Praise and Worship How Western influence broke spirituality and identity in African music

“Colonies (were) the outhouses of the European soul", Thomas Pynchon writes in his book, "Gravity's Rainbow", "where a fellow (could) let his pants down and relax, enjoy the smell of his own shit.”

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play Where colonialism destroyed traditional african institutions, the global spread of western culture has forced african artists to sacrifice identity for success. (Pulse)
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With interesting success stories like Wizkid, Mr. Eazi, and Maleek Berry, African music has fallen under a bright, multi-coloured spotlight.

This attention has come with think pieces, massive marketing campaigns, and international deals. Together, they are inspiring questions about how music became Africa's biggest export.

One of such questions is the issue of spirituality and identity and how they reflect in the continent's music.

Once in a while, the tone and subject matter of music inspires a listener to connect to the truths, beliefs, and values that define or surround him.

These elements and the connection itself are what we refer to as an individual's spirituality. At the barest level, it is the means by which the self seeks to connect to the divine.

play Gospel music is an important part of the christian faith. It is believed to make believers sober and ease the heart of God to listen to their prayers and accept their thanks. (The New Black Magazine)

 

Christians achieve this connection by studying the Bible and emulating the life of Jesus. According to Galatians 5:22, those who reach the pinnacle have what the Bible calls "the fruits of the spirit".

They are "love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control

Muslims connect with the Divine through the five pillars of Islam; by declaring their faith, saying five prayers a day and giving alms or “Zakat”. They must also fast - especially during Ramadan, and embark on Hajj when they are able.

ALSO READ: Everything you need to know about the special month of Dhul-Hijjah

The militant, lively music of Fela Kuti also inspired this sort of connection. At best, there is only a slight difference with religious spirituality. The latter preaches individual fulfillment. Instead, Fela's music provoked listeners to look at their community.

In a nation under military rule, it inspired dissidence, anger and a brutish desire for change.

Songs like "Zombie" and “Sorrow, Tears and Blood” still give this feeling, decades after.

As with all forms of art, spirituality and identity are the source of originality and truth in music.

But while this remains true, conversations about these issues now seem like a luxury.

It is not because the audience and commentators are not nuanced enough to ask these questions; not everyone is a pon-pon dancing zombie in love with Davido’s Snapchat.

ALSO READ: 20 years after, the influence of afrobeat stretches through global music

play Fela Kuti built his music around a distrust of western-influenced authority and African identity. (OAI News)

 

It has more to do with how that conversation has lost value over time.

Since charts and ratings became a thing, the numerical aspects of the art and business of music have gained more importance.

The idea of spirituality in contemporary African music has whittled to a point where all the average Nigerian artist needs to do is to prove he serves God or drop a song thanking his maker. 

Most fans of Nigerian music agree that, in 2008, the pulse of Nigeria's music shifted. It was the year when Afropop emerged as the dominant sound.

From that momentous year till its twilight in 2015, every Nigerian album had one obligatory Praise and Worship song.

On "Gongo Aso", it was the closer, “Ade Ori”. Dagrin’s "C.E.O" had “Thank God” featuring Omawumi. On M. I. Abaga’s third solo album, “Chairman”, there was the titular track. Oritse Femi and gospel bandleader, Frank Edwards lent support.

Trends like this were easy to relate with, and they still are, because in Africa, giving thanks and religion are as important as the air we breathe.

play 9ice's sophomore LP, "Gongo Aso" is one of the defining albums of the 2000s. In an album filled with raunchy songs and lewd lyrics, he gave his biblical 10% with the song "Ade Ori". (African Seer)

 

 Most African cultures view music as the language of the gods. Traditionally, they are a sacred tool to worship and communicate with them.

The creation of special instruments to represent the voice of deities and good is evidence of this.

The Dogon people of Mali use the bull roarer (or thunder stick) to represent the voice of the ancestor. The same instrument represents the voice of a god, in the Oro of Nigeria's Yoruba.

Even as African societies expanded and became more complex, this underlying consciousness remained an integral part of the music. 

This was because generations of musicians cut their teeth first with religious music.

That transition, from houses of worship to recording studios and venues, is typical.

