I am yet to decide if one of Fela’s gifts to Nigerian singers is perverse. He combined some of the most tragic things put in a song with some of the most danceable tunes.
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Today, many of our artists make music that is incredibly danceable. There are not many Nigerian songs that are tragic but when that does happen, the songs are still danceable. At least in the case of the new Burna Boy song, ’20 10 20’.
The title gives away what the song is about: the brutal events of 20 October at the Lekki tollgate. It is an impressive single that conveys Burna’s apparent sorrow at the shootings. He goes from lamenting the plight of Nigerians and then addresses that night directly: “20th of October 2020/You carry army go kill many youths for Lekki”.
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Throughout the song, Burna does not waste a single word. This is a tightly written song that where it not for the tragic scene it exists as a tribute to, there is nothing wrong about it. But what does it mean when you write a good song for such an occasion? This thought came to me recently when a DJ at a bar played it between two party jams. I was nodding my head to the simple, catchy melody when I realized that there is nothing to be happy about the song’s lyrics. It is only some 3 weeks since the events — the perpetrators are still denying what happened — and already I am bopping to a song about it?
This is not a feeling I get listening to songs like Fela’s Sorrows, Tears and Blood. In that case, the gift is time. The violence the song talks about happened so long ago it feels like another country, another planet. Burna is talking about an event that happened at a spot I was at 4 days before the violence. The victims were my peers. There is nothing about it that should be danced to.
But the matter isn’t exactly a linear one. A worse song or a less catchy one would probably not have the same effect as ‘20 10 20’. I would probably consider it unworthy of thought or text. I recognize that Burna Boy’s brilliance at making music is at the base of my discomfort. Paying homage to his Burna’s talent by dancing feels like meeting the October 20 event with fanfare.
Perhaps years from now, the guilt I feel today will be outstripped by the joy of the music but even then it still wouldn’t feel quite right. Even comparisons with Fela’s Sorrow Tears and Blood fail to capture the extent of the evil of 20 October. The scale is much larger for the contemporary event and the fact that investigations are ongoing make it the more difficult to meet this Burna Boy song with an idea of what the proper response should be.
A few days ago, I listened to the song around midnight and the song’s deep melancholy hit me over and again. But every listener would not always have the environment shaped to the preferred context for appreciating a song of this nature. Maybe the best way to see the song is as the equivalent of food at our burials. We know that we are commemorating a death but the living must go on living. It is a betrayal but maybe we have no other option. Maybe.