Since it first came into being, music has been used to communicate and to connect, and for many years, musicians have been using their art to help educate and inspire people.
With each decade music changes and each decade has music that encapsulates it. South African’s used protest songs before the apartheid regime, but during that era protest music become more popular as it was a way of spreading the message across the globe.
In South Africa during the apartheid era, musicians from Johnny Clegg to Hugh Masekelaused music to liberate the people, and whenever people toyi-toyi — a protest dance — or have public demonstrations in the country, they often sing protest songs.
Here are just some of the artists known for using music to spread messages of action and inspiration across Africa, and some of their greatest songs.
1. Fela Kuti - Zombie
Musician and political activist Fela Kuti was outspoken against the Nigerian military juntas, which were dictatorships led by Nigerian Armed Forces, and made many songs opposing them. In 1976 he recorded “Zombie”, a protest song that criticises Nigeria’s oppressive military regime.
Later on in 1989, Kuti teamed up with musical group Egypt 80 to release “Beast of No Nation”, an anti-apartheid song that was inspired by a speech made by then Prime Minister of South Africa P.W. Bothain 1985, in which he said “This uprising will bring out the beast in us”
2. Miriam Makeba - Beware, Verwoerd! (Ndodemnyama)
Best known as Mama Africa, Makeba created many songs protesting the apartheid system from “Soweto Blues” to “Beware, Verwoerd! (Ndodemnyama)”.
“Beware, Verwoerd!” was a reference to then Prime Minister of South Africa Hendrick Verwoerd, who played a significant role in implementing the apartheid regime. In 1960, Makeba was exiled from South Africa and banned from returning.
In that time she became popular in the US, which propelled her to global stardom as she continued to write and perform protest songs around the world that spoke out against apartheid.
3. Angélique Kidjo - We We
In the 1980s Kidjo burst onto the music scene and she hasn't looked back since.
Kidjo is the embodiment of an African and the best way to learn this about her is through her music and philanthropic actions, which include Kidjo’s work through the Batonga Foundationand advocating for quality education for young girls. In her music she often raises awareness of struggles that African people are facing.
In her 1992 smash hit “We We”, Kidjo sings about child labour that was particularly rife in villages across Africa at that time. Kidjo continues to raise awareness through her music today, in her 2014 album EVE she sings about the everyday struggles that women face and also promotes their strengths.
4. Sauti Sol - Tujiangalie
“Tujiangalie” is a powerful song by Afro-pop band Sauti Sol that features rapper Nyashinski from the group’s fourth studio album Afrikan Sauce. “Tujiangalie” is a Swahili word meaning “self reflection”.
The song, which was released in 2018, questions whether things are fine in their native country of Kenya. They further unpack some of the country’s most pressing problems of the time, such as corruption, economic inequality, the crisis of leadership, and the debt challenges it faced with China.
This song helped ignite a fire within the people of Kenya, especially the youth, and reminded them that they hold the power. “Tujiangalie” encourages listeners to look within themselves and realize that they have power and they are still young enough to bring about positive change.
They sing: “Barua toka Jaramogi na kenyatta (A letter came from Jaramogi and Kenyatta)
Wanauliza kama Kenya kuko sawa (Asking if Kenya is doing well)
Nikawajibu Kenya tuko na disaster (I answered, "We have a disaster in Kenya")
Watoto wetu wanazidi kuzikana (Our children keep burying each other)”
So proud of @sautisol & @RealShinski on their new song. Bold enough to address issues we all discuss in undertones. Definitely got me thinking of my contribution in bettering this country. #Tujiangalie— Serah N Teshna (@SerahTeshna) August 23, 2018
5. Brenda Fassie - Black President
Brenda Fassie was a multifaceted South African artist whose music addressed many social issues from sexuality to race, at a time when South Africa was going through one of its worst eras. There was also a period when the apartheid government banned Fassie’s music in the country.
In 1990, Fassie released her sixth studio album entitled Black President, including a single of the same name.
“Black President” was written by Fassie and Chicco Thwala around the time Nelson Mandela was about to be released from prison, and the apartheid regime was coming to an end. In the song Fassie details the imprisonment of Mandela and explains how the government tried to break the spirits of the freedom fighters who were jailed in Robben Island.
She sings: “The year 1963
The people’s president
Was taken away by security men
All dressed in a uniform
The brutality, brutality”
6. Oliver Mtukudzi - Todii
Mtukudzi was a Zimbabwean musician, philanthropist, and UNICEF ambassador, and he used his music to talk about what was happening in his community and to raise awareness around HIV.
In his 2002 song “Tapera” — which translates to “we are dying” — and the 1999 hit song “Todii”, he talks about the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In the song, Mtukudzi goes on to ask if the cure of this disease can be found and he further asks anyone with the ideas on the solutions to come forward.
7. Loyiso Gijana - Madoda Sabelani
At the height of gender-based violence in South Africa in 2020, Gijana released “Madoda Sabelani” which means “men must answer” in isiXhosa . This song is a plea to all men in the country to stop abusing and killing women.
The video featured some of the women and girls who have been murdered in South Africa in recent years, including 7-year-old Kgothatso Molefe, University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana, and Tshegofatso Pule, who was pregnant at the time she was murdered.
He sings: “Ndiyathandaza nkosi (I’m praying Lord)
Uphendule imithandazo yethu (That you answer our prayers)
Izikhalo uyaziva (You can hear the cries)
Abafazi bayalila (The women are crying)”