For decades, African musicians have used their music as more than a tool for entertainment, writing songs and anthems that have social and political implications across the continent. In recent years, African entertainers have taken their activism a step further and are directly involved in reshaping the political scene in Africa, mobilizing and empowering citizens, and creating change through music. Many African entertainers resonate with the youth in Africa and abroad, capturing the hearts and minds of their fellow citizens. This makes entertainers a strong asset for domestic public diplomacy and soft power. The influence that African entertainers wield on the continent and the impact they have in effecting social change is an opportunity the United States should support to aid in improving the deteriorating US-Africa relationship.
In many African countries, citizens have used music as a political tool to rebel against corrupt and ineffective governments. When the first protests of what became known as the Arab Spring began in December 2010, artists in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya penned songs that depicted the deteriorating situation in the region and which brought international support for the people living there.Artists wrote songs about the oppression and corruption that led to the revolt, and sang about the violence from the government and the resolve of the people during the protests. Similarly, during the EndSars protests in Nigeria in 2020, popular Nigerian musician Davido sang “FEM,” which became a global anthem against police brutality played during protests in Nigeria and at solidarity protests around the world.
While artists use their influence and reach as public figures to drive social change in their communities, other entertainers have gone further, stepping into the political field in order to better advocate for and serve the people. Creatives such as Bobi Wine, Angelique Kidjo, Pilato, Banky W, and many others may be the key to reshaping the future of the continent. These entertainers have entered into politics, trying to promote positive change on a large scale by stirring up the youth, speaking out against corrupt governments, and supporting their local communities.
In Uganda, musician Bobi Wine is a testament to the power of music. Bobi Wine turned his musical career into a political one, running against Ugandan incumbent Yoweri Museveni in the 2021 presidential elections. Wine was nicknamed the “ghetto president” known for representing and speaking for the masses. While Bobi Wine lost after elections that were anything but free and fair, the impact of his candidacy was felt throughout the East African region and across the broader continent. Young Africans now believe they can speak up and create change even in non-democratic societies. In another example, popular Nigerian actor and musician Banky W ran for a seat in Nigeria’s House of Representatives in 2019 on the platform of the Modern Democratic Party. Similarly to Bobi Wine, Banky W lost to the ruling party but also inspired the youth to believe in the possibility of a different type of government.
Though the immediate impact of entertainers-turned-politicians may be difficult to see, the legacy of such artists is the influence they have on the next generation of African leaders.
Though the immediate impact of entertainers-turned-politicians may be difficult to see, the legacy of such artists is the influence they have on the next generation of African leaders. Future leaders who respect democratic principles can resolve the political issues African countries face, working for the people to create positive change and significantly altering the trajectory of the continent. This impact –as seen in the Arab Spring– is able to alter the political constructs of countries, ultimately bringing about decades worth of change.
With young, educated, and competent leaders overturning decades of bad governance and poor leadership, many problems — such as failing infrastructure, healthcare, and education systems as well as underperforming economies and other societal problems — can be effectively addressed, and African countries will be able to begin rebuilding. The United States can support the homegrown wave of change occurring on the continent through the entertainment industry, tapping into the next generation of leadership on the continent through programs such as The Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), which has trained around 4,000 aspiring African leaders across almost 50 countries. With the support of the West and the right leaders in place, Africa has the tools and resources needed to attain heights never before reached.
Through these efforts, the US government would have a renewed opportunity to rebuild relationships with African countries. The US would gain strong political and diplomatic allies on the world stage, access to resources and the labor force present on the continent, and economic and business relationships within the public and private sectors. Through these renewed relationships, the United States can offset China’s influence in Africa. Beijing has been exploring the use of soft power on the continent, investing in schools that teach Mandarin and expose Africans to Chinese culture as well as offering scholarships for African youth to study in China. China also built and gifted the African Union its $200 million (USD) headquarters. China has made significant inroads in establishing its presence on the continent through these initiatives and others, and Africans see China as a positive influence in the region.
The Biden administration appears to be focused on renewing relationships between the United States, African nations, and the rest of the world. The youth should be prioritized in this plan, and an easy way to engage with Africa’s next generation is to introduce pop culture into the diplomatic scene. Music, culture, and art are ways to easily bridge the gaps between the United States and countries in Africa, allowing the United States to tap into Africa’s rising entertainment industry and its global influence in order to strengthen ties with Africa’s future leaders and help shape the trajectory of the continent.
Bukie Olokun is the 2021 YPFP Africa Fellow. She is an EMEA focused intelligence analyst with experience in the private sector. She received her Master’s degree in International Affairs from the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. She received her Bachelor’s from Indiana University. She serves as the Pracademic Liaison for the African Intelligence Studies Collective and co-host of the African Intel Affairs Podcast where experts share their perspectives on the intersection between academics and intelligence practice on the continent. Her regional interests include development, human rights, and terrorism and insurgency.