Dr Olusegun Stephen Titus.
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From flood survivor to Doctor of green soundscapes: Meet Olusegun Stephen Titus, Nigeria’s Ecomusicology champion

Olusegun Stephen Titus is passionately invested in ecomusicology, a research field that intersects sound and the environment. The Nigerian scholar has published widely on how communities and artists channel music as an instrument for climate justice and environmental sustainability. In this wide-ranging interview for African Crossroads, Titus makes ecological interventions on the state of Nigerian and African music today.

Olusegun Stephen Titus was held at the University of Ibadan for six hours as heavy rains overwhelmed his city on August 30, 2011. The music PhD candidate eventually drove into a calmer, after-rain night but soon found himself before a flooded bridge, among a stranded crowd that had just witnessed someone being carried away by the torrentially-triggered wild overspill of Eleyele Dam. Elsewhere in Ibadan, cars were floating, houses giving way and people disappearing. City authorities chalked the flood that killed more than 120 people and left 600 homeless down to refuse-choked drains and property-obstructed waterways. Titus’ doctoral thesis was far from dusted at the time but the tragedy was a “sign from heaven” that shifted all his focus to one thing: Ecomusicology.

“I narrowly escaped disaster and since then it has been my desire and passion to educate people, policymakers, community people, non-governmental organisations, on the need to see environmental issues a major issue in the world and to act accordingly to make it a safe place since we don’t have planet B,” Titus said in an exclusive interview with This Is Africa for the 2021 edition of African Crossroads. 

The chosen instrument for his singular existential assignment is sound, more specifically ecomusicology, the study of sound in relation to the environment. This undertaking comes with the unusual demand to approach sound not just from the human perspective but to democratically trace its meanings across the entire chain of existence. “Ecomusicology looks at sound, not just music but also extra-musical sounds that resonate with the environment. It also about making sound not just human-centric but also animal-centric and vegetable-centric to make it a global ecology of humans and non-humans,” Titus told This Is Africa.

Ecomusicology rejects the first assumption of the Anthropocene that everything exists for human beings. In the Anthropocene, our current age of human-centred interventions in nature, things derive their essence in relation to human extraction, acquisition and entitlement. In contrast, ecomusicology affirms an ecology made up of self-existing but complementary entities that are inherently valuable outside capitalist logic.

Just as the griots of old renounced the comforts of civilisations to be wandering keepers of ancient paths, ecomusicologists like Titus often got an axe to grind against capitalism, more specifically its misanthropic excesses. “Looking at oil exploration and its environmental degradation through music, looking at floods in the Western part of Nigeria, looking at the oil and displacement of farmers and fishermen in Ghana, listening to the songs of gold miners here in South Africa, you know, including Congo where there are environmental issues around mining, and the issue of the copper belt in Zambia, issues of degradation, of climate and poverty, music actually resonates with all this emotion and that is what my research is about”.

The idea of self-existing ecological entities naturally gels with the environmental concerns of the 2021 edition of African Crossroads, themed “Ecoexistence: A Manifesto.” The Hivos-supported annual event, held in the hybrid format on 14 and 15 October this year, daringly expanded the conference table to include natural elements, animals and data-generated avatars, and named air as the guest of honour. Naturally, sound was an indispensable agency for the experiment. African Crossroads took a modest first step towards discursive inclusion by means of an archive-in-progress named Sound Atlas. 

Ujamaa Culture Center’s Jumoke Adeyanju. Photo: Supplied.

Traditionally, nature spoke through their fireside imagination of storytellers and the didactic fantasy of taboo-mongers. The Sound Atlas wants the very sounds of nature to be heard for themselves as part of the existential discourse on climate justice. A sonic walk through the natural environment and street ambience, the atlas “contains collective sounds, stories, and songs, individual research, interviews and talks, discussions, walks around cities, and more.” It is open to everyone to contribute and is curated by producer, DJ and Marrakech sound artist Abdellah M. Hassak, Nairobi Design Week organiser Adrian Jankowiak and Ujamaa Culture Center’s Jumoke Adeyanju. “We developed a multidimensional and polyphonic map tracing the past, present, and futures of cities, nature, people. We’re moving from the memories, desires, and imaginaries of each contributor,” said the curators. 

