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Assumptions that African leaders have a deep-seated love for music have over the years proven to be hollow.
The attraction of the Bongo family in Gabon to western pop music was hardly accidental as it served as a tool for political campaigns and propaganda.
The family, whose nearly 56-year stronghold on power in Gabon was snapped following a coup by the country’s military officers last month, used the country’s petrodollars to bring global superstars to the former French colony that hugs the Atlantic coast of west central Africa.
From the reign of Omar Bongo, who ruled with an iron fist from December 1967 until his death in June 2009, to the rulership of his son—Ali Bongo—who had just been announced winner of the general election before being ousted in a coup, Gabon, a country of slightly more than two million people, has grown accustomed to seeing music take a central place in its politics. Besides the global superstars, local musicians were also funded to serenade Gabonese with political anthems. Ali Bongo notably turned to local creatives after musicians from the global north were widely criticised for essentially legitimising a dictatorship.
The Bongos’ fascination with music can be traced back to 1970 when Omar hired James Brown, an American musician widely acclaimed as the “Godfather of Soul”, to perform at his (Omar’s) 39th birthday. Omar was only three years into what would turn out to be a more than three-decade spell as president of Gabon, and got a great thrill out of watching the “Godfather of Soul” backed up by his band, The JB’s.
Years later, legendary JB’s trombonist Fred Wesley returned to Gabon to work with the president’s 19-year-old son Alain Bongo (later to be known as Ali Bongo) to produce a disco-funk Afropop album dubbed Brand New Man.
Fast forward to this year, Ali Bongo, turned to the power of music to help him stave off the challenge of 13 people for the top job in the oil-rich central African nation. L’Oiseau Rare, a local musician, recorded a four-minute song dubbed Ya Ali Président. The song called on the public to vote for Ali Bongo.
The French afro-pop song that features other Gabonese stars such as Zed Ka, Delpéga and Jey Rspctme starts with a clip of Ali Bongo in which he refers to himself as the best candidate. As he does this, the musicians mention all sorts of great milestones of his presidency. Comments to the video uploaded to YouTube draw attention to the reservations of its intended audience.
One of the comments reads thus: “Quand un artiste a du mal de creer de la richesse avec les moyens qu’il gagne,il devient l’eternel mendiant pour survivre” (loosely translated as: “When an artiste has difficulty creating wealth with the means he earns, he becomes the eternal beggar in order to survive.”).
Tale of pretence
The Bongos are neither the first nor the last political leaders on the African continent to leverage music for political prowess. Anecdotal evidence from Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and indeed Uganda, capture an insatiable appetite for the same. Artistes at the centre of such performances have developed a reputation for being pretentious.
In Gabon, for instance, L’Oiseau Rare needed little invitation to take to social media to mockingly ask Gabonese to “make noise.” This was the appeal Ali Bongo made in a viral video after it became apparent that his cousin and father’s former confidant, was responsible for the erstwhile Gabonese president’s predicament.
When a section of Gabonese called out L’Oiseau Rare and had his Facebook pages pulled down by Meta, the artiste revealed that he was only looking to eke out a living. L’Oiseau Rare is not alone. The vast majority of rumba enthusiasts affirm that the song François Luambo Luanzo Makiadi, simply known as Franco, composed as a tribute to President Mobutu (Candidat na Biso Mobutu) was not the true index of the Congolese musician’s heart.
Mr Brian Adira, a Lingala tutor and Congolese music expert, explains that Mobutu’s relationship with Franco, despite not being created and maintained under duress, was the product of money. He notes that Franco composed music to extol Mobutu during the 1960s and 1970s. It was purely a transaction not least because Mobutu perceived Franco as influential in terms of his popularity among the masses.
The two forged a friendship, and Franco became an integral figure for Mobutu. One significant outcome of their agreement was that Franco’s band, TP OK Jazz, assumed responsibility for providing entertainment at official state functions in the DRC. Songs like Belela Authenthicite, Republique de Aaire, Salongo Alinga Mosala, Votes Vert, among others were duly written by Franco and performed in conjunction with his band.
Mr Adira shares that other musicians such as Tabu Ley, Sam Mangwana, and Verckys Kiamuangana also contributed to this trend. For Tabu Ley, whose compositions such as La Zairose, Candidat ya MPR and Objectif glorified Mobutu, the relationship came to an end in 1988 when the artiste left for a tour of Europe and never to return until after Mobutu’s ouster in 1997 by Laurent Kabila.
Money, money, money
In 2016, a group of Ugandan musicians led by singer Bebe Cool (Moses Ssali) came together to sing a campaign song for President Museveni. This came after singer Joseph Mayanja, alias Jose Chameleone, had pocketed millions of shillings to re-do his Basiima Ogenze song for the National Resistance Movement (NRM) during the 2011 presidential campaigns.
Five years on from the Chameleone payday, the Tubonga Naawe project saw a section of Uganda artistes do what was described by observers as lining up their pockets. Musicians such as Bebe Cool and Catherine Kusasira continue to bear the brunt of the country’s music fans for their telling roles in the conceptualisation and execution of the Tubonga Naawe project.
Among the 12 artistes who pledged their allegiance to the National Resistance Movement (NRM) party in the Tubonga Naawe project, several have come out to openly say it was a quest for money. Musician Hillary Kiyaga, alias Hilderman, who is now a lawmaker with the leading Opposition party, National Unity Platform (NUP), has been categorical about the project having been motivated by money.
In societies where democracy is subject to debate, there is usually no place for music that speaks truth to power. In the Republic of Congo-Brazzaville, Franklin Boukaka of Le Bucheron Africa became a ‘musical martyr’ when he was executed for his suspected involvement in a coup attempt in 1972
In Congo-Kinshasa, Koffi Olomide, the band leader of the Quartier Latin International Band, nearly had a bad ending for his song Loi, French for “law”, which contains words that were perceived as an attack on the robust military style of the government of President Kabila. It is understood that authorities questioned Koffi’s controversial Deterrie dancing style that portrayed a soldier firing a machine gun, then later wailing while limping.
Still in Kinshasa, Rhumba legend General Defao used music to contest Laurent Kabila’s rule.
In one of his songs, he bragged that Laurent Kabila had been his chauffeur in Tanzania.
Following the release of his albums Mboka Ya Diogen that many interpreted as a veiled attack on Kabila and his government, Defao packed his bags and left the country until the fall of Kabila.