Protest music, state violence and power of people platforms

Arts, Culture and Sport

Protest music, state violence and power of people platforms

Burna Boy’s critical single “20 10 20” highlights the emancipatory triad of protest art, people power movements and social media. Young African protesters are using their own platforms to undermine the coordinated abuses of state violence and censorship.



When a state silences citizens with its security forces, it is one step from silencing them forever with its judicial inquiries. State violence is the privileged crime where the perpetrators are the jury, and their collaborators generate the judicial proof. On October 20, 2020  Nigerian government forces reportedly killed at least 12 EndSARS protesters as they sat arm in arm, waving their country’s flags as a peace sign.  It has taken eyewitness videos and protest songs like Burna Boy’s  single “20 10 20” and to unbury the memory of Lekki Massacre victims as government rushed to refuse accountability. Following the killing, on October 28, Amnesty released a statement criticising the Nigerian government’s spirited efforts to cover up the details of the massacre.

Burna Boy has a clear message for the Muhammadu Buhari administration on his latest song. “Nothing you go talk go talk wey justify the case of their murder,” he sings, name-checking the president, chief of staff, the commander, the governor and the soldiers involved, and invoking the guilty conscience of these officer holders to haunt them. If Burna Boy sounds ahead of investigations, it is because art and citizen platforms are the only appeal silenced voices have against government statements that have already attempted to erase their memory. We need to continue asking ourselves why state-sourced proof should be the last word on state violence against young Africans holding up governments to their mandate. 

President Buhari’s straight-faced dismissal of the killings just days after the Lekki Massacre cycles back to a playbook where a government orchestrates mass murder, investigates itself and moves on with life while a whole population is subjected to the chilling effect. After Zimbabwe’s 2018 elections, Zimbabwean soldiers shot at least nine protesters dead on the street. The victims were denied conclusive justice by a government-convened commission of inquiry. No arrests have been made two years on. What was, however, achieved was a chilling effect that has kept activists out of the streets to years on, occasionally sustained by arrests, abductions and torture.

The Buhari administration, like President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s, would have already known that the politics of judicial proof favour the sitting government. To remain the processing centre for proof, Buhari’s government has angrily shot down as “fake news” reports corroborating eyewitness versions of the massacre and threatened foreign media with restrictions. 


President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa. Photo: ISS banner

When Mnangagwa became president in 2017, he told foreign press that there had been no political violence in 2008, despite estimates ranging from 200 to 400 dead. He backed up his claim with the classic “proof”: No police report exists. Police and armed forces have been agents of repression in Zimbabwe, just as Nigeria. Turning around to say they have no evidence on themselves is quite the magic card. The argument resurfaced when there were reports about women getting sexually abused during a crackdown on protests in January 2019. 

Known for being esoteric and experimental to a fault, Zimdancehall star Tocky Vibes had to take things to a literal and unambiguous level. “It is better to fight for the people than to fight people. It is better to kill this behaviour than to kill people,” he rebuked violent soldiers in a track called “Masoja.” His pregnant wife had been caught up in government forces’ running battles with protesters. Burna Boy’s “20 10 20” shares the same clear and ringing rebuke because what is at stake is a state that will stop at nothing to mute and misrepresent its citizens. 

Power of social media

Burna Boy sings with a lot of emotion, sadness and rage, berating the violence and demanding justice. “20 10 20” ends with actuality from the killing field. The merging of the shooting clip with the protest song is symbolic of the emancipatory triad of protest art, social media and people power movements. Eyewitness videos on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have helped undermine what appears to be a meticulously coordinated efforts to cover up the murders, from switching off the lights, security cameras and mobile internet at the toll gate before the massacre to the censorship of the media and intimidation of witnesses after the incident. Social media provides a decentred record that frustrates state optics and feeds both protest art and people power movements. 

Thomas “Mukanya” Mapfumo, influential Zimbabwean Chimurenga musician and songwriter. Photo: This is Africa

Social media is also naturally important as a distribution channel for protest art. Songs such as Tocky Vibes’ “Masoja”, protest anthems by Winky D and older artists like Leonard Zhakata and Thomas Mapfumo, can never hope for a day on air since the broadcasting space is tightly controlled by the government. When an “alternative” broadcaster, Capitalk FM opened phone lines to discuss the August 1, 2018 shooting, Vice President Constantino Chiwenga reportedly ordered the firing of a journalist and the station’s CEO.  The station is one of the few that are not run by the state broadcaster, ZBC but is run by diversified media group Zimpapers where government has the majority share. Denied access to traditional spaces, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter campaigners turned to international artists to amplify their voices, further highlighting the emancipatory triad.

While #ZimbabweanLivesMatter was criticised for being confined to social media – episodes like the 2018 shooting and the 2008 killings are routinely followed by a climate of fear – other people power movements like the campaign against anti-femicide protest in Namibia, the Am I Next campaign in South Africa and the Black Lives Matter protest in the U.S have been equally vibrant online and offline. The traditional reproach to social media protest as a spectacle that lacks organisation and organic traction is increasingly losing ground as young protesters hold governments and society to account on both fronts. Regional and diaspora solidarity for emancipatory movements also marks a new era of Pan-Africanism, beyond its discredited, state-led stagnation.


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