Some songs demand widespread attention from the first moments they unfurl themselves on the world. Such music are the type to jerk at people’s reserves, wearing down defenses with an omnipresent footprint at all the places where music can be shared and enjoyed, in private or in communion; doubly so in the middle of an uncommonly hot year and the forced distancing of an aggressive pandemic that has altered the dynamics of living itself. Davido‘s “FEM” has never pretended to not be this sort of song. From the first day of its release, it has reveled in its existence as the type of music to escape to when the overbearing isolation of lockdown presses too heavily. An exorcism of ennui, a sing-along, or a party starter, “FEM” was made to fit whatever you wanted it to be.
However, in the weeks since its release, the song has come to serve another purpose altogether. As young Nigerians have poured out into the streets across the country to protest against the brutality of the Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad, known as SARS, “FEM” has kept playing with the vigour of a generational protest anthem. From Lagos to Abia to Benin and Abuja, video clips have flooded the Internet of people singing word-for-word to Davido’s summer jam as they engage in peaceful protests. In one video, recorded at Alausa, outside the Lagos State Government House, youths break into an impromptu rendition of the song when the governor of the state, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, tried addressing them; chants of “O boy you don dey talk too much” rent through the air, serving as proof of their dissatisfaction with his response to their demands—and the extortionist status quo.
The links between Nigerian music and protest culture are strong and deep-rooted. Evolving out of the anti-colonialist undertone of distinctive regional pieces of music that demanded a recognised national identity for Nigeria as well as an end to the exploitation of its resources by Britain, Fela’s afrobeat and the songs it spawned—memorably, “Zombie,” “Sorrow, Tears, and Blood,” and “Coffin for Head of State”—are some of the foundational anthems of the Nigerian protest canon. Over the years, songs like Majek Fashek’s “Police Brutality,” P-Square’s “Oga Police,” Eedris Abdulkareem’s “Jaga Jaga,” African China’s “Mr. President,” and many more have challenged the scope of institutional rot in the country while swelling the ranks of Nigerian protest music; sadly, these songs—mostly inspired by lived experiences— provide a detailed, first-hand oral history of police brutality in Nigeria that now stretches beyond 50 years.
Where most of these songs were powerful—often scornful—takedowns of popular political figures and institutions of the state, “FEM” exists as an outlier, sounding nothing like a typical chant. In contrast, it sounds almost swaggeringly bullish. And the fact that, presently, Davido is not remotely in danger of police brutalisation, adds a level of incredulity to his music being adopted as something to protest too.
But the music of the protest is determined by the protesters and “FEM,” itself an acerbic retort to questions of Davido’s music credibility, keeps playing as youth march, demand, and disrupt to get a credible response to their demands for an end to police brutality. The reason comes down to its catchy rhythms and the song’s unique ability to open its doors to young people everywhere as a vehicle for their own cathartic releases. When I ask Ugo Akachukwu why he thinks “FEM” has been playing at the protests he has been attending for days in Lagos, he opines that it is because Davido had been vocal about police brutality. “He has not hidden,” Ugo tells OkayAfrica. “He has come out to contribute to #EndSars and he’s said things that young people have found comforting and things like that give you cult status.”
Omo they don FEM Sanwo Olu
— Chima Ihueze (@Chima Ihueze)1602585192.0
Ugo, crucially, also mentions the hook of the song and how it encapsulates the resentment of a generation of Nigerians who have grown up in a country on the brink of collapse with music and youth culture being one of the few saving graces. Buried deep into the biting chords and defiant messaging of “FEM,” are hints of the author’s own passive-aggressive resentment at factors beyond his control. Vexation at being slighted by his peers that straddles the lines of seriousness and over-thinking. When Nigerian youth have bellowed the line, “Why everybody come dey para, para, para, para for me,” at protests, it has been an act of collective rebellion and rage, giving flight to our anger against the police officers that profile young people, the bureaucracy that enables them, and a government that appears lethargic, seemingly unmoved by the specter of death that looms over young people everywhere in Nigeria. Much like Davido keeps going back to that hook on “FEM,” we return to it over and over, humming it, raising the question in our minds, feeling its potency percolate in our throats, and, finally, opening our mouths to sing it once again because the crimes and the censure Nigeria commits against its youths are too many.
To be young and alive in Nigeria, right now, is to be perpetually suspicious of self-displays that shatter the image of multi-dimensional poverty that the wider world—and some in the country—have of the country. To always recheck that you’re not living in a way that calls attention to yourself. That is why “I dey live my life/ man dey turn am to shoot on sight” changing gear to “I dey live my life/SARS dey turn am to shoot on sight” feels like a release, an admission of how despite all attempts to thrive, Nigeria finds a way to strike a mortal blow.
Yet, for all of its unintended embrace of the #EndSars movement, “FEM” does not conform neatly to the hallmarks of the traditional Nigerian protest chants: it is a whirl of many emotions, joy and elation inclusive. And that is the true genius of “FEM” as a protest chant: giving unencumbered space to the fury of young people on one hand and acting as a salve to their hurt on the other. Not many songs from Nigeria in 2020 have done this on that transcendental level, and no song as seemingly unrelated to the subject matter of police brutality as “FEM” comes close to this feat of protest co-option.
Even Davido’s closed-door meeting with the Inspector-General of the Nigerian Police Force last week, an avowal of the decentralised structure of engagement that has made #EndSars protests an unpolitical tool, has not diminished the sheer punch of “FEM.” Admittedly, it wasn’t made for times like this but it continues to, in the Nigerian protest music tradition of giving people words to line their mouth and something to keep spirits up when the physical exhaustion of protesting threatens to overrun them. In all of the videos of young Nigerians singing along to “FEM,” the air becomes charged. There’s elation. There’s resistance. But there’s release too, always release.