities not to be the object of concern. Similarly, in marginalised locations such as the waterfront communities of Port Harcourt, at the mouth of the Niger Delta, local grassroots musical production can become more political without censorship, precisely because it is not commercialised to the point where censorship can be meaningfully deployed.

At the same time, however, Port Harcourt and the Niger Delta region, which are historically at the heart of the Biafran struggle, still see relatively little music or other cultural production that might include pro-independence sentiment. Half a century after the Biafran war, which left upwards of three million dead in the region, most artists remain afraid to discuss Biafra in their music given that the government still routinely detains, abuses and even kills activists and even simple protesters. We saw evidence of the beginnings of a change in this attitude in early 2017, but it is still rather new, and hasn’t produced any music that would offer a test case of contemporary Federal government attitudes towards pro-Biafra/independence music.


Focus: The North — censorship by negotiation
In the north of Nigeria, the land of the Hausa people, Islam has been the dominant religion for centuries, and issues involving the appropriateness of artistic, particularly musical, expression are nothing new. In the early 19th century, a jihad led by Usman Dan Fodiyo established the Sokoto Caliphate. Way back then, Dan Fodiyo’s daughter Nana Asma’u wrote a poetic song called “Prayer for Rain” including the lines, “Do not go where there is immoral drumming and chatter / For men and women mix together on these occasions. / The beating of drums in jihad is permissible. / And so is drumming when communal work is being done. / And the beating of drums in the heat of battle …But do not allow drumming at weddings to accompany wild dancing. / Let us live in the remembrance of the Hereafter.” [Translated by Jean Boyd and Beverly Mack, from their volume The Collected Works of Nana Asma’u.]

The Sokoto Caliphate, based in Shariah law, was in place when British colonizers took control of Kano in 1903. Carmen McCain, a scholar of Hausa literature and film, notes that a movement to reestablish Shariah law in Kano State has been brewing at least since the 1970s. “The justice system introduced by the British was seen as a ‘Christian’ system and was known for its corruption and delay,” notes McCain. “The call for Shariah was seen as a way to bring back a more fair kind of justice that had existed from the time of the Fodiyo jihad in 1804.” In the year 2000, Shariah was officially established in Kano State, and the stage was set for new confrontations between religious authorities and artists.

By that time, Kano was home to a popular, vibrant and productive film industry born in the 1980s. Kannywood productions, as they are known, were modelled largely on Indian films, which focus on romance but avoid any explicit touching between members of the opposite sex. Like their Indian progenitors, Kannywood films revolve around elaborate song and dance routines, and the cheerfully romantic music featured in the films, known as nanaye, became the audio soundtrack to life in Kano. The overall film/music industry also employed thousands, so it came as a shock to many when, just months after the establishment of Shariah law, the Kano State government banned the “shooting, production, distribution and showing” of films in the state, declaring that film “constitutes an incalculable damage and nuisance on the sacred teachings of the Sharia legal system” (Media Rights Agenda n.d.).

Kannywood movie posters. Photo by Banning Eyre

As we described above, MOPPAN (Motion Pictures Practitioners of Nigeria) quickly proposed a compromise with the state, the formation of a “review board” to ensure decency in all music and film productions. Ever since then, the Kano State Censorship Board has filled that role. Specifically, where films are concerned, the review board can censor or demand changes to any productions that includes:

1) Close dancing between a woman and a man
2) A girl appearing in tight trousers or a short shirt in a film
3) Leaving hair uncovered [for a woman], unless the story indicates an acceptable reason
4) Putting on tight clothes that reveals the figure of a woman
5) Insulting or lack of respect for elders
6) Insulting or demeaning another religion or culture
7) Using children for scenes that are not appropriate for them
8) Using rituals or magic in films in inappropriate ways
9) Showing nudity, sex or vulgar actions
10) Ridiculing a specific person or a people or going against Islamic law

It is worth noting that these prohibitions do not include political statements. And indeed, when author and radio producer Banning Eyre visited Kano State Censorship Board earlier this year, its executive director Ismail Wa Abba “Affakelah” emphasised that the board was interested only in protecting the “norms and values” of Islam. Art that calls out government corruption or wrongdoing, said Affakelah, is not only acceptable but good, “because you are helping the society to be better.” Affakelah was once a film producer himself, and although he is feared by some, he commands respect within the industry. The same cannot be said for those who preceded him.