Many factors have taken their chunk over the years, but the erosion of spirituality in African music began with the scramble for Africa.

From 1881 to 1914, Europeans brought most of Africa under foreign rule with plastic, glass mirrors, guns, and bondage.

They also came with a way of life that did not consider, or fit Africa's peculiar conditions.

In the pre-colonial era, and for some time after, identity and culture inspired all forms of creative expression; folklore, art and music.

ALSO READ: Remember the good old days of Sakobi, Karashika and other spiritual thrillers?

An example of this is the folk song “Olurounbi”, an appendage of the popular Olorounbi folktale.

 

The song goes thus;

Oni Kaluku jeje Ewure, Ewure, Ewure, Ewure

(Everyone promised a goat)

Oni Kaluku jeje Agutan, Agutan bolojo

(Everyone promised a ram, a robust ram)

Olorounbi jeje omo re, omo re apon bi epo

(Olorounbi promised her daughter, her whose skin is as fair as palm oil)

Olorounbi o, jon jon, Iroko, jon jon

According to the folk tale, Olorounbi was a poor petty trader. After falling on hard times and losing her husband, went to the Iroko tree to seek favor and prosperity.

Never one to give without reward, the Iroko asked Olorounbi to give her daughter, the beautiful, fair-skinned Olufunmi in return.

If she got her wishes after seven days, she would bring Olufunmi as an offering.

Olorounbi refused emphatically. But with time, she agreed to this deal. In the next seven days, she rose from a petty trader to the most important merchant in the land.

On the day of reckoning, the Iroko came to take his due. Olorounbi announced the source of her wealth and pled with the Iroko for mercy. But it was not enough: Olufunmi was taken into to the abyss, never to be seen again.

Mothers have told the tale of Olorounbi’s loss to their children from those old days till the present. While it seems a simple old wives’ tale on the surface, it was used to instill important virtues.

play Big, sturdy and strong, the Iroko tree had various spiritual connotations in many African cultures. (Eastern Connecticut State University)

Olorounbi’s tale teaches children to be wary of Pyrrhic gifts, to consider the implications of a promise and to be wary in the pursuit of wealth and financial power.

When colonialism reached our shores, battles were fought from the coast to the hinterland, but the most important of these was between African identity on one hand, and the hostile invasion of a foreign culture.

When two divergent cultures ‘meet’ each other, there is usually some sort of interaction.  This coalescence starts with an exchange that creates new offshoots and subcultures.

When English culture met the tribes that became Nigeria, it came with a battering ram, a whip, picnic mats and replacements for everything they had.

There was a deliberate effort to strip away the culture and institutions that had supported traditional African life.

In its place, Africans got what the Europeans were convinced was a far better option.

In his 1973 novel, “Gravity’s Rainbow”, the novelist Thomas Pynchon describes how the Europeans saw Africa at the start of colonialism.

Colonies (were) the outhouses of the European soul", he writes, "where a fellow (could) let his pants down and relax, enjoy the smell of his own shit.

The decay of African identity was explained by Dr. Chibueze Udeani of the Faculty of Theology, University of Salzburg in his 2007 study, “Cultural Diversity and Globalisation: An Intercultural Hermeneutical (African) Perspective”.

The slave trade, introduction of new diseases, forced colonization, foreign language and religious impositions, and alien administration threw most of the continent into social, religious, political, and cultural confusion”, he writes.

play This picture from the letters of Sjoerd Hofstra, show how the tribal chiefs of Sierra Leone's Mende were reduced to inferiors of English businessmen. (Sjoerd Hofstra)

 

First, foreign models replaced the institutions that supported traditional African life.

Kings were deposed and replaced, first with the Europeans’ choice in some places, then with actual Europeans.

Communities based on familial lines were broken into zones, native authorities and towns. Century long bonds were broken and the basic unit of society, the family, was torn apart.

The most fundamental change was the replacement of traditional religions with Christianity.

ALSO READ: Why African Americans are becoming Ifa worshippers

At the time of its introduction, Christianity, with its stories of the Israelites' journey and a messiah born of a virgin mother, had little that the average African could connect to.

Replacing traditional beliefs with a foreign faith stripped Africa of its spiritual identity.

It was only natural that this would reflect in the music; a people cannot give what they do not have.

