One should be circumspect and not dismiss the boast of the Executive Director of Muslim Rights Concern, Prof Ishaq Akintola, who claimed they used the National Broadcasting Commission to ambush artiste Falz, and get his song banned.
In a previous episode, Akintola had demanded that Falz’s song, This is Nigeria, be withdrawn from circulation because he found parts of it “offensive” to his religious faith and the Fulani ethnicity. Akintola was publicly derided for what many thought was a ridiculous demand, and he backed down. Now he is claiming it was his petition to the NBC that resulted in the banning of the song.
There is, of course, a possibility that the NBC ban of Falz’s song had nothing to do with Akintola. He might be taking advantage of what is merely a coincidence to burnish his book-burning credentials in public and also have the last laugh at Falz. There is also the possibility he is not fooling around; that he truly wrote to the NBC, dangled before them the familiar spectre of implacable violence if the perceived “offence” to Muslims was not redressed by censoring the “offending” item, and the NBC buckled under the threat. Given the history of violence against artistic expressions and other markers of civilisation they deem offensive, both in Nigeria and in places like France and Denmark, such a threat by Akintola will be considered credible enough. So, is the NBC serving MURIC’s agenda to repress a material Akintola and his fellow travellers want to censor?
Maybe, the first question is, by whose moral valuations did the NBC calibrate the judgment they used to clamp down on an artistic composition and label it vulgar? We can all generally accept that certain expressions might be too risqué for public consumption, and its broadcast should truly be restricted. However, the letter that carried the promulgation of the NBC ban of Falz’s song to the executives of Jay FM 101.9 Radio in Jos classified both songs that made political commentary and sexual suggestions as vulgar. So, what exactly is their idea of vulgarity?
Where were the NBC executives when the President, Muhammadu Buhari, was all over the place telling the world that Nigerians are corrupt, degenerate, and lazy? If the President could say all those and the NBC did not apply the weight of the law on him for being vulgar, why can an artist not satirise similar claims? What gives Buhari more right to go to the UK in his capacity as the President, describe Nigerians as “criminals”, but takes away the same right from a fellow Nigerian citizen to say the same thing either as a direct social commentary or as part of artistic expression? Didn’t Akintola himself defend Buhari on his comments about Nigerian youths being lazy? Why did he not allege that the blanket statement made by the President was vulgar and provocative? If we go by Akintola’s claims that he petitioned the NBC against Falz, then it is possible that the NBC simply used the allegations of vulgarity as a smokescreen to hide what they really sentenced. Their problem with the song would thus not be the “vulgar” lyrics. When they were stampeded into censoring the song, they just snagged something – anything – to justify their gag.
At first, there was the question of what MURIC truly wanted by asking for that song to be withdrawn and modified according to their taste. What is the point of asking an artiste to retract a song that is on the Internet and – as at last count – has been viewed by more than 13 million people all over the world? People have downloaded the song into various devices, and they can no longer be retrieved and re-edited. Even if Falz succumbs to their demands, it would only be another version of This is Nigeria and not a modification of the first video. In the pre-Internet age, banning a song that made certain people uncomfortable was quite possible because the channels of distribution were controlled by a select and powerful few who decided what could be heard. Now that the media has been liberalised and the Internet is a dime a dozen on virtually every cellphone, asking an artiste to withdraw a song in this age is like trying to shut Pandora’s box.
If a military coup takes place in Nigeria today, it will be futile for anyone to use a radio station as they did in the past. The effect will not be what it used to be, and the soldiers will probably be laughed out of the studio. Technology has taken away power from a few and to much extent, democratised it in multiple hands. The world is no longer as simple. However, I do understand the symbolism of the demanded action: to intimidate the artiste and make them bow before those who consider their right to be offended by art superior to the right of the artiste to express themselves. Using the NBC to fulfil this agenda is nothing more than a show of the power and privilege they have accrued as a result of their history of violence, and which they now deploy to arm-twist state agencies.
How many Nigerian organisations, told that if they do not censor a production, can trigger an outbreak of violence from fundamentalists, will not give in to protect us from religious violence? The trouble with such conciliation is that it reproduces a culture of fear and intimidation that will gradually reduce us to the “rational” option of relinquishing our rights and agencies away so that the purveyors of violence will let us live. That kind of terrorisation starts with telling people not to carry out certain actions such as naming their dog, “Buhari,” not to offend their sensibility in any way; not to do anything they consider provocative even if you have to repress your rights of free expression. Then, gradually, it will culminate in, “better vote Buhari or they will burn the country down if their idol loses the election.”
Finally, it is amusing how Akintola self-congratulates himself for handling this issue “intellectually” and even expects praise for his efforts. He urges other artistes to learn from this episode but what lesson is there to learn other than that our country function by arbitrary standards that are applied by bureaucrats who can hide under vague codes of ethical conduct to censor creativity? Ours is a country where people pat themselves on the back for restraining themselves from responding with violent outrage over others’ freedom of expression. You can hear the underlying message: You should be grateful we did not a worse thing to you for offending us! This is a line of thinking cultivated by years of entitlement and injustice against victims of religious violence whose bodies Nigeria has swept under the rug.
For a professor, Akintola should know that there is nothing intellectual about the road he took this time. Tackling an issue of artistic representation through the use of intellect would not have been sneaky. He would have let erudite Muslims who are schooled in aesthetic appreciation and critique be the ones to lead a conversation about balancing artistic expressions, the democratic imperatives of freedom of speech, and even artistic liberty with the nuances of the sacrality of Islamic religious symbols and ethnic representation. This is not a terrain that should be ceded to dabblers whose dissent with This is Nigeria shows that they neither understand art, nor its nuances or the complexities of its presentation. Those ones and their over-literalised understanding of art drag down creativity into the abyss of their ignorance and petulantly demand its expressive force cater to the narrowness of their uncultured world. They are not the ones who should lead “intellectual” conversations on art and creativity.