Ismail Wa Abba “Affakelah”. Photo by Banning Eyre

In 2003, Ibrahim Shekarau was elected Governor of Kano State on a platform to strengthen the implementation of Shariah law. He presided over crackdowns that included book burnings and the formalisation of a morality police force, the hisbah. Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu is a leading scholar of Hausa culture, and a fervent supporter of Hausa film and music production. Nevertheless, Professor Adamu told Eyre, “The hisbah are established by the Koran, not just by an individual. If you rebel against hisbah, then you are rebelling against the Koran. And if you do that, then you are not in the religion.”

Despite these developments, the Hausa film industry thrived under Shekarau’s regime. Carmen McCain lived in Kano during this time and recalls, “In 2006, I would see filmmaking everywhere, on the side of the road with actors and actresses cheerfully dancing and miming to music from boomboxes.” But in 2007, the industry was rocked by scandal when a private phone video — not a Kannywood production — of actress Maryam Hiyana having sex with her boyfriend became public. This event led to an effective banning of film production that lasted until 2011. That was when the director of the censorship board, Alhaji Abubakar Rabo Abdulkarim, know as “Rabo,” was himself caught having sex with a minor, and fled to Saudi Arabia. Film production resumed in 2011 and continues today, more challenged by economic woes, rampant piracy and competition from television stations than by the censorship board.

Professor Adamu says that the 2007 incident “was actually good for the creative industries in Kano. The banning of films forced other creativities to come out.” Producers realised that only films, not music or music videos, had been banned. And from this point on, nanaye artists and producers began to emerge apart from the Hausa film industry that had defined them up to this point. Some of the most popular nanaye singers are women; indeed a proper nanaye song must have both a male and female voice. We asked Jamila Ahmad if she experienced difficulties of discrimination within the industry. She said she did not. Her problem was being ostracised and condemned by relatives and neighbours who considered the career of singing a short step away from prostitution for a young woman.

Nanaye artists did have run-ins with Rabo’s strict censorship regime. Late in 2007, actor, singer and music producer Adama Zango was arrested and jailed for two months when he released a music video called “Bahaushiya,” or “Hausa Girl.” It included a dance sequence in which a female dancer briefly revealed her navel. Zango subsequently left Kano State and released a song attacking the government for imprisoning him. In response, two young rappers responded with a number called “Bingo,” a common name for a dog, and in turn attacked Zango for offending Islam.

Professor Adamu says that this incident, “marked the emergence of Hausa rap. Because when rapper turned radio presenter Hassan [Auwal Muhamad] and his colleague did ‘Bingo,’ then other people started coming in and either defending the government or attacking other people. Then we said, ‘Look, rap is about expressing your own opinion. It’s not about abusing somebody. If you want to rap about schools and education and life, about money, about economics, go right ahead.” And rappers have done so ever since, in a marginalised, but decidedly growing Hausa hip-hop movement.

Hassan Muhamad. Photo by Banning Eyre

While doing research for Afropop Worldwide’s Hip Deep in Nigeria series, Eyre and Sean Barlow assembled some 24 Hausa hip-hop artists at Freedom Radio in Kano to discuss their work and the challenges they face. Artists complained about the lack of economic support from the state, the way they are victimised by vendors in the markets, who pirate and sell their products clandestinely then report little or no sales profits. Artists emphasised the difficulty of staging live shows in Kano State. Either you request permission from the hisbah—something that lesser known artists are often hesitant to do — and risk being refused, or you go underground and risk having your event closed down by the hisbah, a relatively common occurrence. Large scale shows can happen in the neighbourhood of Sabon Gari (New Town), an area of the city traditionally reserved for non-Muslims, but these typically happen only during festival seasons.