Highlife and Juju dominated the 1920s. But by the 1950s, Cuban, American and other forms of imported music were enjoying a massive following.

Jazz and Swing played on club floors across Lagos and other African cities. Indigenous musicians saw the possibilities. With time, they began to infuse these sounds into popular African music.

play Christianity was an integral part of the colonial exercise; families were broken as children converted to the new faith, leaving their families. It preached a message of peace and sobriety while the people were oppressed. Colonialism was the whip; Christianity was the balm. (billmuehlenberg.com)

 

The European colonial powers would leave decades later, in the 1960s and 1970s. By then, the foundations of imperialism ensured that the trend of westernization continued.

A particular problem with creative expression in Africa since its meeting with Europe is how artists view foreign endorsement.

Under the illusion of meeting global standards, African creatives create art to earn approval or gratification from western audiences and critics.

Nowhere is this more a problem than in music.

In all fairness, it is the result of one of the darker sides of globalization.

Globalization in its present form and stage strongly promotes a “meta- local world culture, without local specificity and local validity… and hence devastating for any localizing cultural identity like the African one.”, the Dutch anthropologist, Wim Van Binsbergen writes in his 2007 paper, “Can ICT belong in Africa, or is ICT owned by the North Atlantic region?

African artists face the challenge of competing on this “global” stage where the standards are more western than not.  They understand their reality. 

They can only reach the pinnacle of commercial success by tapping into that market and competing on the same level as their western peers.

The task is clear; appealing to audiences that cannot connect with their identity or their stories.

For most, the best way to do this is to make their art as ‘relatable’ as possible. They remove the cultural elements that invite foreigners to refer to content as ‘exotic’.

ALSO READ: TSE is using colour to capture a generation's emotions

play Because the standards are predominantly western, African artistes have next to no shot at winning at award shows like the Grammys with their primary sound. They can either gentrify their identity or hope for a nod in the "World" category. (AfriZap)

 

Wizkid’s “Sounds from the Other Side” is a case in point. After raising the stakes in Nigerian Afropop and connecting the homeland to the diaspora, he chose a more generic soundscape for his RCA debut.

That decision became necessary by the nature of his introduction to American ears and as the American music platform, Pitchfork put it, "Wizkid's globalist, genre-hopping vision".

After he first eased through American ears with songs like “One Dance”, and the Drake and Skepta assisted remix of “Ojuelegba”, Wizkid had the obligation to cross-over in that direction.

ALSO READ: Wizkid crosses over in "Sounds from the Other Side"

The global dominance of western pop means learning how to sound familiar is important for success.

What does it profit a man if he tells the stories of his way of life and loses the money singing along with him at massive arenas in Atlanta and New York?

Today, what remains of spirituality in African music remains in liturgical and religious music. Besides that, few oral traditions and folk songs have managed to preserve shards of their peculiarity.

A few artists have also dared to tell these stories and find a middle ground between their truth and western influence.

Rapper, Olamide has barged into conversations about Nigeria's greatest rappers by merging hip-hop with yoruba culture and the popular "street life" that he has become known for.

Jesse Jagz is also one of them. After making a name as one of Nigeria’s most talented producers, he has earned acclaim for telling original African stories. On songs like “Redemption” and "Sunshine", he fuses his fears for Nigeria, rastarian beliefs and world view, into hip-hop, a medium of western origins.

play Inspred by older acts like King Sunny Ade and Ebenezer Obey, Adekunle Gold continues to draw originality from his identity and Yoruba culture. (Pulse)

 

Among the new generation of Nigerian artistes, afro-soul and folk acts like Adekunle Gold and Falana are drawing inspiration from their roots.

Tomi Thomas is a clear standout. The LOS member has made his spiritual journey a highlight of his work.  While he flirts with sounds from jazz to trap, he offers what he calls ‘higher vibrations’, a slice of his identity.

It will be absurd to expect all creatives to tow this path.

As technology breaks new ground, gentrification will threaten the world's most distinct cultures. Africans will have to infuse their identity to their art to prevent a future where the continent is an orphan, with no link to its past.

As a popular proverb says, "If you cut your chains, you break free, but if you cut your roots, you die"

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