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‘Mai Ganga ya Gode, Yaran Mai Ganga sun Gode.’ Campaign Songs, Kannywood and Politics in Northern Nigeria

‘Mai Ganga ya Gode, Yaran Mai Ganga sun Gode.’

(The musician is thankful, and so are his inheritors.)

‘A yanzu kanin Shehu za mu zaba ‘yan Nigeria…’

‘We Nigerians are voting for Shehu’s younger brother…’

(Referring to Umaru Musa Yar’adua the younger brother of Shehu Musa Yaradua and Nigeria’s president from 2007-2010).

That’s one of the earliest campaign songs I can remember. I first heard it in 2007 and since then, there have been tons of others. As a young girl growing up in Jos, which is a second home of sorts to Kannywood, the local film industry, as well as a melting point for various Nigerians, I was exposed to campaign songs from Gombe, my ‘state of origin’ and many others from states I’ve never been to.

The songs were also my first introduction to proper politics and politicians, because these songs—part jingle, part epic—managed to succinctly tell the politician’s story and that of his policies. The songs present manifestos in aural form, combining modern sounds with catchy rhythms while keeping the techniques and adages of griots and praise singers of the past. Over time, I’ve watched and listened as these songs have become more powerful and popular with the advancement of media-sharing technology, spread far and wide, and taken artists to the greatest heights of their popularity.

Since the earliest documentations of Hausa language and culture, the role of artists, griots, praise singers, poets, actors in northern Nigeria has always been tied to the political class. In the past, artists were beholden to their patrons who were monarchs and a great deal of their art revolved around praise singing, extolling patrons and the preservation of cultural practices. One of the earliest examples of this is ‘Wakar Yabon Bawa Jan Gwarzo,’the praise song of the king of Gobir ‘Bawa the Valiant’ circa late-eighteenth century. In this song, the griot praises the king’s campaigns, rallies popular support for his ruling, praises and extols his personal attributes while soliciting the king’s boundless generosity by asking for favours upon himself. This set the earliest template for praise singing in the Hausa language.

With the advent of colonialism came access to recording equipment and means of distributing these songs though radio. Artists began to benefit from the nascent radio coverage and the ears of the curious populace. As such, the topics of these artists’ songs began to expand and they went from being just praise songs about monarchs and conquerors past, to songs encouraging northern troops that fought in World War 1 and 2, to those supporting independence struggles. And with the advent of self-governance, these praise songs saw use as campaign songs and slogans. This birthed a symbiotic relationship between the new class of leaders who realised the influence of music in electioneering, and musicians who sought new patrons. The talents of the artists were also tapped for propaganda purposes like those that encouraged national unity post-independence, agricultural practices, vaccination and education for young girls. With the turning of the political tides after Nigeria gained self-governance, the songs began to serve as amplifiers for the voices of the people, sometimes being rally calls against injustices perpetuated by the ruling classes.

‘Mai dubun nasara, Sardauna…’ – Alhaji Musa Dankwairo

‘Man of a thousand triumphs, Sardauna…’

The premier of the North, Sir Ahmadu Bello, greatly patronized Alhaji Musa Dankwairo, a standout singer and performer of his time, alongside Alhaji Shehu Jankidi to extoll his achievements in catchy songs that enjoyed wide circulation. Jankidi’s ‘Ahmadu Bello irin Shehu’ talks about how if it wasn’t for the premier, the North wouldn’t have had tarred roads, pipe-borne water electricity or cement to build. Dankwairo’s career was still strong until the Second Republic.

Another popular singer of the time was Dr Mamman Shata, who was openly political and was one of the first to sing campaign songs for his party, the Aminu Kano-led, leftist Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU). Dr Dan Maraya Jos, followed suit with songs praising the Sardauna of Sokoto and leader of the conservative Northern People’s Congress (NPC). Jos was the third in an iconic trio of contemporaries that included Dankwairo and Shata who are heralded as kings of northern Nigerian music. Other prominent singers of the time like Naranbada and Haruna Oji also lent their voices to various campaigns and personalities.

‘Daga gidan biki, sai offishin PRP’

‘From the wedding venue, to the office of the PRP…’

This song tells the story of how, after one of Barmani Choge’s performances at a wedding ceremony, women trooped out from the venue to the PRP office to register as members.

Barmani Choge was a leading musician of her time. She performed Amadamusic, a sort of rap music accompanied by beats made by beating water-filled calabashes, it is a music form geared towards women, performed by only women and mostly at women-only events. And as the power of women in voters in elections was realized, the invaluable reach of this women-focused medium, too, was realized. Barmani Choge and her ‘feminist and vulgar’ Amada music led the charge and her voice was an invaluable asset to politicians giving them direct access to female voters. Her influence also went beyond just women with many men enjoying her recordings and public performances as her popularity grew. She sang praise songs for many politicians and monarchs, promoted numerous policies especially girl child education and women empowerment. Her most famous alignment, however, was with one of the foremost northern politicians Hajiya Gambo Sawaba. For Sawaba, Choge helped to spread the message of female education, empowerment and involvement in politics.

