Wednesday, February 20, 2013
By Biko Agozino
I am using Toyin Falola, et al, Africanizing Knowledge, as a text for my Introduction to African Studies class. This week, we are discussing chapter 8, ‘The role of traditional music in the writing of Cultural History’ by Maurice Amutabi. We started by asking the students to list their top ten US songs that could serve as an introduction to the cultural history of America.
Then we played and discussed Miriam Makeba’s rendition of the Tanzanian song, Malaika. The students did not know any Swahili word but after listening to Makeba’s introductory translation and after watching the subtitles that accompanied the song, they learned that Malaika means my Angel and that the song says repeatedly, I love you my angel, I will marry you my angel, even if money is scarce. Very appropriate theme in the Valentine season, I guess.
During the class discussion, I gave the song a political spin by suggesting that Makeba was not simply talking about romantic love but about the love of the motherland and that her Angel in the song was no other than the freedom fighters. The Powerpoint slides accompanying the song complicated this reading by inserting the picture of Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael) exactly where Makeba sang, ‘I will marry you my Angel’. But then, Toure who was married to Makeba for real, was actually a freedom fighter too just like Makeba herself.
To radicalize this political reading of a folk song further, a student in the class sent me a video of a Ghanaian song in which the singer, Ruff N Smooth, woos his ‘Naija Baby’, asking for her number so that he will ‘halla’ and promising to take her to Ghana to show her to his mama. But the song also supported my thesis of a subtext of political consciousness when the artist sang that whether you are from East Africa, North Africa, South Africa or West Africa, we are one people. ‘I don’t care where you come from, don’t care where you born’, the song concluded just like Peter Tosh, in the Pan African anthem of his, ‘African’. I told the student that the song was an echo of the call by Kwame Nkrumah for Africans to Unite, a call that Bob Marley also echoed directly in ‘Africa Unite’, and the student agreed.
Nick Hornby theorized in Fever Pitch that a good way to read the character of a person is to ask the person for their top ten songs. Mine were mostly political songs but my students included the US national anthem, which is no less political, as part of the US cultural history. I agree with them. Amutabi could have made my task easier by not defining traditional music too narrowly to mean folk songs. How about Fela Kuti (Beasts of No Nation), Alpha Blondie (Peace in Liberia), MzwakheMbuli (Land Deal), Sonny Okosun (Papa's Land)? I think that they are also traditional African music with veritable history lessons. So also is the music of the African Diaspora, including Hip Hop in Columbia with the signature African call and response backed by the rhythm of the drums and base.
One student suggested Tuface’s ‘My African Queen’ and they told me that it is a good pick-up line. Then I asked them if they would normally pick up a queen or campaign for her to be elected into office to help offer more effective leadership where the male dominated public office holders appear to be failing? We concluded that although it is a romantic croon, it lends itself to political radicalization in support of the African Union Parliament where men and women have equal representation. This challenged the US students to wonder when America would elect their first female Head of State like Liberia, the UK, India, Pakistan, Israel, Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Malawi, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago.
I invite the readers to share with us their top ten songs and tell us why they love those songs. Do you think that I am over-interpreting the political symbolism of the lyrics? Of course, not every song has a political symbolism, I just get drawn to those that do more than to others. And even when I see the winning of the waist during carnival or on the video CDs of Congolese jazz musicians, I still manage to read the politics of gender into the gyrations. Correct me if I am wrong. But enough about me, let us hear your top ten.