Book chapter

Political Song in Africa (2019)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics

Abstract

Song is not a topic that is automatically associated with politics in many countries in the world. If it is, it may be an occasional association, one linked perhaps to times of war and the marching songs of soldiers, or to the rise to power of a particular leader who might manipulate his followers by appealing to their love of a particular brand of folk heritage and so to love of a nation. In Africa, however, song and the political are closely associated, and it is true to say that in many African nations a knowledge of how political song works is essential to being part of a particular community or political party, or even to having a sense of who one is and where one comes from. Some might even say that if you cannot sing, in a political sense you are not a fully operational member of society. Song in Africa has a presence in the political space and the public sphere of many countries, but it need not be evident all the time. It can be a resource that knowledgeable citizens draw on at times of pressure or of celebration or even of mourning, when, for instance, singing for a lost leader provides comfort to singers and the wider community alike. A nation can grieve in song, as was the case in South Africa at the death of former president Nelson Mandela. Political song can be a veritable arsenal of energy for those struggling for a better order, and it features frequently in histories of the nationalist struggles of the 1950s and 1960s on the continent, particularly in southern Africa. It has a place too in the histories of the continent's cities, which were often centers of dynamic growth and social change, where it provides a rich mix of political music and popular culture. The many different expressions and guises of political song on the African continent are in some ways as unpredictable as they are prevalent. Political song has also a certain fragility. Certain bodies of song can be passed over, erased, or substituted by those more dominant. If song can encapsulate memories, ideas, events, and people, those songs can also fall away. Song can in a sense enable a community to imagine itself, and change and sometimes a particular gifted singer can bring about this shift of class, consciousness, and identity, as is the case in the late-19th-century community in Zanzibar. It can also be used as a weapon of protest and defiance in times of struggle, but also as a means of control. All these points about political song in Africa illustrate why it is important as a topic of research.