Enduring influence of Afrobeats musicians of yesteryear 

A recurring participant at Africa Crossroads, Titus’ research maps interactions between the environment and Nigeria’s music scenes, from persisting indigenous traditions to pop notables like Fela Kuti and Olamide. He is currently writing a paper on the Afrobeats icon, Fela, who has already featured in his research. “Fela Kuti has a global approach in his music performances, a yearning to see Nigeria and Africa as a brighter place not just through the humanistic approach but also through the environmentalist approach of his music,” Titus said. “Talking about slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor, talking about the gold, the mines, the land and even the noise pollution, Fela sang about it.”

However, the ecomusicologist is not convinced that the environmental awareness of classic Afrobeats has been taken up by younger artists, despite the global rise of socially aware Afrobeats. “You discover that the young generation of musicians, they are not actually desiring to sing the issue of the environment. They are more about making money, having fun, girls and city life, you know, metropolitan cultural life.” Titus is decidedly nostalgic, convinced that the younger ones are more into the mechanical elements of the genre but not the culture and the philosophy of Fela-era Afrobeats.

Fela deployed music as a weapon in his confrontation with the Nigerian establishment. Photo: Twitter/FelaKuti

The problem is bigger than the musicians. Titus identifies ecologically active young artists such as those in the Niger Delta and proponents of indigenous music but says that they struggle with getting audience affirmation. “What I have now discovered is few of them that sing about the environment, you check it online, you realise that maybe 5 or 10 likes. It’s not just few people are singing about the environment but actually the few people that are singing about the environment are not being liked, I mean on Facebook, on the social media.”

If waste management is dear to ecomusicologists, it is personal to Titus. The 2011 flood that prompted his ecomusicological turn was partly attributed to inappropriate waste management by an Ibadan Water Authority official. When the torrents could not run off into waterways and drains, an overwhelmed Ileyele Dam burst into the streets. Titus has studied music on the subject, including a promotional song by Olamide. 

While the Olamide song is sponsored, Titus feels that this positively signals business players coming aboard to resource the fight as government cannot do it alone. Some of the songs studied by Titus are much about looking out for the environment highlighting the importance of organic initiative.

What’s the role and value of nostalgia in ecomusicology

The music researcher contrasts the environmental apocalypse emphasised by literary artists and the nostalgia emphasised by ecomusical artists. Nostalgia occupies much of Christopher Okigbo, Okot p’Bitek, Wole Soyinka and other poets’ work whereas the rise of genre fiction, sci-fi-oriented fiction, seems to dwell more on catastrophe. Nostalgia has its uses in an age and continent where the tyranny of modernity and the Western takeover seem final.

“Nostalgia, which is affection for a period in the past, could be critical in bringing back the past outlook. There can be environmental restitution through emotional attachment to the past, when we had environmental cleanliness, water rights, forest rights and beautiful landscapes, which is still very possible to have again,” said the scholar.

Deforested lands in the DRC, which used to be forest. Photo cred: Julien Harneis – Wealth of the Masisi/Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Fredric Jameson has written that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine a modest change in capitalist relations. Science fiction sometimes goes through the end of the world to a post-apocalyptic order without bending the rules of production. Thinking about the environment from capitalist immersion could also be one step to cynicism as people are told that they are all guilty of environmental degradation in Congo, for example, by virtue of owning hand-held electronic gadgets. “The capitalists will tell you all we are all guilty, the ‘bloody whites’, the Africans are also guilty because they are also using generators, they are using petrol. But it’s not true. The oil exploration itself is what happens at unsustainable levels without binding policy to stop it,” Titus said.

Herbert Marcuse also addresses the repression of memory and imagination as functioning in the service of the status quo. However, nostalgic, ecologically themed music is a subversive strand that dares us to imagine that another way of life is still possible, that the battle is not lost until we give in and forget who we were, what we might have been, what we can still be.

