Opinion Piece

Babatunde Fagbayibo: If music be the food of unity… play on

For Africa to achieve unity, more attention needs to be paid to informal relationships being formed on the continent. Collaboration among musicians and the power that they wield needs to be harnessed.

As observers of the African integration process, we must pay special attention to any issue that speaks to the strengthening of unity among African nations, both through formal and informal measures.

In this respect, formal (or macro) measures include the legal, political and economic factors that underpin and/or boost regional integration efforts. These include issues such as macro-economic policy convergence, intra-African trade, technocratic capacity of regional institutions, the effect of regional laws in member states, and transnational infrastructural developments.

Informal (or micro) measures are factors, which on the face of it, appear not to have a direct impact on the technicalities of integration initiatives but when viewed objectively, have the potential of firming up the very foundation of unity. These are social elements that express the essence of horizontal interactions among the peoples of Africa. One such is music.

The narrative of music as an essential catalyst for unity is better understood within the context of the proliferation of music television channels and continental music award shows in recent years. These include MTV Base Africa and its MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMA), Channel O and its Channel O Music Awards, the KORA All Africa Music Awards, and Trace Africa music channel.

These music channels serve as a platform for showcasing African talents to millions of viewers across the continent, a factor which has a number of implications. The first is that it has created a new generation of pan-African stars who, in the mould of American and European superstars, generate considerable influence among their fans across the continent. Capitalising on the star-power of these artistes, these music channels give them the opportunity – through individual interviews, documentaries and award shows – to articulate their opinions on the essence of unity. In this case, they have become roving ambassadors of the unity project.

The second is the increasing number of collaborations among these musicians, a measure that often highlights the idea of unity. These collaborations help bridge wide gaps by bringing Africans together to “jam” to the same beats, a feeling that most times serve as the soundtrack for the kind of unity our technocrats keep spending billions of dollars to achieve with little success.

The third relates to the primary audience of these music channels – the youth. Africa has the largest youthful population in the world, a reality that makes their inclusion in the process of unity crucial. One could argue, based on the preceding points, that these music channels play an important role in enhancing the consciousness of unity amongst African youth. This is what some theorists refer to as the “performative-discursive” dimension of transnational identity formation. In simple terms, this refers to the role cultural expressions such as music and clothes play in shaping the way people define their belonging to a particular group.

African unity is an aspiration that is still far from been fulfilled. An assessment of how the continent has fared in terms of achieving the formal measures of regional integration paints a picture of broken promises, half-hearted commitments, and missed opportunities. This is not to say that formal/technical measures should be discarded, rather it points to the importance of paying equal attention to other “less formal” factors.

In other words, if music is seen as a potential tool for entrenching unity, and an indispensable element of socio-cultural integration, then more effort should be geared towards channelling this realisation into the general programme of regional integration. This will require increased and sustained collaborations amongst actors such as the regional organisations, music channels and musicians. In essence, music must be used as a weapon of forging the much desired unity of African people.

This does not necessarily mean that music is the magic wand for bringing about a “United States of Africa”; it is simply the recognition of music as an effective medium of promoting and sustaining unity. If music be the food of unity, please keep playing! DM