Many in the film industry told Afropop that hip-hop is not yet acceptable to the society at large. However, it is now finding its way into some Kannywood productions, and the music is definitely circulating among young residents of Kano. One prominent artist and radio host, Saif Ibrahim, who goes by the artist name Dr. Pure, told Afropop, “We have actually managed to break the barrier, break the ice. For example, now I have a program Vibes Zone on Rahama Radio. Ricky Ultra also has a program, Power Jams, on Ray Power. Hassan [Auwal Muhamad] does his program Kano Music Express here on Freedom Radio. Mr. Bash has his program Ariel Exclusive on Radio Kano. Then we have Nomiis Gee who has his TV program with Arewa 24 TV channel, Top Ten Countdown. And we have [Hausa hip-hop pioneer and radio presenter] Billy-O has his program with Dala FM.”

All of these broadcasts focus on Hausa hip-hop, so this is tangible progress for the genre and its artists. Interestingly, Dr. Pure and Ricky Ultra, an artist and blogger as well, have an ongoing dialogue with the hisbah and the censorship board, advocating the view that hip-hop represents a positive lifestyle choice for Kano youth and that authorities should encourage it. “I go to hisbah,” says Dr. Pure, “and say I’ve been presenting a radio program, promoting artists for the last five years, and I’ve managed to evade NBC, the National Broadcasting Commission, who have even stricter rules than you guys. If I can survive on radio, then I don’t see why won’t be able to do an event.”

Dr. Pure says he knows of some 350 hip-hop acts in Kano alone, including a number of women — although they face often daunting obstacles, as with the women of nanaye, not so much from authorities as from their own families and neighbours. When Dr. Pure stages public shows, with permission, he seats men on one side of the hall and women on the other, a concession to hisbah that he has “no problem with.” Hip-hop artists do push boundaries with their language, and they do get censored, but those Afropop interviewed did not express a fundamental objection to the notion that their work should be censored on religious grounds. Professor Adamu, a man who is universally admired and valued by these young artists, says he knows why. “There is an in-built, moral self-censorship — the idea that as an artist, I shouldn’t do anything that would destroy my society. All Muslims have that instinct, that self-regulatory thing that I have to do something within Islam, something that Islam approves of. That is why they don’t want to rebel. Nobody is going to come out and say, ‘We don’t like the hisbah.’”

This is obviously a delicate situation, but one that seems distinctly healthier than the explicit and violent suppression of free expression one finds far to the south, in the Niger Delta.

Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu. Photo by Banning Eyre

The shadow of Biafra
Ever since oil was discovered in southwest Nigeria in the late 1950s, the central government has treated this region primarily as a resource extraction site and profit center. Shell Nigeria — essentially a merger of Shell International and the Nigerian state — has proceeded with corrupt disregard for the environmental and economic impact on the millions of people who live in the delta. The oil spills and devastation of this once pristine ecosystem have been well-documented elsewhere. Suffice it to say that to this day, no real responsibility has been assumed by any of the guilty parties, and the efforts to restore the environment that once supported delta communities have provided a mere fraction of what is needed.

Between 1967 and 1970, a brutal civil war was fought over whether a large sector of Nigeria, including the Niger Delta, would separate under the name Biafra. The Nigerian government won this war through extreme violence, a siege that led to the starvation of millions, and a policy of divide-and-rule, well learned from British colonisers. By granting statehood to key regions of would-be Biafra, the government weakened the will of the rebellion and re-established control, at the cost of as many as three-million lives. People debate the causes of this war to this day, but the Nigerian government’s determination to maintain control of the oil fields was clearly an important factor.

After the war, militancy in the delta continued at the hands of self-styled fighters who sabotaged oil extraction sites and kidnapped workers, eventually driving most oil production offshore. Rather than address grievances, the government opted to pay off militant leaders, who then left the Delta for new homes in the north, leaving their young subordinates behind without income or patronage. Today, perhaps with the collusion of officials from Shell Nigeria, these young men have created a new industry, tapping into oil lines, and selling their pilfered products on ships waiting offshore, a practice known as “bunkering.”