Decolonising ecomusicology in Africa

During the third edition of African Crossroads in 2020, Zimbabwean historian Mhoze Chikowero criticised the term “ethnomusicology” as representing a sheltered and patronised space that is always already the subcultural alternative to the Western default. Titus, who was also part of that panel, insists that ecomusicology will never be similarly sheltered and “nativized.” “When we are talking about imperialism, it’s not just about excavating the resources of Africa and the global south; it’s everywhere even in curriculum planning. That’s why there is the word ‘ethno.’ I am personally determined, there won’t be anything like ethnoecomusicology,” Titus told This Is Africa.

“By God’s grace, I think I am among  the leading scholars of ecomusicology in Africa: It won’t happen. Actually I do not call myself an ethnomusicologist, I call myself African musicologist. I am a musicologist in Africa; the person in London is a musicologist in London. That word is a derogatory colonial term. There is language that needs to be changed. If tomorrow they want to bring enthnoecomusicology, you know that that is barbaric. It will not happen because now they know that we are better equipped to write back to. It’s a barbaric, slave mentality to say ‘I am an ethnomusicologist,’” Titus insisted.

Could religion still be adaptable to progressive causes?

Islam and Christianity were successively helped by colonial privilege to take over the cosmological space previously occupied by indigenous religions. In some cases, Christianity readily allies itself with the dominant ideology, whether it is consumerism and Western affect in the present scenario, and colonialism back in the day. Among the overwhelming majorities who follow these religions, some distance themselves from ecologically-wired cosmologies of African tradition. For example, some Pentecostals associate totems and even surnames and bloodlines as making them vulnerable to witchcraft and “upgrade” to English and Hebrew identities, whereas the same totems used to have, intended or unintended, conservatist benefits.

Titus highlights the conservatist enchantment in old Yoruba names such as Ileigwemi (the land kept me) Okeigwemi (the mountain protected me) and Ikimuyiwa (the tree brought this) and laments how their logic has been lost to religion. “There is a feeling that these names are connected to gods and goddesses and they bring bad luck so people change them to Isaiah or Jeremiah and so on.

Many people in Zimbabwe belong to a particular ethnic group and clan, and clan names are associated with either fowls or animals, which are regarded as a “totem”. There is an close relationship between the totem and the clan and the clan members do not eat, kill or trap these animals.

“I am also a victim. My grandfather’s name is Balogo. In primary school, I was supposed to be Olusegun Balogo but my dad actually changed my surname to Titus, actually a Greek name, not even a Jewish, not English. I am actually thinking of changing my name back to Balogo.”

The ecomusicologist feels that the major religions could still be adaptable to progressive causes like climate justice without compromising their core teachings. “You rarely hear Pentecostals preaching about the environment. The Western mentality, to some extent the religion of Christianity and Islam, is also changing our attitude towards the environment.

African pastors and imams are more respected than the presidents. If there can be workshops for pastors share environmentally aware messages, most of their members will not think twice,” he laughed.

Ten years after the Ibadan flood, Balogo is building his ark one paper at a time. He is currently working in South Africa to give his ecological interventions a more Pan-African span.

About Olusegun Stephen Titus. He is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Music, Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria. His work focuses on Musical Narratives on Climate Change, Space and Place, Urban Spaces, Ecomusicology, and Migration, among other topics. 

Some of his research includes the musical analysis and narratives on flood in Southwestern Nigeria, musical narratives on plastic waste, and musical narratives on the landscape and built environment in Lagos city. 

This article is written as part of a storytelling series called: Symbiocene – Finding Coexistence: Earth, Water, Wind, Fire and Us, a collection commissioned in partnership with African Crossroads. The contents of the series are the sole responsibility of This Is Africa Trust, and cannot be regarded as reflecting the official position of Hivos Foundation.

The hybrid event took place on the 14th and 15th October 2021 and featured live and recorded presentations on ECOEXISTENCE – a call for writing A COLLECTIVE MANIFESTO on how to restore a symbiotic relationship between humans and other-than-human entities (natural elements, animals, data-generated avatars and others). The programme was broadcasted online in the form of interviews, concerts, storytelling, panel discussions and digital experiences.

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