After radio came film and as the medium became more popular, films from other countries dominated the film industry in Nigeria. Indian movies became particularly popular in the north and the then very small group of northern filmmakers took influences from these Bollywood and Arab movies and combined it with Arewa artistic culture creating a very distinct and popular style of movies which reflected Northern societal attitudes and norms, coerced them and challenged them while adding song and dance routines to the movies like in Bollywood birthing Kannywood, the northern, Hausa speaking part of Nigeria’s massive film industry. Catering mostly to the conservative and cultural tones of Nigeria’s north. This industry gave a voice to actors who were usually the most underrated of these artists and exposed the populace to entertainment through the video medium. Many popular novels, plays and stories were adapted into movies, most notably Brendan Shehu’s 1992 adaptation of Umaru Danjuma Katsina’s play Kulba na Barna. This marked the beginning of a rise of a distinctly Northern Nigerian popular culture.

Griots, poets and singers that were once limited to palaces, festivals and ceremonies also found a new place in the burgeoning film industry, and began to explore their talents even further by playing roles as actors, songwriters, playwrights and even directors and producers. This enabled them to reach larger audiences through music videos and playback songs for movies and to explore more themes like romance and grief in their music. At the same time, it enabled them to link this new industry to their past, primary patrons, the political class.

Shegiyar Uwa, mai kashe ‘ya’yanta…’ – Haruna Aliyu

‘A bitch of a mother that kills her own offspring…’

As mobile technology developed, so did these songs. Taking advantage of the popularity and increased functionality of mobile phones—even faster ways to disseminate these songs—and the power of virality, praise singers became brazen in their subject. Many in the north will remember Haruna Aliyu’s 2005 epic ‘Shegiyar Uwa’ directed at the then-powerful ruling party PDP and sponsored by an embittered opposition of ex party members.

These campaign/political songs are so powerful and if done right have the power to lift politicians from political obscurity to popularity. And although usually reflective of the consciousness of the polity, the songs possess the power to sway elections. Aligning with the right candidate can also increase the reach and influence of these artists, giving them access to more resources, industry favourable policies, increased funding and access to those in the seats of power when elected. On the flip side, aligning with the ‘wrong’ politician or ideology can spell career doom for the artists involved.

‘Mata ku dau turame yayi, kuma ku ce nadi dai an yi, sarkin Kano Sanusi na biyu’ – Nazir M. Ahmad

‘Women pick up your wrappers (in celebration) and say the turbanning has happened, that of Emir of Kano, Sanusi II)’

In recent times, singers like Aminu Ala’n Waka (born in Kano in 1973) and Nazir M. Ahmad (born in Kano in 1976) have been the modern-day griots leading the charge. Recently, Nazir M. Ahmad has received a traditional title and has been turbaned as Sarkin Wakan Kano (chief singer of Kano). Ala’n’s songs have been of a more social conscious nature and have challenged practices like begging and drug abuse while encouraging the youth to seek education and protect their future, with him lending his voice to some political campaigns. He also has many songs featured in numerous Hausa films.

On the other hand, Nazir has numerous campaign songs for people across the political spectrum. Notably his songs celebrated the turbanning of Sanusi Lamido Sanusi II as Emir of Kano; Sanusi, whose ascension to the throne was marred by some controversy regarding his ‘modernization.’ Nazir’s songs for Sanusi, especially ‘Mata ku dau turame’,with a video packed with Kannywood actresses dancing and cheering in support, are credited for turning the tide of public opinion in favour of the new Emir. Nazir has also lent his voice to social campaigns encouraging youth entrepreneurship.

‘Masu gudu, su gudu…’ – Dauda Rarara

‘Those (who have something to hide) running, should run…’

(Speaking on the APC candidate’s promises to tackle corruption)

Around the 2015 elections, Boko Haram activities were at peak levels amid high levels of national insecurity. Alongside corruption allegations that plagued the government of the time, the mindset in the North was generally against the government of the time and it could be seen in the way most Kannywood stars rallied around the then opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, and his party, the APC. It was a way for the stars to make their political ideology clear to their fans, and a way to gain more patronage. Only a few stars could publicly support the Goodluck Jonathan-led government as that signified going against the wants of the fan bases and numerous political patrons. Songs like Dauda Rarara’s ‘Masu gudu su gudu’and ‘Sai Baba Buhari’ were released, taking over the airwaves and calling for people to support the APC, while promoting President Buhari’s campaign message of fighting corruption.

In 2019, with President Buhari’s first tenure coming to an end, the political climate in the North was divided. The split was generally between those that supported the incumbent and those that found his first four years underwhelming, economically challenging and sought to replace him with Atiku Abubakar. This division in the polity also reflected in Kannywood, splitting the industry in halves amongst its biggest stars, with a few remaining, at least publicly, neutral.