Coming to culture, in the 1960s, this region of Nigeria produced the most popular musicians in Nigeria. In the era of highlife, figures like Rex Lawson, Celestin Ukwu and others toured the country freely and dominated the airwaves. The Biafra War broke them. As they hunkered down trying to defend their families, new forms of music, such as Yoruba juju and Fuji, arose in Lagos and elsewhere, and highlife never regained its place in Nigerian popular culture. Port Harcourt, once a lively hub of nightlife and revelry, is today considered one of the most dangerous cities in West Africa. What nightlife exists there is confined to one elite neighbourhood, and the music performed there has little connection to the region’s rich history.

Given all this, it seems almost beside the point to speak of censorship. This is wholesale smothering of a cultural ecosystem. And yet, there is active censorship of any art or public expression that gives voice to the lingering desire to separate from Nigeria, a desire signified by a single forbidden word: Biafra. On the day Donald Trump was inaugurated, a pro-Biafra demonstration in Port Harcourt was violently suppressed. The number of deaths has never been clearly established, but at least this event received some international press attention. The ongoing violent suppression of activists and Biafra sympathisers continues day after day, rarely earning any press attention whatsoever.

In Port Harcourt, Afropop met with Biafra activists. One reported that the 2009 detention of Nnamdi Kanu, leader of Indigenous People of Biafra “ignited the flames of the opposition.” As she put it, “If you are married and you are maltreating one of your kids, definitely that child will react. It’s innate. It’s imbued.”

August 30, 2015, is known as Black Sunday because of the killings of protesters that took place that day. This activist said unarmed demonstrators were also killed at subsequent demonstrations, adding “There was another killing in Aba High School on 9 February 2016 — in a school where people were just singing and chanting Biafran freedom songs. The military went there and just opened fire.” She and others cited a succession of such events. And filmmakers at Chicoco Radio, a local development organisation in Port Harcourt, have filmed first-hand accounts of people murdered and burned with acid for participating in public pro-Biafra activism.

Musicians are responding to all of this, but carefully. Afropop met a singer and music producer who runs a label called Rising Sun Records. The gospel-like Biafra freedom songs he produces cannot be sold publically or played on any radio station in Nigeria. Rather they must be sent to London and played on Radio Biafra to be picked up by shortwave radio back home. This producer told Afropop, “The voice of those who cry for freedom can only be heard through music. I’ve written countless songs, thousands of them, in my house. But because of finances, there are just a couple of freedom songs I have managed to put up.” It should be noted that Biafra activism has a strong anti-Muslim component, a sad legacy of Nigeria’s divided history. The activists met firmly believe that far from fighting the rapacious Islamist killers of Boko Haram, the Nigerian military is deeply infiltrated by these same forces.

Chicoco Radio is an ambitious organisation that encourages young artists and creators in many fields, including young musicians, most of whom work in rap, reggae, R&B and hip-hop. One artist interviewed, Saint Mercy, spoke for many when she said she did not have much feeling for the Naija pop and rap out of Lagos. This music may be dominating the dance floors of Africa and beyond these days, but to Saint Mercy, “There are better underground rappers here that are not known, people who sing what is happening. They sing our reality in their songs. But they are not known, because the market is not interested. They want you to sing about the girl. Just be up. Don’t come down. Don’t wash your dirty linens outside. That’s what they call it.”

Given the dominance of the commercially driven, materialistic music industry in Lagos, there is little chance that the work of these artists, let alone forbidden Biafra songs, will ever be heard widely, within Nigeria or beyond.

St Mercy at Chicoco Radio. Photo by Banning Eyre

Banning Eyre is an author, guitarist and radio producer, and Senior Producer for Afropop Worldwide and afropop.org. He also comments for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. His third book, Lion Songs: Thomas Mapfumo and the Music that Made Zimbabwe (Duke University Press, 2015) won the 2016 Society for Ethnomusicology African Music Section Kwabena Nketia Book Prize. He spent one month in Nigeria (January-February 2017) conducting research and interviews for Afropop’s five-part Hip Deep in Nigeria series.

Mark LeVine is Professor of history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the center for Middle East studies at Lund University. His last report for Freemuse was ‘Headbanging Against Repressive Regimes’. He is presently working on a project on art and conflict in Africa and producing an album featuring leading young African and Middle Eastern artists remaking Fela Kuti’s most important songs.

This article is part of a Freemuse  INSIGHT  series edited by Marie Korpe. It was published in July 2017.

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