Soft Power in Action: The Power of Protest Songs in Nigeria and Taiwan
Author: Ellie Koepplinger
Across every type of political system, music has been used as a catalyst for change. From the world altering tones of The Specials’ “Free Nelson Mandela”, to the propaganda vectors of Mao’s quotation songs in the Chinese 1960’s, music is undeniably a powerful political instrument. In our contemporary world, nowhere is this more true than in the parallel contexts of Taiwan and Nigeria.
Nigeria is currently facing its largest political upheaval in years. Amnesty International recently documented that almost 20 lives were lost in a state sanctioned massacre in Lagos on Oct. 20th 2020, when peaceful protesters broke city-wide curfew to demonstrate against police violence perpetrated by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). This incident calls to mind a parallel time in the late 1970s. Nigeria was then one of the most corrupt nations in West Africa, and also faced brutal military rule. Amidst this political instability emerged one of West Africa’s greatest musical heroes — or anti-heroes, depending on whom you talk to — Mr. Fela Kuti.
In 1978, Kuti published an album which linguist John Langshaw Austin would describe as a “performative utterance.” The political backlash from his music resulted in the murder of Kuti’s own mother. Called “Zombie”, the work is a 45-minute cacophony; it sings in hot trumpets, passionate drums, tribalistic backing vocals and Kuti’s own sharp, dry lyrics. The opening track welcomes the listener with a chaotic fanfare. For five full minutes — a third of the track’s length — listeners are bombarded with sharp beats, and call and response horns that gargle with barely suppressed fury. It is as though Kuti’s instrumental arrangements were preparing us for battle. The long instrumental section is a bated breath, showing the audience the weight of what Kuti is about to say. It is teasing, and obnoxious, and our pop-song-trained minds are impatient. And almost out of nowhere, Kuti’s smooth voice cuts through the throbbing rhythm -
Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go (Zombie)
Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop (Zombie)
Zombie no go turn, unless you tell am to turn (Zombie)
Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think (Zombie)
Kuti likens the Nigerian Army, who had been thuggishly beating up political dissidents, to mindless zombies. With one simple metaphor, not only does Kuti endanger his own life (and that of his loved ones,) but also of every single musician present in this recording. Shortly after the album was released, the Nigerian Army invaded the compound in which Kuti lived alongside his musicians, supporters and family members, and burned it to the ground. Many of Kuti’s precious master recordings were lost in the blaze. The Nigerian Army also threw his elderly mother from an upstairs window — she later died from her injuries.
“Zombie” caused those deaths. And here is where the story relates to any country undergoing political violence — and in particular, Taiwan.
Despite its reputation as one of the best-performing democracies in Asia, Taiwan was also under martial law until 1987. This meant that political dissidence was often violently suppressed, and freedom of speech frequently quashed. In the past few years, with the proliferation of social media, many Taiwanese young people have started to process what this suppression meant for them and their elders — perhaps no contemporary musician emphasizes this more than the post-punk rock band “Collage”. Their music tells the history of the “White Terror” — a time in Taiwanese history from 1947 to 1987 when political commentary was met with explicit and implicit state-sanctioned violence. (A particularly famous and arguably petty incident from this era was in 1967; an essayist named Bo Yang was tortured and imprisoned for ten years for a poor translation of a Popeye comic strip.)
Just as Fela Kuti pushes the boundaries of jazz, calypso and funk in his music to similarly inspire his listeners to challenge the boundaries of their political world, so too do Collage push the boundaries of the rock music genre to describe Taiwan’s dark past. Their song ““葬予規路火烌猶在” (pronounced “Zàng yǔ guī lù huǒ xiū yóu zài” — pretty tough to translate into English!) opens with classic distorted guitar before introducing a soft soprano vocal. The voice gently tells the story of someone grieving a dead loved one who fell victim to political violence. It slowly grows into a raging crescendo, decked in light piano trills, and finally culminates in a raging scream moment where the singer’s voice transfigures itself from a soft angelic quality to the texture of the teeth of a saw.
What is amazing to me is how Kuti’s “Zombie” and Collage’s “葬予規路火烌猶在” somehow speak to each other across space and time; both artists deliberately leverage specific tropes of national identity to make their political commentary more astute. For example, both artists use instruments that are commonly perceived as “indigenous”. Collage blends distorted electric guitar with er-hu (a Chinese two-stringed instrument that can sound similar to violin), while Kuti makes use of “traditional” West African drumming practices and rhythms. They also both levy the power of language to establish connection to their listeners. Collage sings in Taiwanese (a local language in Taiwan that is not officially recognized by the state) while Kuti sings in pidgin English — a Nigerian dialect that has been historically shunned by colonial elites. In this way, both artists do not just push the boundaries of genre, but also create a sense of national identity within their music that goes beyond the political criticism they levy against their respective institutional authorities.
Lyrically, like “Zombie”, Collage’s “葬予規路火烌猶在” also uses metaphor to describe the trauma of political violence. They sing;
“In this world, be quiet no matter what you hear.
Focus on your studies, my beautiful dear.”
alluding to the idea that state sponsored violence acts like an intergenerational gag. This political obedience is something immensely visible within Taiwan’s contemporary political landscape. Although youth activism is passionate when it happens — we need to look no further than the 2014 Sunflower Movement to see blatant evidence of this — Taiwan’s official response to this sullied history has received a mixed reaction from activists.
In Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen has, in recent years, publicly supported artists who present open political opposition to Taiwanese government policy. Perhaps most famously in 2019, she actually made an appearance at a performance by the post-punk rock band Fire EX. This was seen by many as a watershed moment in Taiwanese politics, as Fire EX. had vocally criticized the Taiwanese government on both their silence regarding the White Terror, and their pro-China policies in the run up to the Sunflower Movement in 2014. In the U.S. context, this would be almost analogous to Joe Biden inviting NWA to speak at a campaign rally. While this kind of public recognition of political activists from a prominent political leader represents monumental progress for freedom of speech in Taiwan, many argue that Tsai Ing-wen’s administration has a long way left to go in ensuring this history is never forgotten. The existence of 228 Memorial Park in Taipei is a good start to the healing process, but until the truth of Taiwan’s violent past becomes socially acceptable topic of conversation across the generational divide, Taiwan’s administration is in no position to maintain any moral high ground over other governments with parallel histories, like Nigeria's.
Ultimately, despite the fact that Fela Kuti and Collage are oceans and decades apart, they both describe the power of young people at very different stages of the democratization process. Nigeria is still suffering from the lasting effects of military rule, while Taiwanese democratic freedoms were — at least superficially — solidified with the first direct presidential elections in 1996. Although Taiwan is in no way an utopia, it has undeniably come a long way since the political suppression between 1947 and 1987. Taiwanese young people have had a few decades to process the trauma their parents and elders experienced, and music like Collage’s feels designed to support that reflection, rather than being designed to instigate political uproar. Meanwhile, Fela Kuti’s war cries are echoed in contemporary Nigerian music — like the anti-colonial banger, “Another Story” by Burna Boy, Kuti's message is more relevant now than ever. Hopefully, in the years to come, the Taiwanese government can continue to levy its soft power programs to inspire both young people and governments around the world to use music as a tool of political empowerment. For the sake of the young idealists who lost their lives in Lagos on October 20th, 2020, I pray Taiwan can help that brighter tomorrow arrive sooner rather than later.
Ellie Koepplinger is a research fellow at Taiwan NextGen Foundation, where her research focuses on the 2030 Bilingual Country Project and Taiwan’s soft power. Ellie is an economist and received her training at the University of California-Berkeley, where she served as the President of Underrepresented Minorities in Economics (UME).