‘Kara shirin kora yunwa, ku ku ka san zafin talakawa…’ – Adam A. Zango

‘Prepare (even more) to fight hunger, it is you knows the pains of the poor…

One of the songs produced for Atiku Abubakar’s 2019 campaign by one of Kannywood’s biggest stars Adam A. Zango. In this song he provides a concise manifesto of the candidate, highlighting his message of economic prosperity for all. Zango’s decision to align with the opposition candidate, also reflected a shift in the mindset of the polity and the renewed acceptance of the PDP.

One to tell ten, su kuma ten to tell others, Buhari dodar’ – Dauda Rarara

‘One to tell ten and ten to tell others, Buhari has succeeded’

This song by Dauda Rarara, campaigns for the incumbent, Muhammadu Buhari. On the other side of the divide, popular actors and singers declared their support for the incumbent Muhammadu Buhari under the aegis of the APC Northern Musicians Forum (ANMFO).

As leaders of sorts in Kannywood, the decisions made by Adam A. Zango, and Dauda Rarara also meant that a lot of the artists under their wings would automatically be campaigning for their mentors’ various parties (it is an unspoken rule of sorts that supporting openly partisan artists means supporting their candidates). The musicians would be bringing their numerous fan bases along with them in hope for financial rewards and other incentives while the replay value of their songs gives politicians a litmus to test the artists’ influence.

Interestingly, as the number of female candidates and politicians became fewer in the 2019 elections compared to the past two election cycles in 2011 and 2015, female artists also became more and more relegated to secondary roles. Mainly participating as backup vocalists, performing in the music videos of popular campaign songs and participating mostly in women rallies of the parties, with their most visible patrons being first ladies.

‘Abba gida, gida, Abba… Kowani gida akwai Abba’

‘Abba from house to house, Abba… There’s an Abba in every house’

(Tijanni Gandu’s mellifluous voice plays across speakers across the north encouraging Kano citizens to vote Abba Yusuf the PDP’s gubernatorial candidate in Kano.)

In the tightly contested Kano Gubernatorial elections in 2019, songs supporting the two main candidates have spread like wildfire across the north and increased public interest in the already keenly watched Kano elections. Not just because of Kano’s relevance as the North’s economic backbone and controversy surrounding the incumbent governor; but also, as the slogans, #AbbaGidaGida, derived from the Tijanni Gandu song and #SaiBabanAbba, derived from the Dauda Rarara song, supporting the incumbent, have spread rapidly across the north and on social media. After the INEC chairman, Mahmood Yakubu declared the gubernatorial elections inconclusive, some of the supporters of the PDP gubernatorial candidate released a song ‘Hasbunallahu’ asking President Buhari, who they supported in the presidential elections, to ensure fairness and justice in the re-run elections. This incident showed the differences in political opinion in Kano State as regarding the presidential and legislative elections where the state voted overwhelmingly in favour of the APC, whereas the gubernatorial and state legislative elections are tightly contested between the APC and PDP candidates.

‘Baba a rushe, Baba a gyara. Mallam Nasiru Elrufai, guduma mai pasa karya…’ – Nazir M. Ahmad

‘Baba please demolish; Baba please rebuild (with something better). Mallam Nasiru Elrufai, a sledgehammer that destroys falsehoods…’

Other campaign songs that have proliferated beyond their target states in the 2019 election circuit include Nazir M. Ahmad’s ‘Double 4’ for the incumbent Nasir M. Elrufai in Kaduna; OK Sima’s ‘Sai Kaura’for the PDP challenger Senator Bala Muhammed in Bauchi; and although in Yoruba language, Ronke Oshodi and Yinka Quadri’s ‘O To Ge’,in support of the APC’s Abdulrahman Abdulrazaq.

Politicians and their political movements, either through direct or tacit approval, have continued to both benefit and be benefactors of praise singing and singers. Today’s singers, moreover, show a change from singers of the past only in technique and technology but not in essence. Even in 2018, Nazir M. Ahmad used the line ‘Ki gudu sunan sa ne, su gudu sunan sa ne’meaning the subject ‘inspires courage by always taking and inspires fear by putting his enemies to flight’, which is a line from ‘Wakar Yabon Bawa Jan Gwarzo’, the very song from the 1700’s. These songs continue to both echo and challenge the northern Nigerian socio-political climate with social media helping in the rapid spread of these songs and amplifying the voices of well-known singers like Rarara and Nazir M. Ahmad, while giving newcomers like Tijanni Gwandu a new platform and audience. Reaching even bigger audiences across the Hausa-speaking diaspora and helping them to establish themselves in the Kannywood industry. As politics in northern Nigeria continues to grow and evolve, so does the link between this unique symbiosis of art and culture with politics and the future of northern campaign songs and singers seems more comfortable than ever