Beyonce literally exploits African culture for money but can’t even speak about sars 💀
— Bilouba (@NBilouba) October 16, 2020
Nigeria: Beyoncé, Davido, and the #EndSARS pile on
Many social movements have taken to going online to achieve a critical mass, with Nigeria's #EndSARS being one notable example. The force of cultural activism along with celebrity culture can help social movements by drawing much-needed international attention to current situations. But is there a fine line between cultural activism and cultural appropriation?
In 2019, American singer and songwriter Beyoncé released the soundtrack to the remake of Disney’s Lion King. The album, ‘The Lion King: The Gift’, was produced and created by her. It predominantly featured black artists, and there was a noticeable number of African artists.
In 2020, she released The Gift’s visual album, ‘Black is King’. The visuals focused on African culture, from Beyoncé drawing parallels between herself and the Yoruba deity Osun (Oshun), to the hairstyles featured, to the traditional African dances.
Although she faced some backlash from Africans who accused her of cultural appropriation, it was quickly met with arguments about the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation; Beyoncé included African artists in the videos and on the album, rather than simply taking their style, dances, and history, and ensuring they got paid.
However, when Nigerians needed Beyonce’s voice the most, many felt that she was not there.
Cultural appreciation VS Cultural appropriation
Many A-list celebrities have profited from Nigerian culture in recent years, as it continues to grow in popularity globally. But where were those same celebrities when #EndSARS was exploding over the internet?
Although most argued at the time of ‘Black Is King’ that Beyoncé was appreciating the culture and shining her spotlight on African artists, it was generally agreed that her silence on #EndSARS was not acceptable.
Beyoncé finally released a statement on 21 October, after the shocking violence displayed on peaceful protesters by the military in Lagos State the day before.
However, this was not taken well by fans, who saw it as ingenuine as it came after backlash on social media, and who believed that she had not done viable research before commenting, and had instead assumed people were in need of food or care packages.
British supermodel Naomi Campbell has also become very involved in the Nigerian and Nigerian/British cultural scene in recent years.
But, her first statement on #EndSARS was a photo of herself from a shoot in a long silver dress with the caption: “I pray for a silver lining. An ode to dreams and dreamers.” This was taken as insensitive to the real-life problems being faced by Nigerians.
Naomi later deleted the post and went live on Instagram where she shed tears and apologised.
Nigerian celebrities mobilised
Celebrities were, at various points, at the forefront of the protests. Popular Nigerian rapper, songwriter and actor Folarin ‘Falz TheBahdGuy’ Falana took to using his law degree to explain to the public, via social media, the legality of government responses to the protesters, as well as what protesters could legally achieve.
Other notable Nigerian celebrities who took to the streets with the people include BET winner Davido, Igbo rapper Phyno and modern highlife musician Flavour.
Black celebrities from across the world in the Americas, such as Rihanna and Gabrielle Union, also showed their support on social media.
There is a long history of artists using their music to protest against the government in Nigeria. Most famous of these is, of course, Fela Kuti, with songs like ‘Zombie’ describing soldiers of the Nigerian army as unthinking followers (zombies), or ‘Beasts of No Nation’, in which he calls out President Buhari’s military regime during the 1980s.
That tradition lives on today.
Burna Boy, known for his Fela-inspired tracks that touch on political injustices, led a protest in London, and also released a track about the Lekki Massacre, called ‘20.10.20’.
In it, Burna Boy sings about how on 20 of October 2020, the government ‘carry army go kill many youths for Lekki.’ He expresses the pain him and all other Nigerian youth felt seeing the disregard for human life held by our public servants.
Falz released a music video to his song Johnny, in which he remakes scenes of police brutality that have gone viral, and features footage from the protests. He dedicates the song to the lives lost in the fight against police brutality.
That kind of action has not been met without pushback.
From the imprisonment of Fela and Eedris Abdulkareem to the more recent questioning of Don Jazzy and Tiwa Savage for anti-government rhetoric by the state police (DSS), it is clear that the government continues to clamp down on those speaking up.
Cultural activism and celebrity culture can help social movements by drawing much-needed international attention to the situation at hand. Time and time again, governments have been known to bend to international pressure over pressure from within. However, in this case, although awareness has been spread, the government has not made any changes.
The most helpful form of celebrity help in this situation could be those such as Falz, using his academic knowledge to explain to the masses their democratic powers and how they are being violated.