All over the world, across various traditions, music has been used to educate, unite, inspire, provoke, relax, and elate. When the veil of music is lifted, the reality of the power of music, no matter its genre, is laid bare in two most powerful factors – lyrics and rhythm. The themes – ‘Black’, ‘Race’, ‘Prejudice’, ‘Oppression’ bites mercilessly into the very fabrics of early Black lyrics. This can be found even in the ‘The Laughing Song’ by George W. Johnson (first black record Artist, U.S (according to National Public Radio)). When we cast our gaze to early South Africa, we find pieces of the same lyrics from early Artist like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela (Jazz), Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Lucky Dube, and even in Nigeria, where the famous Fela Anikulapo-Kuti reigned from. Yet, amidst these early lyrics, were also found contemporary themes like ‘Love’, ‘Fate/Destiny’, ‘justice/fairness’, ‘relationships’, ‘oppression’, an example would be Sunny Ade’s ‘Conscience’, Osadebe’s ‘Ife onye metalu’, etc. Hardly does ‘sex’, ‘drugs’, ‘hype of one’s wealth’, etc., come in.
A personal interview with the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and even down to the Generation Z, reveals that the lyrics and rhythm from the early black mentality is much appreciated. These where powerful lyrics and cool rhythms that educate, unite, inspire, provoke, relaxes and elates at the same time. But these values, in which we have come to bask ourselves in when we hear music, was soon truncated by the modern trend of indecent lyrics in music. No doubt, the rhythm remains; some cool, some hard, some in-between. But as far as lyrics and themes go, one dark trend that has found its way in our cherished music, is indecent lyrics – ‘sex’, ‘drugs and substances’, ‘bragging about accumulated wealth’ et al. If these indecent themes ever existed, they existed in passing or unrecognized. But today, we are slapped with the ever-increasing colossus of these abysmal themes. The theme and lyrics of the black musician has been greatly impeded from modern to contemporary history of ‘black music’ (in this case, black artists). According to recent research by Peter G. Christenson and Others (using high tech software) in their article ‘What has America been singing about? Trends in themes in the U.S. top-40 songs: 1960–2010’ they note – ‘in a recent study by Madanikia and Bartholomew (2014). Hall et al. (2012) analyzed 600 Billboard year-end top songs, comparing lyrics from 1959 with those from 1969, 1979, 1989, 1999, and 2009 and found that sexualization was more present in male artists’ lyrics and in those of non-White artists. Sexualization increased markedly from 1959 to 2009.’ Of course, we remember Snoop Dog, M.C Hammer, R. Kelly, P.Didy, etc
Outside America, the situation is pretty the same. In South Africa, Emtee’s ‘Lessons’ speaks: ‘…I’m with the gang, never solo/ I love my niggas, no homo/ We smoke that ganja you don’t know/ Manje ubulawa yiFOMO’ In Nigeria, the famous WizKid, Davido, and a host of others, while admittedly, producing great beats and rhythm, their lyrics are much centred on such raw diction and indecent themes, with the exception of Wizkid’s ‘Surulere’ of course. Davido would say ‘I go shook you chukuchuku’ an inference of having sex. Olumide would encourage us to ‘shakiti bobo’ and ‘ta’ lon fa (sniffs) bobo’ – an exaltation of drugs. But we must recognize that some of the pieces are of good lyrics. Examples Asa’s ‘jailer’, ‘bibanke’ and her entire album, Wizkid’s ‘Surulere’, Timaya’s ‘Yetunde’ which was an admonition against illicit sex.
But who cares?
Truth be told, contemporary music is majorly focused on the Millennials and Generation Z. The sad truth is that the majority of the Millennials and Z Generation are more moved first by beats and rhythm, then words/lyrics. Admittedly, a careful listening of the songs from modern times to the present will reveal very strong and alive beats that would force your head to nod and your hand to swing no matter what generation you belong to. But here is what happens as soon as the indecent words hit the ears/mind – The Silent Generation, Baby Boomers and Generation X soon find their head stiff, there hands calm, there legs freeze, and their minds, vexed. The Millennials are divided. Very few, stop nodding, while some keeps nodding but keep silent as soon as they get to those indecent words, and majority do not mind but keep swinging all day long. The generation Z are too liberal to care. They shout the words and swing their minds. So, should the old be abandoned to old music? Should the young be deprived of the educational value and positive inspiration of music?
How about a blend of good beat/rhythm and good lyrics?
The entire country of Nigeria and many parts of the world were swept off their feet when Flavour did his ‘Ada, Ada’ (a spirited and danceable beat with powerful lyrics on the joy of marriage). The same happened when P.Square did ‘nobody ugly’ (theme was on marriage and the uniqueness of every human being). The same happened when Farey did ‘Because I’m Happy’. The same happened when …. ‘Heal the world’, ‘what a wonderful world’, ‘step in the name of love’, ‘I believe in you’, ‘Ada, Ada’, ‘Surulere’, et al, why do you think the following songs will always have their imprint in the sands of time? Powerful lyrics got married to powerful rhythm, that is what happened. There are many of Buster Rhymes and other pieces that are now forgotten.
The Millennials and Z Generation may dance these beats to feel alive today, but tomorrow the Artist will be forgotten because he did not communicate. Musicians with little skills of writing must partner with Writers/Poets to make the best of music. Why throw away a beautiful beat because of lack of patience to create beautiful words? It is either the Artist strives to remain in the sands of time or be cast into the sad fate of oblivion.
Written by I. Emmanuel Okonkwo May 2019. (Image credit; The Scroll).
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