Ballads of Dissent: Music as a Tool for Rethinking International Law in Africa

Babatunde Fagbayibo

This is a lightly edited version of a lecture delivered at the University of Cambridge on 4 May 2021. It was originally published on the Southern African Public Law journal’s ‘Public Law Corner’ blog space. Babatunde’s TWAILR Mixtape is available here.

There is hardly any human civilisation that is not familiar with the intimate link between law and music. In Ancient GreeceAncient IndiaAncient China, and pre-Colonial Africa, music played a key role in transmitting the law to citizens, regulating societal order, carrying out judicial functions, and functioning as a dissenting tool for exposing misrule and dictatorial tendencies of a ruler. 

The link between music and international law is not a topic that typically excites scholars and practitioners. Scholars tend to devote their attention to the so-called ‘hard’ issues such as global security, global warming, poverty, reforms of international institutions, global governance architecture, etc. As such, the notion that music, in its expressive and aesthetic manifestations, can assist in the better understanding of and finding solutions to the so called ‘hard issues’ of international law remains a peripheral subject. 

This is despite Bhupinder Chimni′s view that music is one of the essential tools that can assist in capturing the imagination of new participants in the international law arena. Also, I have shown elsewhere how music can enhance the critical understanding of international law. International organisations have also recognised the vital role of music. For example, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), in 2011, proclaimed 30 April as International Jazz Day by highlighting the critical role of jazz as an educational tool and a vector for freedom of expression and creativity. In 2018, UNESCO designated reggae as an intangible cultural heritage and treasure. Similarly, in 2021, UNESCO added the Congolese Rumba to its intangible cultural heritage list due to its ability for ‘conveying the social and cultural values of the region and of promoting intergenerational and social cohesion and solidarity.’

Unlike international law, there has been a relative appreciation of the role of music in understanding the law in fields such as criminal law and criminology. For example, Paul Butler has shown how hip-hop can serve as a tool for rethinking and reforming the ideological framing of criminal punishment in the US. More than music, literary works have been used in deconstructing and understanding the law. For example, Christopher Gevers discussed what critical international law(yers) could learn from the literary works of Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong′o. Similarly, in her latest book, Fareda Banda employed literary works to explore the human rights issues of African migrants and asylum seekers. Outside the legal field, disciplines such as psychologypsychiatry, and sports science have all explored the therapeutic and progressive role of music. 

Genres such as reggae, hip-hop, jazz, and afrobeat(s) have addressed the problems of international law and the international system. These ballads of dissent raise critical issues such as the reform of the global system and institutions; racism; illicit financial flows; corruption; environmental justice; poverty; internal displacement, refugee and migration; human rights, and (neo)colonialism. They have been able to present these complex dynamics/issues in a simple yet effective manner. 

One area of international law/international system that musicians have addressed is the need for the reforms of the global administration/governance system. In ‘Beast of No Nations‘, Fela Kuti critiqued the veto rule of the United Nations (UN), labelling it ‘animal sense’. In ‘IMF‘, Seun Kuti criticised the IMF (and other International Financial Institutions) for its responsibility in the many sufferings, manipulation and indebtedness of the third world. 

Regarding issues that border on colonialism and neo-colonial practises, Hugh Masekela, in ‘Vasco da Gama‘, highlighted Vasco da Gama′s role in the colonisation process. In ‘You can′t Blame the Youth‘, Peter Tosh implicated the education process for not calling out colonial/imperial actors. In ‘Here Comes the Judge‘, Peter Tosh recreated a criminal court process in which colonial/imperial actors are prosecuted for their crimes. In ‘Teacher Don′t Teach Me Nonsense‘, Fela Kuti provided an appraisal of the imposition of western-style democracy on the developing world and its inconsistent application. In ‘Les Colonies‘, MC Solaar sings about the intersectionality of slavery, colonialism and modern forms of exploitations and discriminations. In ‘Pitche Mi‘, Youssou N′Dour cautioned African leaders against excessive reliance on foreign aid. 

Other songs have also explored the themes of corruption, illicit financial flows, and environmental justice. In ‘International Thief Thief‘, Fela Kuti provided an illuminating and graphic explanation of how multinational corporations, in collaboration with African elites, illegally move money out of the continent. In ‘Brown Paper Bag‘, Sarkodie (ft Manifest) sang about the corruption by national elites and the manipulative role of western elites. Burna Boy (ft Chris Martin) reiterated the same theme in ‘Monsters You Made‘. In ‘Niger Delta‘, Nneka explored the role of multinational corporations and national elites in the environmental degradation and misery of the peoples of the Nigeria-Niger-Delta region. 

Based on their personal experiences, Sierra Leone′s Refugee All-Stars, in ‘Living Like a Refugee‘, painted a vivid picture of what it means to live like a refugee. In ‘Boat Journey‘, Tony Allen sang about the precariousness of the ‘boat migration’ to Europe. MC Solaar′s ‘Les Colonies‘ also considered the topic of migration. 

Musicians have also considered the themes of poverty, racism, inequality, and insecurity. Aline Farazao, in ‘Primeiro Mundo (First World), shows the racial prejudice faced by the citizens of the global South in the global North. In ‘War‘, Bob Marley notes how racial discrimination, inequality and injustice heightens the spate of insecurity. The song is based on a speech given by the then Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, at the United Nations in 1963. 

As Daniel Newman observed, music indeed provides ‘a valuable device to render what could be quite a dry and, otherwise dull, argument suddenly more interesting and thus engaging to the reader.’

This kind of engagement with international law is possible when music is effectively used as a mechanism for communicating and interpreting existential issues. As a communication mechanism, music assists in the wider dissemination of problems, developments and strategies for critical intervention. In this sense, it is at once reportorial, interrogative and provocative. As an interpretive tool, music provides a multidimensional and nuanced perspective of understanding and approaching the challenges of the international law/international system. 

One way of doing this is to utilise music as introductory material for a better understanding of critical issues. In this respect, the persuasive rhythmic beats and intense lyrics of socially conscious songs could serve as a gateway to grasping both the complicity and complexities of mainstream international law. On topics such as the reforms of the international system, environmental rights, migration, and democracy and governance, music could provide an alternative lens and context for engaging with the linkages and relevance to current situations. This position has the potential of putting a face to discursive issues and thus conscientising participants. 

Additionally, some of these musicians are social actors and activists, and more efforts should be directed at presenting them with platforms to share their experiences in this respect. This also applies to the dissemination of documentaries that capture their professional and personal engagements. Examples include Music Is The Weapona 1982 documentary about the politics and music of Fela Kuti; African Underground: Democracy in Dakara documentary that explores the role of hip-hop and youth culture in challenging the controversial 2007 presidential election in Senegal; and Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, a 2002 documentary that explores the role of music in challenging apartheid in South Africa.

The points proposed above are by no means rigid prescriptions; rather, they are aimed at provoking further discussions and actions in this respect. Our society, and the body of scholarship, can only benefit from varied approaches that never stop questioning the status quo.

If music be the food of rethinking the ideational basis of Eurocentric international law in Africa, let no one press pause.